When my husband and I arrived in Healdsburg eight years ago, we rented a house in town and I often rode my bike to the Downtown Bakery for coffee. Among the group of regulars who gathered in front of the bakery was a man I noticed because he seemed so happy and friendly. Luckily for my husband and me, Jim Walters and his wife, Dotty, also happened to be our neighbors. I learned a lot about entertaining house guests from them and other local friends, because the wine country is a popular place for city friends to visit. But the tips I learned apply to house guests everywhere, in the country, the city, or the suburbs.
The most important thing I learned was to make it clear to house guests that you expect them to follow certain house rules during their visit. If you don't have rules for your house guests, you may wish to consider some after reading this article. You may have been working harder than you needed to! And if you have been invited to be a house guest, a list of tips on how to be asked back are at the end of this article.
The Walterses are considerate hosts who provide ground rules for their visitors. All of their guests are not just welcome to help out, they're expected to do so. Dotty and Jim also provide their guests with a list of suggested day trips, complete with a wine road map and lunch spots. This is the couple's subtle way of saying: we are not tour guides, nor do we run a restaurant. Jim points out that "All guests need structure." Dotty says it's important to let guests know that they are expected to be on their own during the day, though everyone is welcome to come back in the late afternoon for "toes up" (nap time) before cocktails.
The Walterses were providing house rules for guests long before they retired to Sonoma County. One of their Thanksgiving Day traditions is that each guest receives a "turkey ticket": a task for the day, such as keeping the fire going, saying grace, making the gravy, and so on. Dotty points out that kids especially love the concept. "It gives them a purpose, it's great training, and they're learning to help other people."
Helpful Rules for House Guests
If you are lucky enough to be a house guest, here's a list of tips on how to make sure you'll be invited back:
• Take an appropriate hostess gift. If you're the guest of a family with children, a small gift for the children is fitting (think a puzzle or book), or you could take a gift for the entire family to enjoy, such as a board game. Other gifts might include a book or a kitchen gadget.
• Check beforehand on available activities and pack accordingly.
• Ask if you can bring anything your hosts might need during your visit, such as a food they may have forgotten to buy on their last visit to the grocery store.
• Don't rely on your hosts for anything other than a free place to stay. Your hosts are not your personal concierge service.
• Be sure and let your hosts know ahead of time if you have any food allergies.
• If it's not served, don't ask for it.
• Arrive when you say you will, or call if you're running late.
• Don't ask if you can bring your animals. Arrange to have them cared for at home while you're gone.
• Be on time for meals and join in on whatever's been planned.
• Some guests stay too long and some don't stay long enough. Strike the perfect balance and observe a two-night maximum.
• Keep your room tidy, even if there is household help. Just being there creates extra work!
• Strip the bed and clear the bathroom of used towels. Ask your host where the clean sheets and towels are kept so you can make the bed and replace used towels. Some hosts may prefer to have their housekeeper make the bed, but others will greatly appreciate your help.
• Don't ask for anything special unless it's absolutely necessary.
• On departing, check for anything left behind so your host doesn't have to mail a shoe to Maine!
Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (www.AMLGroup.com), certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on www.Twitter.com/LisaGrotts and www.Facebook.com/LisaGrotts.