Dancing in the Fountain: Hosting guests from abroad
When you live abroad, your home becomes a hotspot destination. Karen McCann discusses the best strategies for dealing with houseguests who overstay their welcome.
“I tell everyone who moves here: get a one-bedroom place,” a Belgian expat said during my first visit to southern Spain, “otherwise people will expect to stay with you.”
What was wrong with that, I wondered; it’s fun to entertain guests. How naive I was back then! Of course, I’d been previously living for a long time just outside Cleveland, US, which isn’t exactly a destination city, and we’d had relatively few house guests during those years.
However, living in a tourist destination like Seville, I soon found that my guests arrived with considerably higher expectations. Early on, a British expat explained to me that you have to set boundaries right from the start. “When people want to visit me,” he said, “I always tell them the rules: You can come for three days, no more, and during that time you will take me out for a nice meal at a restaurant of my choosing. And I don’t do airport transport.”
It all sounded so cold and harsh; I couldn’t imagine treating my guests that way. Now, after living six and a half years in Seville and entertaining upwards of a hundred visitors — although to be fair, some did stay in nearby hotels instead of our apartment — I realise the expat community was passing on valuable survival tips.
Of course, by then it was far too late for us; we had already rented a three-bedroom place and told everyone we knew to look us up if they ever came to Seville. And they did.
Let me hasten to say that most of our guests have been perfectly delightful, embracing their brief stay in Seville with enthusiasm, enjoying the rich cultural offerings of the city, amusing us with lively conversation, bringing the latest news and gossip from the old country, and being considerate of our time and resources in every possible way.
In some visitors, however, we have not been quite so fortunate. We’ve hosted couples whose relationship had reached the bitterly acrimonious stage, elderly friends sliding fast into senility, people whose mood-altering medications had recently been adjusted in unfortunate ways, families in shock from ghastly visits with in-laws, and sullen, eye-rolling teens who act as if they have been dragged to Europe at gunpoint. No matter how disturbed their state of mind, a guest is a guest, and Rich and I strive mightily to be considerate hosts, even on those occasions when, as the saying goes, “Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even though you wish they were.”
Occasionally this has backfired horribly. Twice we’ve had houseguests come for a weekend and stay for nearly two weeks, demanding full-time guest services every day. They kept saying blithely, “I know we had planned to go on to Cordoba, Ronda, and Granada, but you’re just making us so comfortable, we simply can’t bear to tear ourselves away! You don’t mind if we stay another few days, do you? This is such fun! What shall we all do today?”
Raised as we were with stringent standards of hospitality, Rich and I felt we could not simply chuck them bodily out into the street. We gave in with as much grace as we could muster, and they stayed on and on until their non-refundable airline tickets finally forced them to pack their bags and head for home.
One Spanish friend, confronted with this problem, found a solution that was so simple, so elegant and so effective that I can hardly wait until the next guests overstay their welcome so we can try it. In case you’re ever in this position, here’s what he did:
This particular houseguest had spent weeks sleeping on the sofa in the tiny one bedroom apartment where my friend and his girlfriend were living. Despite increasingly broad hints that he move on, the houseguest couldn't be budged. Finally my friend announced he had to go out of town; the houseguest’s suggestion that he stay on, sharing the apartment with the other’s girlfriend, was met with a steely-eyed glare. Reluctantly, the houseguest gathered his things to leave. My friend packed a suitcase, escorted the houseguest to the bus stop, kept walking until he was out of sight, then circled around, went home to his apartment and got on with his life.
See what I mean? Brilliant.
When it's just right
It’s not that we don’t want to spend time with them, nor do we mind visiting the cathedral or the Alcazar palace for the twenty-fifth time; they really are worth seeing over and over again. However, we often have projects and obligations calling for our attention. Sometimes it’s very awkward for us to drop everything — for instance, finishing a painting for an upcoming show or shopping for a sick friend — to take guests sightseeing. We naturally want to spend time with them — just not twenty-four hours a day, especially during longer visits.
But then, every once in a while, there’s a visit that somehow, magically, against all odds, goes spectacularly right. One in particular stands out. It was during Semana Santa, which the expat community universally considers the grisliest of entertaining nightmares. The relentless crowding and craziness, the ghoulish imagery, the constant charging about in search of the next paso, all make Holy Week an ordeal that is daunting for even the most seasoned traveller. Our guests have been known to collapse in exhaustion after the first day and refuse to leave our apartment until after Easter.
But this one California couple had the hardiness and good humour required to endure the rigors of Semana Santa. When we stepped out into the streets, they were unfazed by the human traffic jam and soldiered on cheerfully in Rich’s wake as he found a nearby procession passing by pure luck. It seemed nothing could go wrong.
As we watched their rental car disappear into the traffic jam encircling the city, I said to Rich, “That visit certainly worked out well.”
“I had a great time,” he said. “In fact, I can’t help wondering why we don’t entertain house guests more often.”
Karen McCann / Expatica
Karen McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter... The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world.
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