Opinion

Saturday 21 September 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Staying the night in someone else's house? There are a few unspoken rules...'

 

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It must be one of the greatest holiday inventions ever, launched by three guys in San Francisco in 2007 - Airbnb. Such a simple idea: renting out your living space for vacation periods. And I believe it's had the social effect of encouraging people to move around more easily, and to host others in their homes.

I haven't had occasion to use Airbnb, but I do seem to sleep in a lot of different beds. In a somewhat restless lifestyle, even in my, ahem, mature years, I stay in someone's home 10 or 12 times a year. Occasionally, there's a guest chez moi, but I do warn pals that the set-up is bohemian, and dusting is not my strong point.

But that's the interesting thing about sleeping around - in the most platonic and decorous sense: you come to appreciate that people have different standards and values. I've slept in a friend's home which is so organised I'd be nervous about misplacing a cup of coffee; and I've laid my head to rest in a converted loft where you could hardly get in the door for old newspapers, books, broken musical instruments and assorted bric-à-brac.

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I've sunk into deep Victorian feather mattresses and gone to sleep on austere modern beds which feel a little like those planks recommended by the saints for the improvement of character. I've known bedrooms where the loo is two floors down and been provided with bedrooms with luxurious ensuite facilities.

Not everyone has the same attitude towards changing sheets between guests. Sometimes a host will say - "Oh, you don't mind, my friend Allegra slept in these sheets last week." I don't greatly object, though I do sometimes bring my own pillowcase, as it's probably better to breathe in your own bugs. Others will make up a king-size bed with ironed Egyptian cotton sheets for a single person for a single night.

Those of us who went to boarding school have been taught to strip a bed when departing, but that's not always what's desired. BBC presenter Jane Garvey says her "heart sinks" when she sees a departing guest come downstairs with the sheets.

Yet women friends are often particularly kind about mothering each other, and they add extra thoughtful touches like a vase of flowers in the bedroom, a radio, and the option of a hot-water bottle for chilly nights. My gypsy lifestyle perceives the different standards that people have, but the common denominator is the kindness and generosity of people offering hospitality.

But you do come to discover rules. A friend in Connemara who often hosts visitors says that on the first night, she'll provide a decent dinner for them. After that, they should make their own arrangements: and however pleasant their company, they shouldn't hang around the house all day.

If staying three days, there's an unspoken etiquette that the guest should take the host, or hosts, out for a meal.

There's a Persian proverb which says that guests are like fish: after three days they begin to go off. So three days is suggested as the limit for casual visits. I believe there is another proverb from the same provenance which underlines the duties that the host feels towards his sleepovers: "The host is the guest's donkey."

Another pal who provides hospitality to a stream of friends says that almost the first words guests now utter, as they come through the door, is: "What's the password?" Wi-Fi is like breathing.

There are some no-nos: most home owners I have encountered don't want guests to smoke, though some allow it in a garden or terrace. On vaping, the jury seems to be still deliberating.

There's another whole set of rules about dogs visiting. Personally, I wouldn't object, but the cat would.

Hospitality has always been practised, and there are many cultures which emphasise it: Edith Durham, the plucky Victorian traveller, discovered that in old Albania the natives were honour-bound to extend hospitality to the stranger, and to protect him or her for the duration. But once the traveller was outside of the host's jurisdiction, anything goes: if the traveller falls among brigands, so be it.

St Paul speaks of the duty of hospitality, and the rewards that can follow: "Give hospitality, for thereby you may entertain angels."

Globalised movement and modern affluence have merely increased the opportunities for travelling, staying with other people, or hosting guests. The Airbnb people call it "collaborative consumption" - a sharing outlook.

What's impressive, too, is that those offering Airbnb accommodation find most people are trustworthy. This is partly because guests can get a bad review if they're not, but it may also be because most people really are trustworthy. A cousin of mine who leaves her most valued household objects in place for Airbnb guests says everything is meticulously respected.

Boarding-school girls were always taught to write their thank-you letters, and most guests do send a post-visit thank-you - usually, now, by email. "Except young people. They never write thank-you notes." Yes, on that generational point, there's cause for complaint.

Irish Independent

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