It’s the time of year when we land on people’s doorsteps, but have you considered how you score as a visitor? Here’s comedy writer Maria McErlane’s guide to staying with friends in the country – and still being friends when you leave
Is there a manual on how to behave when visiting friends in the country? We all know that guests are like fish – they go off after three days – so I’m not talking about overstaying your welcome, more about the etiquette of being in other people’s homes. Imagine if, after your visit, they wrote a review about you on TripAdvisor?
A jumper dress to hide my embarrassment (left); a kaftan for luxe loafing (right)
Extensive research (my own) reveals that the number-one gripe among those welcoming visitors seems to be, ‘Er, sorry, but what is your internet password?’ This asked even before coats have been removed, suitcases brought in or new baby, dog or Aga cooed over. Not only is this rude, it will lose you points, implying as it does that you find it impossible to be parted from social media and that you might only deign to chat to your hosts in between posting inane tweets and checking out skateboarding bulldogs on YouTube.
The reason for your visit should be to catch up, laugh and break bread with your old pals who – more than anything – need confirmation that they did the right thing by upping sticks and moving to Dingly Dell. Your main job during your stay (and a big point scorer) is to provide gossip, news and amusing anecdotes from their former lives without making it sound in any way appealing – or suggesting that they have made a terrible error by leaving.
Like me, you may feel that you are the perfect guest. We may both be wrong. I recently set off up country to drop in on four separate sets of chums. Travelling by train, as I much prefer to, luggage is tiresome, heavy and, as I told myself gaily, unnecessary. I decided that I would test the patience of my ‘so lovely to see you’ mates by taking only the dress I was wearing, a toothbrush and my small dog, Dolly. (Everyone in the country loves dogs, so why not offer yours up as an hors d’oeuvre to their great dane?)
My first stop was at the home of Max and David. They had moved in just a week before, so I was on rather shaky ground, but the house was lovely, the grounds enchanting and it was only a tiny bit awkward that I had to swim in the pool naked.
My male friends often have many beautiful-smelling lotions and potions, so there was no problem on the hygiene front. However, on the obligatory pre-lunch country walk, I unintentionally trod in something a little too authentic. Contemporary dancing through the woods meant it also ended up on my dress, something I didn’t notice until later.
A tweed suit for chatting up elderly neighbours in (left); a stomach-concealing man’s shirt (right)
When I finally spotted the irregular patterning on the new sofa and carpet – luckily while my unsuspecting hosts were preparing lunch – my inner Kim Woodburn emerged, and cleaning maniacally with ad-hoc products then hastily rearranging a throw saved the day.
Needless to say, after this little ‘country accident’ my one outfit was no longer fit for purpose. To my delight I was offered a khaki jumper dress with a full-length zip and pink squiggles. Quite what the provenance of said item was I didn’t ask, but it was super-cosy and, while not my usual style, I think I got away with it at the local shops.
As well as letting you travel light, borrowing clothes from friends also allows avoidance of laundry tedium. An acceptable courtesy, however, is to leave items in the general washing area rather than inside-out and slung over a bedroom chair in full view through the open door.
My final faux pas was to snigger at the conversation concerning when to bring the ducks in for the night. Comparing my hosts to the bickering Odd Couple wasn’t really appreciated. One must never comment on how your hosts conduct their lives or relationships; it is really none of your business. Far better to gush over colourways, William Morris wallpaper or the lovely throw that you feel looks so much better at an angle.
At the end of my stay my next hosts, Gemma and Ed, came to collect me, and points were unexpectedly clawed back from Max and David when, as we were halfway down the lane, we spotted Hector their great dane on an unscheduled unaccompanied gallop (he may have escaped when I opened the gates for the incoming car). The least I could do was catch him and ride him back to his rightful masters.
Maria with her Radio 2 co-host Graham Norton. Hear Maria on Graham Norton’s show every Saturday on Radio 2
Gemma and Ed are fabulous cooks, and when we arrived at the farmstead appetising aromas were emanating from the kitchen. They also much prefer being at home to rushing off to visit cathedrals or farmers’ markets, so I couldn’t have been happier. The clothing I requested was ‘something to knock about in’, and magically a black silk kaftan was produced as we snuggled down to watch a boxset. The next annoying request (and a possible point reduction) was a radio for my room so that I could drift off to sleep listening to the shipping forecast.
Two demands, both met with good-natured joshing. If you are staying with old friends you can usually gauge pretty early on how they expect you to behave and work out for yourself answers to questions such as should you attempt to make breakfast or is the kitchen area no-go? Are you expected to help with the animals? Is it a good idea to be up and at ’em, wellies on by 8am waiting to be entertained?
One thing I did learn was that when you are letting your small dog out to do its business, it’s important to check that the chickens/goats are safely away in their pens, and if the other dogs go out too, make sure they all return. That is all I am prepared to say on the matter. Points lost: 10.
HOW TO GET ASKED BACK AGAIN
1 Always take a gift. Something for the home that can be recycled as soon as you’ve left (in my case, matching pewter pheasants for the fireplace), champagne, wine, chocolates, scented candles or something for the children.
2 If you have been catered for during your stay, take your hosts out for the final lunch and ply them with wine. This ensures memories of you will be fond ones regardless of mishaps.
3 Always offer to help with food preparation and washing-up, but don’t insist when you are told no.
4 Don’t ask if you can sleep on the end of their bed because you are scared.
5 Be charming, compliant and embrace different ways of doing things. We all get set in our ways.
6 Take your own supply of chocolate treats and don’t go back to visit for at least a year.
Still, we continued to have fun, visiting a gorgeous rug and kilim emporium and rummaging through antiquities and vintage clothes (a favourite pastime) before I was deposited at my next port of call.
Unless you know someone really well, it’s probably best not to enter their home with the words, ‘What a fabulous house; have you got anything to eat?’ But as I’ve known Anne since time began, this wasn’t really a big deal.
We were going out for lunch and Anne kindly let me wear a rather smart Miss Marple green tweed suit that had belonged to her mother. True, the green trainers weren’t ideal, but at least they matched. The suit was a little big, but as my grandmother used to helpfully say, ‘Who’s looking at you?’
Other than flirting with and deciding to marry Anne’s elderly neighbour (I’ve left her to tie up the details) my penultimate stay went pretty well, with no major mishaps.
For my last visit I travelled back to London to stay with Patrick and his dog Bob. Feeling a little chubby from all the delicious foodstuffs I’d consumed on my travels, and with my travel dress still festering, Paddy lent me a crisp white oversized shirt and some fetching cycling leggings complete with reflective strips and ankle zips. He’d invited eight mates for dinner and seemed happy enough with the look to allow me to join in.
WHAT MARIA’S HOSTS SAID ABOUT HER
- Max and David Our visitor was amusing company, partook in numerous outdoor activities and brought a splendid gift. Unfortunately, she also brought in something untoward on her trainers, although this was quickly remedied without us having to ask. She may have been travelling light but we suspect that she left heavier: copious amounts of cheap confectionery seemed to disappear from the larder with frightening speed. 4/5
- Gemma and Ed An easy guest who went with the flow, amused herself and didn’t outstay her welcome. We would be delighted to see her and Dolly back soon. 5/5
- Anne Maria tested the beds with a swallow dive, revealing her pants. Then she tried to get off with my neighbour. She also ate the chocolate brownies before I had even made the tea. 3/5
- Patrick A pleasant enough woman who was popular and funny but interfered with my banana and custard pudding; a simple dish sabotaged by the addition of chocolate sprinkles and cream. She also gave Bob treats. Bob is on a diet. 4/5
Borrowing other people’s clothes is rather liberating. If, like me, you never know what to wear, the decision is taken out of your hands. It also makes you realise that what you present to others has to be about more than mere outer coverings. To wear whatever was offered with cheeriness and gratitude meant a welcome five-day break from indecision and vanity.
But more importantly, it was truly fabulous to catch up with friends who were kind, generous and gracious at all times.
Hear Maria on Graham Norton’s show every Saturday on Radio 2 from 10am to 1pm