WHO AMONG US HASN’T SPENT A WEEKEND IN the country from which there was no escape? No escape from the host’s dog snarling outside your door when you are summoned to dinner. No escape from a child who has adopted you for an afternoon of video games. No escape from the tedium of a Halloween party or an Easter egg hunt at which you are the only adult. People with weekend houses need guests, but do would-be guests need people with weekend houses?
For the record, my wife, the editor Helen Jeannette, and I do not own a weekend house. Why? Helen told me early in our marriage that if I wanted a second house, I’d better get a second wife (to deal with the linens, the gardening, the staff, etc.). Another reason I don’t have a country house is that I did. It was an estate in Southampton I owned when we wed, but I found that I didn’t own the house–the house owned me. I precipitously put it on the market when an irate renter phoned me at two in the morning in Nairobi (where I was on safari) to say the pipes had burst. Following the sale of our country house, my wife and I became America’s guests, spending many weekends with various hosts–and with varying results.
I believe that smiling, arriving with a thoughtful present and otherwise behaving graciously are paramount. But they don’t always work. Some visits may simply be too intense for those with cardiac or bladder problems. I would have avoided a few weekends myself had I known what lay in store. My experiences are drawn from real life. The identities of my hosts have not been disclosed for fear they might choose to write what it was like to have me as a guest–did I leave a room in gross disorder; was I too opinionated; etc., etc. For the most part, my hosts are sweet, generous folks who were innocent perpetrators of these horrors.
Let us start with the firefly weekend. It was one of those shimmering nights that come now and again to the Hamptons. Dinner was excellent, the guests interesting, and my wife and I had settled down for what we expected to be a fine summer night’s sleep. Except … what were those lighted objects streaking back and forth in the dark and occasionally dive-bombing us? Fireflies, that’s what they were. On with the lights. Armed with folded copies of some crazy magazine, we set out to squash them each time they lighted–so they could light no more. We shut the windows to keep replacements out. Too late! A new squadron of lightning bugs continued the bombardment. Only the dawn provided relief.
Then there was the weekend when the United States Marines invaded our slumber hours with guns drawn. We were guests of an ambassador in a distant friendly country. His Excellency, our host, had indicated there were certain levers in our suite that were not to be touched under any circumstances. But touch we did–inadvertently–on a nocturnal visit to the bathroom. To an accompaniment of sirens and flashing red lights, a dozen Marines with rifles at the ready stormed our bedroom to defend this small area of United States territory and its temporary and terrified inhabitants.
Some weekends start so badly that they can only get better as the hours go on (or so one hopes). One such adventure began when we found our host’s gated house to be impenetrable. We drove up only to discover the intercom that would announce our arrival was not functioning. There was nobody to release the gate and let us in. Finally, my unstoppable wife crawled under the hedges of an adjoining estate to reach our host’s front door. Pounding on it, she presented an unhappy demeanor for the startled lady of the house. Helen’s pique was compounded when she realized her precious earrings had disappeared somewhere in the foliage she’d crawled through. The household staffs of two neighboring estates were dispatched to scour the bushes for the missing jewelry. Both earrings were found, and life–as well as the weekend–went on.
Even more unnerving was the time our host and another guest became embroiled in a loud and deadly fight outside our room. The hostess–fearing that her husband, larger and more dangerous than his adversary, would kill his drunken guest–cried out, “David, please come out and stop this.” As I was a mere forty years older than both of them–and smaller–I wisely feigned sleep. We left before breakfast, treading delicately over broken glass and careful not to examine the comatose figure on the couch lest we detect no pulse.
I’m not suggesting that weekends from hell are experienced by guests alone. As previously mentioned, there are also guests from hell–those who arrive on the wrong weekend or not at all. Some guests bring other guests and expect them to be housed, fed and entertained. Then there are those who run up telephone bills while chatting with friends in Bangkok or those who have dietary restrictions that compel hosts to make hurried calls to health-food stores. And I’ll always sympathize with the hapless couple whose guest lost a life-or-death prescription–requiring his hosts to charter a helicopter from East Hampton to New York City to pick up his pills at an all-night pharmacy.
To avoid such weekend disasters, it helps to have a clearly defined exit strategy. This may take the form of a prearranged telephone call requesting your immediate return home to minister to a beloved stricken first cousin. Our years of inveterate weekend-guesting have also taught us to bring food–not necessarily as a gift but for ourselves! Nighttime hunger pangs may occur when the host’s refrigerator is inaccessible or contains only a wrinkled peach. And it never hurts if you can somehow extract a guestlist in advance. The ex-spouse or former business partner who dragged you into near bankruptcy just might have been invited, in which case a “business emergency” can be concocted to keep you at home.
But all participants in a weekend worth remembering (for all the right reasons) have their obligations: in fairness to your host, you must give good guest. Memorize the names of your host’s children. Bone up on the host’s special interests (commodity trading, Icelandic literature). And by all means, as mentioned earlier, bring a house present. (Helen selects the gifts; for my part, I tip the staff–enough, according to my wife, to pay for their children’s education.) Make it your business to know something about the other guests. It’s best to avoid potentially riot-inciting topics–religion, the New York Senate race, sex.? Safe subjects: Dow Jones, bad movies, unreasonable co-op boards.
As for being forced to do things on a weekend we would kill to avoid, our policy is simple: in extreme cases, feign illness. Large cocktail parties find us slipping off to the edge of the pool, perilously close to jumping in. And for squash games, croquet matches and the like, we profess that it is against our religion to play on the designated day.
Well, bon weekend … or whatever.