Welcome To Our Guest Room! There Are Rules
My husband and I are North American expats with a nice guest room in a relatively central college town in the lowlands. If you’re visiting, we’ll lend you a bike, make you dinner, take you out and about, and let you leave your suitcase with us as you tour Europe with a backpack. We try to be good hosts.
The guest room itself is not all that special but it is roomy and bright. It’s on the third floor of our townhouse. The room has an American queen sized bed, lots of windows that let in too much light, a desk and chair, a mostly empty closet and an empty chest of drawers, and a mini-fridge. The fridge is usually unplugged but if someone is with us long enough, we will plug it in and stock it with fruit, drinks, and other snacks for the jet-lagged. Since we’ve travelled a fair bit, we put a lot of priority into good guest space and added features from our favourite guest rooms: few knickknacks, nothing too breakable, laminate floors, plenty of floor space for bags. I clean the guest room and the bathrooms before each guest.
We host a fair number of people: guests who come to see us, friends who are wandering through Europe and want to see us and tour the area, friends and co-workers who have a meeting or conference in town and just need a place to crash, friends of local friends who don’t have extra space. Our place isn’t all that kid-friendly, though kids are welcome. Most of the people who stay with us are middle class, like us, or student-broke.
Our household is pretty easy-going, but there are some rules. The spoken rules are easy. No smoking of any kind. No bothering my pets. Whoever has to work gets the first chance at the shower. Tell me your allergies. Let me know if you are going to join us for dinner.
It’s the unspoken rules that are tricky. I don’t charge for our space and I won’t take money if you offer, but I do have expectations. There is a gift economy going on.
Are you coming from North America? I’d like you to offer to pick me something small up at a drugstore or the like: my favourite face cream, candy, over-the-counter allergy medication. I will make sure it is small and cheap.
Are you staying more than a week? Bring a gift, such as hot chocolate mix, a plant, or some sort of cool decoration. You can also take us out to dinner instead. Buy milk from the grocery store across the street. I will offer to pay you back for the milk but unless you are student-broke or a full-time aid worker, you should not accept. I won’t ask you to buy anything that costs more than five euros and likely because I’m busy cooking.
Are you staying more than three weeks? I will lend you a key but won’t be able to entertain you all the time. I work from home, so you’ll need to leave the house sometimes. And you will need to pitch in for groceries, wash but not put away dishes, and bring a small gift from where you are from (fancy tea, candy), take us out to dinner, or give us a nice gift when you leave. When two friends came from the US for nearly a month, they gave me a gift card for an Amazon Kindle. Perfect. I think of them fondly when I use it.
Are you just staying over as you have a meeting nearby in the morning? No gift needed, but flowers or a candle would be nice.
One of my friends has the gift economy down pat. He lives about four hours from his office, which is close to my house, so when he has an early meeting, he stays with us. He doesn’t bring a gift every time, but for Christmas, he gave us a nice bottle of whiskey. Even better, he told me that if I didn’t like it, he would take it for himself and give me a different gift. In the past few years that we’ve hosted him, he’s brought a bottle of wine, a small animal figurine, a plant, a gift set of spices. The monetary value of what he’s given is likely less than 200 euros but each of those 200 euros was thoughtfully spent. He understands the need to give gifts, how to give them, and when.
There are exceptions to this gift economy. If you’re broke, I would rather no gift than one you cannot afford. There is no shame in being broke in our house. We’ll tailor activities to your budget, treat you for the things we think you can’t miss, and accept what you give gladly, even if it is just the pleasure of your company. We used to insist on paying for everything when we were with broke friends until one of our friends pointed out that when we insist on paying, we are robbing the other person of the opportunity to be generous.
Hospital visitors are another exception. We live less than 500 meters from a hospital. If you are staying in our house because you need to be close to the hospital — early test, partner giving birth — there are no expectations.
When you don’t give a gift and you can afford one, you are, intentionally or not, saying that our time and space have no value to you. This can hurt, to be honest. If our time and space are valueless, perhaps next time you should stay somewhere that has value, and not my house.
So, readers of The Billfold, what’s your gift economy? Am I fair? What do you expect of guests? What do you give your hosts?
This story is part of our Travel Month series.