Just Saying: Guest What?

By Shelley Wildgen

Company's coming! Two words that can bring either a chill or a smile, depending on... who's coming.

We've all welcomed different houseguests at various times but when you break down the word `guest', it lugs with it all kinds of expectations and conditions: guest treatment, guest privileges, paying guests, "Be my guest," and the ominous "You're not a guest, you're family." Even guest towels have a clunky, "don't get me too dirty" way about them.

There's no doubt about it. Guests require special, unspoken attention. So, perhaps it's time to reframe the whole guest concept. Roll it around, smooth out the edges and make it fit a little looser, like an old sweater on a cold day or a cup of tea in hand, sitting in front of a fire. What we'd like to imagine when guests come to visit.

I was first introduced to the guest-free idea by my friend, Lorre. She invited me to come and see her new home up north, near Bon Echo Park. Then she sent me a picture of her `visitor room' there. She told me visitors are what she prefers. Lorre doesn't even have a guest room, just the visitor room. Oooooooookay. Research required. At first blush, I think of a guest luxuriating in well-appointed surroundings, while the term `visitor' seems more purposeful, yet temporary - like a hospital visitor. However, in the dictionary `guest' and `visitor' are much alike. Thing is, in life the differences can be quite notable, especially for a host.

I'm not saying one is better than the other. Not really. I mean a good houseguest (visitor) is a good houseguest (visitor) and we all know who they are. They make it easy to invite back because they're appreciative, helpful and so on. But there are those people who sort of shine differently. They visit really well.

In my personal collection one friend, Carissa, is an extreme visitor. They're rare, but if you see one, grab on, and invite often. When Carissa came to PEI last summer, she would only stay if there was work she could do. Visitor lottery, won! She fit doors (attempted to fit doors), reupholstered chairs, sewed and hung curtains, painted, pruned and put in a casserole at the end of the day. In addition to all of her domestic detail, she was a lot of fun.

Visitors are the people you tend to have time and time again, mostly because they don't wait for an invite. They just ask to come for a visit. Not passing through. Not making a duty call. They really want to see you, and you feel a certain comfort right away. Here's the rundown:

  • Guests usually have food requirements but say they don't.
  • Visitors don't remark that they only use Becel margarine at home, they just go buy some.
  • Guests don't welcome pet cuddles.
  • Visitors haul a pet to bed.
  • Guests will always make their bed.
  • Visitors leave their bed unmade daily because they're just that comfortable, but they'll strip it before they leave.
  • Guests bear gifts.
  • Visitors always leave something behind.
  • Guests will wait patiently until you get up.
  • Visitors roam freely.

So, that's more or less a summary of what sets visitors apart from guests. Now, the challenge is to figure out which one you are! I think Lorre expects me to be a visitor, what with the visitor room and all. Trouble is, I may actually behave more like a guest... at Lorre's. I don't know her partner at all so in all likelihood I will do a lot of "do you mind?"–ing. It's not something you can really change about yourself. Most of us will default to guest because that's how we were raised. But when there's an expectation of being a visitor, well that's a challenge, isn't it?

My friend, Lisa, used to let me recharge at her bed and breakfast on Wolfe Island. That one was easy. It was even located on Easy Lane! Really. I clearly wasn't a guest there, because I paid no money. Instant clarity. Ooooo, I loved visiting there. My room was high above a carriage house, overlooking Lake Ontario. The room was all soothing, quiet colours and it featured not one or two, but a stack of National Enquirers, People and Us magazines. My guilty pleasures were fed to busting and the relaxation component was exquisite when blended with the sound of the waves outside. Sometimes, I'd skip breakfast entirely as I sank deeper into my comfort. There was no pressure whatsoever, and if I wanted to hang and watch movies all afternoon, she was cool with that. It really was the best, from where I sat anyway.

And there's the rub. Good hosts never let you know if you are demanding special attention. We all like to think we're easy company but... maybe... not. Truth is I'm not sure which label to put on myself, so I won't. If you're wondering which one you are, you probably have your answer.