This essay about hosting at the cottage was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Cottage Life West.
Last summer, on the 34th consecutive day with guests in my Okanagan abode, I snapped. Two of my best friends from childhood were planning a last-minute girls’ getaway, and they sniffed out a three-day hole in my guest-room schedule. They wanted to stay all three nights; I conceded two. I don’t think they took me seriously, until the morning of day three. I fed them breakfast then swiftly kicked them out.
The laundry area warranted caution tape at its entry point, and the kitchen had not remained clean for more than 12 minutes that month. The wine cellar was approaching empty, and my beach towels were more sand than cloth. I needed to reclaim my space and restore a modicum of order to my stuff. Moreover, I was desperate for an evening of anti-social behaviour—to quietly watch the sunset across the lake without hosting a three-course dinner.
If more than a month of continual guests sounds exceptional, here in the Okanagan, it’s not. By the end of August, discussions with my friends take on the tone of an innkeepers’ support group. I have sets of friends who don’t even own cottages here, but merely rent places for their annual summer vacations, and they still get overrun with requests for overnight stays or plain old crashers. Stoically assertive, our would-be visitors don’t abide by typical guest etiquette when a lake view is on the line.
But can you blame them for wanting to swing in a hammock, cannonball off a dock, and cozy around a bonfire to celebrate those stretched-out sunlit days? And can you blame people like me or my hosting-happy friends who know that sharing beautiful places adds another layer of enjoyment because barefoot badminton tourneys and board game marathons are always better with more players?
Part of the pleasure of being out of the city is being able to invite those you love spending time with along for the experience. With guests, al fresco meals turn into epic feasts. Boating happens. And improvised sleeping spaces defy the logic of cabin square-footage—though in my golden years I suspect the sun-bleached memories of this will feature in my life’s highlight reels. But I’ve learned through trial and many errors over 12 summers that it’s harder than it seems to hit upon the right mix—that perfect blend of retreat and solitude at the lake balanced with a hubbub that adds to the occasion.
A few years back, I sheepishly pronounced a ban on overnight guests. A pressure-cooker of a book deadline in August was the perfect excuse to squirrel myself away in peace and quiet. It was thrilling to think of having the complete freedom to work at the hours that suited me best. I got the book done, and there was satisfaction in that, though it was also a lesson in work-life balance.
As it turned out, that guest-free summer was disastrously pathetic. No one smiles upon recalling that time they worked so much. Alone, I ate hastily mixed-together salads, which were nothing more than freestyle one-bowl meals assembled from whatever was due to expire in the fridge. And the silence, though restful, became a bit of a burden. It turns out that entertaining oneself requires an unexpected amount of energy. I became my own nightmare guest, unhelpful, unappreciative, and kind of a slob. Inconveniently, I also had no one to blame for the towels carelessly dropped on the floor, the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, or the empty milk carton deceptively placed back in the fridge.
So I’m glad I did the experiment. I learned that enjoying time with my friends around my dinner table meant effort but also rewards. It turns out that having my space upended by nieces, nephews, siblings, and friends sleeping all over the place is a type of joyous chaos for me. Which is how I got to the point of having guest bedrooms constantly occupied for 34 days straight last summer.
This year, I’m simply aiming for a better balance. I’ve put forth some stricter guidelines to new and returning guests: no stays longer than three nights unless you’ve crossed an ocean to visit me; I need at least three nights to myself between sets of guests; and you earn my undying love and probably a return invitation if you bring your own towels and bedding, to save me from hours of laundry after each “check out.”
Most importantly, I won’t “overhost.” Recently a friend gave me a clever strategy for longer visits. Treat guests as guests on the day that they arrive, with welcome drinks and dinner, and as guests as they leave, with a farewell breakfast. In between, they are expected to act as family by helping with the cooking and cleaning, by fixing a deck board, by running to the store for milk—things that are part of life here.
I’ll also encourage my guests to bust out any skill set they might have. It’s been something I’ve randomly employed with past guests to great success. My pal Kevin is an avid outdoorsman, and he happily sharpened my axes one night as I hustled dinner together. A chef friend spent hours organizing my kitchen so that everything makes so much more sense now. And a buddy from Ontario always arrives knowing that she’s on silverware polishing duty on day one. (I inherited so much cutlery from my grandmothers that I make every meal a silverware affair.)
But really, despite the occasional frustration, I’m just grateful to have my slice of lakeside heaven and the “challenge” of so many friends. And the girlfriends I kicked out? There was no damage done. One meltdown over the span of a four-decade friendship barely caused a ripple. In fact, as I shooed them out towards a nearby hotel, it was as much for their good as mine. They spoiled themselves with room service and a dip in a pool; I spoiled myself by putting my feet up, floor unswept, and having a bowl of cereal for dinner.
B.C.-based Jennifer Cockrall-King writes about food, drinks, cooking, and nature.