Help! My friend’s cottage that I’m staying at is a mess

Illustration by Jess Hannigan

Q: “A friend of mine lets my family use her cottage for a few weeks each summer when she isn’t there. But every time I arrive, the place is a mess, and I feel compelled to clean up after her or whoever visited last. It’s weird to me that she makes zero effort, as an owner, and also never prefaces the invitation by saying something like, ‘Just so you know, I haven’t been able to tidy up after my last guests.’ Should I say something?”

A: Your situation does sound a bit strange. In my experience, there is no time when cottagers are more hyper-fastidious than during the pack-out routines at the end of a visit. The foundational reasoning behind a thorough cottage tidy-up has always been a bone-deep terror of attracting rodents. A mild case might just mean there’s some poop in the spice drawer, but a full-on infestation might take forever to correct. That’s why multi-generational cottagers are freakish about leaving nothing for the little devils to eat or use to make nests. It’s learned at a very young age: “Simon? Why is it wrong to hide Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in your sock drawer? Because that’s how you get mice!”

Mouse urine aside, tradition says that you should try to leave the cottage in the same condition you found it, or better, in consideration of the next person who will be visiting. Even if that next person is you. It’s a lot like the way reasonable citizens leave no trace when camping, return grocery carts to their corrals, and don’t toss dirty diapers on the side of a highway. But not all people play by these rules. Not long ago, I was helping a caretaker close up a family cottage after the owners had departed. What we found inside was quite surprising. Dirty dishes on the table. Dirty pans on the stove. An open tub of margarine, plus ketchup, mustard, and mayo left sitting out. There were unmade beds and a half-eaten bag of Doritos. Didn’t these folks know? That’s how you get mice! I asked the caretaker if maybe there was some kind of family emergency calling for a quick exit. “Nope. That’s just how these guys roll.”

The takeaway here is that when it comes to cottage hygiene, as with anything in this life, there will always be outliers. I would guess that most of us run a clean and orderly operation. Others, and maybe this includes your friend—let’s call her Sheila—are total slobs. Or maybe there is another reason for the disorder. It sounds like many people use this cottage. Maybe Sheila is actually very spic and span while other bad actors are leaving the mess, unbeknownst to her, and that’s why she didn’t give you a heads-up about the state of the place. Or maybe she simply doesn’t have time to clean up after inconsiderate guests because there has been other stuff going on in her life. Stuff she hasn’t shared with you.

If you want to confront her about the mess, consider the above factors before you say a word, because the potential for hurt feelings is very real. And I can’t imagine a scenario where you wouldn’t come off looking like a total heel. Remember too that cleanliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I consider a bed to be made when there are pillows, sheets, and blankets on top, in any formation. For this (and other offences), my wife thinks I am no better than a marrow-sucking proto-human and insists that after perfect hotel corners are complete, she should be able to bounce a toonie off the top sheet. So before you have words with Sheila, stop to consider your relative positions on the tidiness spectrum.

From your email, it sounds like Sheila is letting you use her place for free. If this is true, it changes things because, well, beggars can’t be choosers. If something as valuable as a two-week stay at a waterfront cottage has been given to you for nothing, I’m not sure you have a leg to stand on. To complain about a messy cottage that you have been gifted would be churlish at best. Sheila could have made some real money renting her place to strangers. But instead, she lets your family enjoy the place, presumably because she likes you and thinks you are a good person. Therefore, responding to this generosity with a complaint about cleanliness would be, in my opinion, back-stabbery at its best.

When it all boils down, your options are limited. If you are paying rent to Sheila, you could complain to her about the state of the place and then choose not to return. This would mean you’d need to find another cottage for your next vacay and possibly cost the friendship, while simultaneously making Sheila feel like
a bad person. If you are staying for free, that same call will make you look like Minnie the Moocher, and you will likely never have use of the place again. If she was aware of the mess because that’s how Sheila rolls, she will think you are a stuck-up ungrateful jerk. If Sheila had no knowledge of the mess, she will feel embarrassed and have hurt feelings. Basically, you’re looking at a mixed bag of bad outcomes.

Cottage 101 says that when you borrow a place, it’s traditional to offer some contribution to the common good, and actions such as raking weeds off the beach or stacking some firewood carry more weight with your benefactor than a thank you note and a regifted bottle of ice wine. Since you say you’ve had to clean the place in previous years, I get the impression that it’s not the act of cleaning that irks you, but the lack of recognition for the work that you are performing. Some would say that charitable donations, when made anonymously, represent the highest form of altruism. Maybe so, but we all know the truth: most people want to have some acknowledgement when they perform good deeds or public service. That’s why hospital wings have such funny names. So instead of confronting or complaining, why not clean the place up, as per usual, and then call Sheila to ask where she keeps extra toilet bowl cleaner and Swiffer pads. She might then ask why you need these items and a gentle conversation could ensue where you can explain that the cottage was messy so you are cleaning it up and are happy to do so. Why? Because you are grateful to have use of her place and a bit of cleaning is a small way to thank Sheila for giving you and your family a free cottage holiday. Stick with language like that and in one stroke you will have cleared the air and shown your friend how much you appreciate her generosity. Because that’s just how you roll.

This story originally appeared in the Sept/Oct ’23 issue of Cottage Life.

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