Monday, 11 February 2008

Rooksmoor's Guide to Staying the Weekend

Recently I posted my guidance on attending weddings in the 21st century and this provoked thoughts about similar guides I could produce. Though I do not come close, it reminded me of Victorian guides to ladies and gentlemen about social interaction, so I feel that such things fit with the Gothic and steampunk genres I admire. So, today's guide is about staying at people's houses for the weekend. Something I seemed to do a lot of in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Reason for the Stay
In my experience there are usually two causes for staying at someone's home for the weekend (I exclude family events because they have very different motives, though some of the guidance I give here is still applicable), one is to attend a party and the other is for a weekend visit. Now there are important differences between the two, most notably on how long you stay, so throughout this posting I will distinguish at times between the 'party' and the 'visit' stays.

You need to strike a balance between arriving sufficiently equipped and yet not having to lug half your house with you. If you have a car it is less of an issue because you are effectively taking part of your own space with you and can stash back-up supplies in it. However, I generally went to these stays by public transport and this means the balance is all the more important. You need to work out what you are going to be doing at the event. If it is a party, you probably need to take party clothes. Also take a change of things for the following morning as you often do not want to be seen going home in clothes that clearly belong to a party (especially if it is fancy dress or something). Also there is nothing worse than not having fresh underwear to put on, this means socks too and I advise a change of top at least. There are sometimes mishaps and you do not want to spend three hours in your car or on a train smelling of someone else's vomit.

In 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (radio, book, TV series, movie) they reckoned you could not cross the galaxy without a towel, for me it is carrier bags. I find them immensely useful for putting round dirty washing, muddy boots, gifts, medicines, tootbrushes. Take a handful with you you will find they then invaluable.

Preparation can also depend on whether it is a party or a visit stay. Some party stays shade off into visits as the morning after some people want to get out and walk to the nearest beauty spot or whatever and you find your party shoes are no good for trudging through muddy fields. As I explain later about exit strategies, it is generally best to avoid these spill over party events, but if you suspect that that is going to happen at least make sure you have some clothes for it including waterproofs.

Make sure your mobile phone is charged and has credit. If you can, take the charger with you. Make sure you have a reasonable amount of cash as there is nothing worse that traipsing around a district you do not know trying to find a cashpoint machine. As you will be in someone else's house it is generally up to them to use their plastic for purchases such additional alcohol, pizzas, etc. and you will be expected to chip in with some cash. Taxis generally take cash and you may be using them as people's houses are generally a lot farther from the station than they say and again walking around a dark district can be difficult.

Know where you are going, precisely. To locals it may be easy to know where the precise number 3 house is, but I wandered up and down a Worcestershire village trying to find the right house. Their phone line was engaged and I must have tried all the wrong houses (the numbers of number 3s was stunning) before finally getting to the right one and the host had left to find someone else who was lost. Hosts find it easy to find their own houses, but do not realise the rest of us do not, especially in the UK where towns often have streets with very similar names. In this particular case a taxi driver coming to collect me could not even find it and said no-one was at the house I was supposed to be calling from, when in fact we were standing outside. Sat-navs help a great deal so get to know the (correct) postcode of where you are going.

Have all the addresses and phone numbers in multiple locations. You can guarantee that your phone will run out of charge just as you need to call or the piece of paper blows off down the platform before you can even tell the taxi driver where you need to go. Telephone your mobile and leave yourself a message with the details even email them to yourself so you can go in a cybercafe and find them if you need to. More than once I have arrived in a town realising I have lost the details and have no idea where to go or the number to call. Have back-ups!

Take a toothbrush but no toothpaste. Generally you can get towels and toothpaste from the people you are staying with. If the house is overcrowded, give up on having anything more than a basin wash. However, being able to clean your teeth the morning after is a great benefit. Comb and brush similarly can really help you to feel human again which is quite important especially if you are going to be travelling back. Depending on the circumstances, i.e. whether you get a bed to yourself or end up sleeping on the floor. It is worthwhile taking a cushion/pillow. There is nothing worse than waking up with a stiff neck and a rolled-up sweater is no substitute for a half-decent cushion.

One of the hazards of staying with people is being incredibly dependent on others. Often you will wake and not know where the coffee is or be banned from making your own food until breakfast time (the things that divide the world are not religion or politics but the little 'house' rules that are enforced differently in everyone's house) which may be hours away. So make sure you can nourish yourself. Vital is a bottle or two of water as there is nothing like waking with a mouth like a carpet and then being shooed from the kitchen when you are gasping for water. Have your own supply, plus easy to access foods like biscuits (rather than crisps which can make you thirsty again). You may be obliged to leave the house before people are even thinking about meals and there is nothing worse than being trapped on a train with no food in sight. Do not assume that people eat the same way as you, sometimes they wait until 3pm on a Sunday afternoon to have a meal and you have been awake for six hours by then. Also remember post-party houses have often been denuded of food by hungry party-goers the night before: have your own supply.

Also have a good supply of tablets - the minimum are headache, anti-diaorrhea and anti-vomiting tablets as they are the most likely ones you will need. These are combined with the bottle of water you brought. Again they can help you get back to feeling human quickly and make that journey home a lot easier.

Entertainment: make sure you are well stocked with your ipod, a hand-held game (whether electronic, on your phone or something non-electronic like cards or a puzzle) and a book (or more, there is nothing worse than running out of reading material, so if you are 75% or more of the way through a book take another one too) or newspapers/magazines. It depends on how much attention you can pay to these things while travelling. I really get into a book and just eat them up while on trains other people like lighter material. Remember, however, you can really get through any reading material far quicker than you realise. You are not exempt from this need if you are driving down yourself as there will be dead time during the day if it is a visit or the next morning if it is a party stay when you will probably be left to entertain yourself and you cannot rely on what entertainment materials the hosts have or getting access to them (I generally find the people sleeping in the living room are the last to wake) and if you want to avoid bored hours waiting for people to get up make sure you have something to occupy yourself.

The key mistake I often made when going for a stay especially of the party nature, was to arrive far too early. It can be a challenge if you are coming by public transport. However, if you turn up in the locale early I suggest heading to a local pub or cafe and arriving at an appropriate time. While I do not hold with being 'fashionably late', if you arrive first then people notice this fact and it makes them later feel that you have been at the house a long time. In addition, they may not be ready and you may a) run into them hurrying around frantically and possibly having an argument and/or b) be dragged into helping setting up the party/event, either way you will actually get in their way and cause them to be a little resentful of you. Usually some local friend will arrive first, try and come in after them at least. The dynamics with local friends is usually very different to visitors like yourself as it is likely they can home more easily.

This is not a guide to attending a party or a visit, there are so many varieties of interaction which are so diverse that I will only be reduced to anecdotes from my own life and I will leave those for another day. However, I would say, do not be mean with the gifts or the drink you bring. Taking gifts marks you out as being civilised and a worthy guest to invite again (if you want to go back). Generally you will be able to eat and drink more than you bring so do not scrimp on what you contribute. Always make sure you bring something you like but make sure it is not too good (I have made this mistake, the hosts just whisk it away into hiding for themselves to enjoy later) otherwise you will not get to access it again. I usually have a 'sacrifice' and then the real item. I do not particularly like wine so I bring a bottle of that as the sacrifice and then some beers for myself to drink. You cannot guarantee there will always be something that other people bring that you like, but generally you get a reasonable mix.

For visits, I always find a tin of biscuits is a good bet as they are not gender specific and can be eaten by all ages. Chocolates can be generally sound, some wine too (but if there are children in the family take something for them, give it to the parents to dish out because they may have rules on sweets/biscuits and most children are taught not to take such things from strangers which you are in fact, this is why I say rules for family events are very different). However, do take a gift. Flowers or plants are fine if you have a car, but avoid them if you are on public transport.

Getting it On
If you are just going to a local party and are not staying over, feel free to flirt and pick up members of the opposite or same sex (in the UK generally not looked down upon as it used to be and you should know the context well enough). However, if you are staying over or it is a visit then tread carefully. Hosts get a little uncomfortable to think that their house is being used like the local night-club. Be very careful if the person in question is a local friend as the hosts often feel especially protective of them in regard to 'out-of-towners', it is safer to stick with someone like yourself who has travelled down. Conversely, of course, if you are single, they are more than likely to be setting you up with someone, but those are their rules on their turf. In addition, the man or woman you were being amorous to the night before will be seeing you soon after waking up, and the morning after you just met it is too early for that sort of thing (outside of your own house, waking up in bed with someone in your/their own house has very different rules because you or they are in control, in these circumstances someone else is in control). Better is to get the email address/phone number the next morning once everyone is scrubbed up and looking far better. Try and keep this activity out of sight of the hosts who may be offended, unless you have actually hit it off with the person they set you up with, when conversely you should make this action very visible to please them.

A visit is different, there is not the intensity of the party aspect and if you spy someone you fancy then it is very much a move into Jane Austen mode. This means get to sit next to the target or end up in the car they are in or whatever the activity is that you are doing. Gently does it in these circumstances. However, in daylight, you have a much better chance to shine. Do not dive in without information. You can easily find out a bit about the background of other guests from the hosts. They will usually help out by signalling anyone who is unavailable (including in terms of sexual orientation), due to this thing about protecting guests from unrestrained sexual hunting that can cause embarrassment to them. Be alert to things like rings (on a chain as well as on fingers) as these are still good clues about whether the person sees themselves as available or not. If the person is not interested or unavailable (and not entirely socially inept) they will mention within the first ten minutes of you talking about something their boyfriend/girlfriend has done or their boyfriend's/girlfriend's brother/sister/grandparents/parents. They may not even be conscious of it. Of course it may be a lie but one they want to communicate. Once this is out the way then you work on the assumption that they are unavailable and not interested in you. However, they are not signalling they do not want to interact with you and unless you have something/someone else you need to concentrate on you can keep socialising with them. Even if you do have someone else in your sights try not to rush off after this someone else immediately or it can be embarrassing, but think of the weekend as having five-to-six segments: morning, afternoon, evening, twice over. Now you might not be around for all of those, but most likely at least four and do not attempt to go for more than one person in each segment.

Social Interaction
In terms of interacting with the hosts and guests in general, the British rule is stay off politics and religion as topics. You will find people who say 'I'm not political but ...' or 'I'm not racist but ...' and actually then spout out very political views. This is particularly the case for right-wing people who think their views are common sense or the kind of thing everyone espouses. Now, I usually believe in defending a liberal humanist view, but when confined in such circumstance you sometimes have to bite your lip and let it wash over you. Rather, let them have their say and either then say something quite ridiculous to relieve the tension or move conversation back to anondyne topics. Of course, if you find yourself out of step with the bulk of the assembled party, get out early and remember to refuse the invite next time. Safe topics include gardening (easily caught up on even if you live in an East London flat as I did for many years by watching a single gardening programme) or children or holidays or television programmes (though harder these days with the range of channels and things to follow).

Do not expect people to engage with complex concepts (the British dislike them, partly because our politics are so simplistic) they will just get lost, their brains are in relaxing rather than thinking mode. Some people attend visits or parties with the explicit intention of riling people with their views. I met an appalling man at three parties hosted by three different people and it was clear he saw provoking an argument as a pleasant pastime. Having hounded one couple who worked in child psychology about their whole approach he complained very disappointedly that 'they did not even try to fight back'. Of course the bulk of us do not use social events this way. The best thing to do in such circumstances if go to the toilet, the kitchen, check something in your bag or your car, wherever and by the time you come back they will have latched on to another victim.

Exit Strategies
Possibly more important that coming is going. Have an exit strategy planned well in advance. Pack your luggage as soon as you can the morning you are leaving. Do not move it to the door or anything, just put it somewhere out of the way where you can find it. You do not want to waste the minutes when you have to go packing or hunting for things. Know your train/coach times and any like cancellations/delays. Find out which roads are likely to get busy at 'going home from granny's' time on Sundays. Do not plan to leave by the last train out of the village but at least the one before that. It can be very difficult to extract yourself from a house and you need to really begin the move at least one hour before you intend to go. It is far better to sit at a railway station for an hour than arrive five minutes late for the train. It can be very difficult to say all your goodbyes and take down the numbers, recipes, whatever that everyone promised.

Be careful about being drawn into things that may over-run. This is particularly a risk when staying for a party. Try to avoid being drawn into the lunch at the pub the next day and particularly not the walk to the local beauty spot or whatever. These things have a loose time frame and you can find yourself cut off from your luggage and where you have to be with the minutes ticking by when you have to be in those places. The key principle for a good escape is keep yourself independent. Avoid offers of lifts and such like. Make sure you are in taxi reach of the station and know the telephone number of a local company (easier now with all these directory enquiry numbers).

If you are staying for a party, then 11.00 by the next morning is a good time to have left. Try and avoid getting tangled in lunch as 12.00 in fact means 14.00-15.00 especially at weekends. Whatever the hosts might say, actually they want to recover that afternoon and you do to and you have to complete the journey. For visits, 17.00 on the second day, depending on the time of year, is usually a good aim. However, watch out that you might run into the home-from-granny traffic that I mentioned and you may need to leave a little earlier or later, but try and avoid being there after 18.00. Bear in mind what I said about remaining independent as this will allow you to control your exit time. If you can, have a decent breakfast/brunch as this will help with the disrupted meals. Plan to collect a takeaway when you reach home as you will not want to go out again or cook once you have reached home.

Make sure you say goodbye and thank you to the hosts. They will mentally reflect on your behaviour at their house and will bear this in mind when they think about invites in the future. So leave them with a warm feeling about you (assuming you do want to come again). Some people will be concerned about if you get home safely, some will not give a damn. You will know their concerns. However, a text saying thanks is fine, I find even elderly people like texts now. Alternatively an email the following day to say what a good time you had is also a good way. The hosts may not wish to enter into a discussion, they are recovering too, so any phonecall should be short and it is best to call at a time when you are likely to get an answerphone and leave a nice short message.

Right, you are home safely. Have a nice bath and slump in front of the television. Though weekend stays can be relaxing they can be tiring too and you need to wind down from them so that the feeling does not spill over into Monday morning making it harder than ever.

If you have any tips about weekend stays please comment them below. This is a very Anglocentric, Middle Class view and I am conscious different rules may apply in different circumstances and countries. The only Belgian party I attended ended with a police raid for apparently no reason (the whole thing had been very quiet and civilised) and we ended up literally running from the house (a very different 'exit strategy') so I imagine in Belgium the rules are very different and involve things like bail bonds and not taking your coat off. So please supplement my guide with your own experiences.

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