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Domestic Bliss: Having People To Stay

Excerpt from Domestic Bliss: Simple Ways to Add Style to Your Lifeby Rita Konig

I still get rather excited about waking up in the morning and there being friends around. I know that it is quite childish, because it really is a hangover from whispering all night with a friend on a folding bed.

A beautiful guest bedroom and having friends popping in and out has got to be one of the great pleasures of life. There are things you can do for guests that would be impossible to maintain in your everyday life, which is why it's fun and not a drudge to do them. Those extra frivolities are what makes someone comfortable and feel welcome. It is extraordinary how different it feels arriving in a house where your host is ready for you and excited about your arrival compared with when there is a rather fraught atmosphere and your stay is obviously extremely inconvenient for everyone.

If you are having someone to stay for longer than a night, you may want to make sure they feel able to help themselves to whatever they need. You don't want to be asking constantly if they need a drink or something to eat, and it often makes it much easier to have someone around who is able to infiltrate themselves into your life. Show them where everything is and make it clear that you would like them to help themselves. You will probably find they will still need to be offered things, as people do find it quite hard to help themselves too much, unless they are very good friends. You may also need to get used to it yourself, as it can be a bit strange having someone too much at ease around your home, picking up the phone and piling into the wine cellar. By working out what you like and letting your guest know how everything works, you will find that things become a lot easier for both of you.

Fluffing up the bedroom

Naturally you need to give some thought as to what might suit the guest, male or female, old school or modern. The bed is the obvious place to start, and you can make it more comfortable with layers, folding wonderful old blankets across the end for the male guest, or antique Welsh ones for the stylish girl. Acres of white linen and broiderie anglaise are ideal for most mothers-in-law. Hot-water bottles in winter and delicious dressing gowns, hotel style, cost little extra effort. Electric blankets can be a bit of a dilemma; for some people the idea of a warm bed is about as appealing as a glass of lukewarm water, and it should not be used as an alternative to central heating.

There are key things in guest bedrooms that are often overlooked: enough pillows and a bedside light, for example. I know this sounds totally mad, but there have been many times when I have had to grope my way from the bedroom door to the bed, stubbing, of course, my toes along the way. This does not fit very well with the joy of switching out the lights as you are unable to hold your eyes open a second longer. Squishy pillows are essential; a single long pillow is by no means enough and is too much like boarding school or childhood. If you have any square pillows, these are the most comfortable. The bed has got to be deliciously cozy, and extra blankets on the end look pretty. They also mean that should your guests get cold in the night, they can pull them up. Everyone lives by such different temperatures; some live in very warm houses and others like a slight chill, so it is a good idea to offer the extra blankets.

The more luxurious you make the guest bedroom, the greater the amount of time your guests will want to spend in it. This is not meant in an unfriendly way, but if by any chance you are able to find a television from somewhere to have in there together with some lovely books, it is going to be a place where your guests would probably like to retreat to in the afternoon for a siesta. Now, this might suit you very well, especially if they are staying for a while. I love staying with friends when there is an atmosphere of being able to run on your own schedule to a certain extent. It takes that pressure off both parties to have to entertain one another all of the time. Not that I have ever stayed anywhere where there was a television in my room, and I hate going to bed in the afternoon. Ever since I have been old enough to say that I don't want to, I have taken great pleasure in not doing it.

Treats beside the bed

So set about making your guest bedroom really cozy and delicious. Try to think of all the things you would like to find when you are away from home. There is much to be said for the approach of a chocolate on the pillow, and while you may think this is just going a step too far, it is quite funny. If you can't quite get to grips with a Ferrero Rocher, break some squares off a bar: it would be as delicious and look great. It does not have to be fancy; in fact, quite often the less fancy it is, the better.

Bedside tables are a good place to start. Of course, the really old-fashioned thing is to put flowers beside your guest's bed. This is the loveliest of traditions and if you have flowers in your garden, this is obviously the best place to start. One of my favorite things is the single garden rose sitting in a glass vase, but don't be put off by the seasons: in the early winter you will probably find branches with berries on that will look glorious. Where you are unable to have summer flowers, whatever is around should be fine.

Think of leaving a small decanter of whiskey and a tin of good biscuits for your guest's midnight snacks, or a jug of water and a small bowl of some delicious fruit. Don't leave out anything too big, like apples or bananas, which have too much in the way of cores and skin, but figs or plums, apricots, grapes and peaches, depending on the season, are more like it. Customize the snack to each guest, and try to think of what you would really like to find in a bedroom when you are away, as that is usually a pretty sure way of getting it right.

Make the table fantastically luxurious, too. In old-fashioned houses you often find writing paper and envelopes, which are always rather tempting for sitting down and sending out gossipy letters in that Jane Austen fashion, but quite unrealistic. Postcards are much easier and more likely to get written; leave them by the bed with stamps on the back and a pen. If you can get to a post box, it is really worth knocking off the odd postcard while you are away, as they should not be kept exclusively for proper holidays. My friend Cathy is always sending me funny old-fashioned postcards from places she goes to in the countryside. They make such a delightfully welcome change from the usual brown envelopes and they are very good things to have around the house, perfect for kitchen walls or even just sliding behind the light switches and in the corners of frames.

Don't overlook books beside your guest's bed. I step out of my front door with just about my entire life in my suitcases, but more often than not my book will still be sitting beside my bed. It is infuriating because it is just the best thing to do last thing at night. When you are staying with other people, your bedtime is slightly determined by theirs; it is not like being at home where you can pad around the house until you are ready to climb into bed and drift off. The thing that I have always found boring when staying with friends is starting a good book, which I then have to leave behind. I never remember to buy a copy once I'm back home, and taking it with me when I leave is a sure way of never getting asked back.

As a hostess, the best thing by your guest's bed is to have books of short stories or back issues of Vanity Fair. Keep a combination of subjects -- old folklore is good (they feel like proper bedtime stories) as are short histories of the surrounding area. But for me a book of ghost stories is probably the best.

What to do if you don't have a plethora of bedrooms

Don't worry, you can still have people to stay, you just have to be a little more creative with the space you don't have. My best friend in the whole world, Honor, lives in Los Angeles, and she has an old French day bed in her sitting room, which I have slept on. In fact, once I slept there happily for two whole weeks. She does have a lot of space, as so many people in Los Angeles do in comparison to London, but she prefers to organize her space in this way, and in the daytime the day bed makes a really cool sofa with lots of cushions. Honor likes it because she thinks it is slightly Oriental in feel, and at night is the perfect bed. To live like this for any length of time you have got to be extremely tidy or else everyone goes insane with the mess. Unmade beds are bad enough in your bedroom, but in your sitting room they are totally intolerable.

The day bed option is very good for studies or a sound investment if you have a room that you want to double as something other than just a spare bedroom. I find that sofa beds are just the worst; they are uncomfortable sofas and uncomfortable beds, and should you ever want to sell one, you would probably find it difficult to just get someone to take it off your hands. So, what to do when you don't even have the extra room for a study-cum-spare bedroom or a French day bed? You can make the sofa in your sitting room as cozy as any bed. Make it as you would make a regular bed: take off the back cushions, if it has any, put a bottom sheet on the seat cushions, and then either a duvet or sheets and blanket on the top. Put the lovely things that you would put on a bedside table on the end table and make sure there is a lamp for your guest to read by. Suddenly you will rather regret that you aren't getting into it yourself. This sort of arrangement is only really good for the overnight guest, as you can't exist happily with someone living so on top of you, and there is nowhere for them to put their clothes and things.

If you know you are going to want to put up people on your sofa, there are measures you can take when decorating to make this tolerable. For example, for one of the end tables to your sofa you could have a small chest of drawers, which means that there is at least somewhere for the clothes to go. A burst suitcase in your sitting room for any longer than five minutes is just impossible.

Bathrooms for the guest

Like leaving my book at home, I can find myself without a toothbrush really easily, or my tweezers, or just about any number of things that should be in my bulging toiletries bag. Putting together all the necessities in your bathroom is another styling opportunity not to be missed. You get a smug satisfaction from making sure your friend has everything they need, and it is particularly fabulous when the praise comes as they find the replacement bits and pieces. Think what a joy it is to go and stay somewhere where the bathroom is filled with delicious bath oils and scrubs that you don't have at home. Making sure your guests find a lot of things to do in the bathroom is also going to give you some time to put up your feet.

There are different degrees to how involved you are going to want to get with your credit card before the arrival of your guest, and it will depend on who it is. But the thing is that it does not have to cost a fortune. A lot of the stuff will be in the house already, and if you have a guest bathroom it is a good idea just to keep adding the occasional thing from time to time. This will spread the pennies. You can also put things in there from your own bathroom before he or she arrives, and if he or she is going to be sharing with you, then just put together a bath package in the bedroom. Do not feel that you have to have everything on the list; just pick the things that will suit the person staying. Some of the items come as standard and some are truly like the Ritz in their over-the-top nature. Be careful that your guest is not laden down with a ton of stuff on his or her way down the corridor.

To keep all these things in order, either in your guest bathroom or in the bedroom, use little glasses, tall glasses and dishes. Q-tips and razors fit in short glasses or old demitasse coffee cups. Tumblers are incredibly useful for makeup brushes, mascara and lipsticks; dishes take all the other, flatter, makeup. I love arriving in a house and having some time to nest, and this is made more possible when a few bits and pieces have been left for me to get on with. It is a rare treat to have time to sit down at a dressing table to do one's face properly, so doing it when staying in someone's house in holiday mode feels very spoiling.

Guests arriving after long journeys

I have arrived in many Scottish houses late on a Friday night, missing dinner and not being offered anything to eat and starving until breakfast the next morning. This is not because my hosts were not the kindest, most generous of friends, but simply because they didn't think that we wouldn't have eaten that filth on the plane. Tray dinners by the fire are really divine; there is something just magical about having something delicious brought to you in the sitting room. I don't really like being shoveled immediately to a room and offered a bath and time to unpack. I like to be in the thick of it, chatting and hearing the news of the friends I am visiting. It is a really good idea to have the tray dinner ready, so that it is not a big deal to sort out when your guests arrive.

Things being prepared for your arrival just makes you instantly feel at ease and as though this moment has been looked forward to. There is something really magical about arriving somewhere late at night -- you are tired and slightly disorientated, excited to be with your friends and full of anticipation for the forthcoming days of fun.

Some people do like to go and get settled before they come down to join you. If you know your guest well and are aware of this characteristic, finding a steaming scented bath with fluffy white towels ready to get into is going to be beyond luxury. If I was that kind of person, then I can't imagine anything nicer. In fact, I do think it would be the best, particularly if you are staying with an old friend who can chat to you while you are in the bath and getting ready for some of that delicious bread and soup that is simmering away downstairs. These things are built on atmosphere -- they are not going to cost any more than what you would have spent anyway. All it costs you is time and effort, which is what makes it so fabulous. Everyone needs to be spoiled, and spoiling the people who have traveled any distance to see you is wholly appropriate.

Going to stay with other people

I get quite nervous about other people's houses and that is why I try to make sure no one feels that way when they are here. I panic about things such as the loo might not flush or what time should I wake up, or everyone will know each other and I won't and they will all think that I am a freak and not talk to me. Well, of course, it is never ever that bad and the loo usually does flush and I have never missed lunch or anything embarrassing like that and, if everyone is awful, which has never actually happened in entirety either, you can always observe them and make mental notes. Once you do that, ghastly people become rather entertaining. I am now often more excited about bumping into the really grim people that I have come across in other people's houses than the nice ones.

I once sat down with a duchess, who will remain countyless. She had a Labrador slobbering all over her and she talked at length about her horses. I was not really able to enjoy the slobbering Labrador (I might have been wincing, actually), or the idea of riding very much, which absolutely horrified her, and she shrieked, "Oh Rita, you are soooooooooooooo pavement." At this moment she shot up in my estimation, but I am not sure if that was the response she was looking for. I think that she was probably trying to intimidate me or get a laugh off everyone else at my expense (which she was welcome to). But whatever is was, it didn't work, as I let her know in no uncertain terms that she was absolutely right and that instead of going out marching across the moors in the morning I would be going shopping. That reined her in and I had so much fun with her from then on, playing up to her towny expectations of me over the rest of the weekend.

As a guest, there are also unspoken rules that should apply. I firmly believe that if you break something, it simply must be replaced, and this counts for the water tumbler as much as the piece of furniture. I find it so depressing when possessions of mine are broken by careless friends who appear to think it doesn't matter, and I am also horrified when I break something in someone else's house. (This is the moment, friends, to call and claim damages!) Broken things must be replaced or restored. That said, my tolerance level for carelessness around my home is diminishing and I am fast learning the cost of friends. You really cannot have blanket rules because sometimes a guest will break something and be mortified by it. You may know he or she is totally skint and that you actually don't really care about the thing that was damaged or can easily replace it yourself. But equally this doesn't mean that just because someone has less money than you, they have carte blanche to destroy your home without receiving an invoice. You just have to weigh it up.

Just trying to help...(please don't!)

Now this is a line that usually comes out of someone's mouth just as disaster has struck; it has often come out of mine just as I have really bossily rearranged something that has already been arranged. Being a helpful guest is a tricky path: when are you getting under your friend's feet and when are you really being a help? Well, I think the first thing to do is to chill out. One is only ever getting it wrong when one is eager to please and slightly nervous. When you are in your own home you are usually in some sort of control as to when to get food on the table or generally domesticating, even if it looks like a poor impression of the contestants on a silly game show. But it is great not to feel as though you have been abandoned in the kitchen and are nothing more than a slave to your friends. As a guest, general morale boosting is good. So sit and chat while your host/hostess cooks and then you can offer to peel or scrub while you are sitting there. Sitting is especially good, as you are not in danger of getting in the way -- it is also always preferable to standing.

Another good tip is when the plates are being cleared and you (and half a dozen others) stand up to help, and your hostess says, "Please stay sitting," for God's sake sit back down again. It is my idea of a nightmare when everyone leaves the table, as it is sometimes easier to clear up by yourself and it can be very disjointing to the conversation when lots of people are bobbing up and down. There is nothing that will sink a hostess's heart faster than awkward silences.

You know what the other thing is, and I must admit that I don't suffer from this: a lot of women are very territorial about their kitchens. Actually, I lie, I never realized it until I just wrote that just now: I am. I hate people in my kitchen without me. It makes me very nervous, and I hate people offering to help with the dishes in the middle of an evening. You cannot believe how many people say, "Oh, come on, I'll help you do the dishes," and there are still people sitting at dinner. In fact, you are probably having a pretty good time with someone. The thing is, they have decided to go home, so have stood up to leave, announcing it very loudly (another thing I hate). But they then have a momentary feeling of guilt about the mess and so start trying to clear the table and get you into the kihen. Are they nuts? I really had to insist against it once. I mean they were about to destroy my evening. Just because they want to go home they try to wreck everyone else's evening by clearing people's plates from underneath them and dragging you away to the kitchen sink, leaving the rest of your friends to think that it must be time to go home too. All because they are trying to help. Well, don't, or you will come back in your next life as one of those small insects that only live for a day.

From Domestic Bliss: Simple Ways to Add Style to Your Lifeby Rita Konig

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