I once read an article in one of the Sunday papers about the house-in-France that all went badly wrong. It was written (I think) by a daughter of some famous British family: a descendant of Evelyn Waugh, methinks. But don’t quote me.
The reason I mention it is that the whole dream, the whole escapade went pear-shaped largely because of friends. The family found that they were paying for a succession of friends to have a free holiday in France. Said so-called friends contributed very little and only helped to trash the place.
It came to mind because we waved farewell this weekend to old friends from Sheffield who came and stayed for three very pleasant, invigorating days that reminded us all of what good friends we were and are. They respected our space, helped with all the day-to-day tasks and even revitalised our kitchen garden for us.
And the experience makes me think: on one hand, what kind of friends did that couple have and, on the other, why in God’s name did they tolerate such abuse of their hospitality? The answer leads me to conclude that perhaps they deserved what they got, which might explain why I read the article without feeling a shred of sympathy.
At the end of September we celebrate our 16th anniversary of life in France. After the first two or three years when we were fairly well inundated with visiting family and friends, the novelty wore off and visitors came and went in a more orderly and manageable fashion. This year has proved an exception, with a bewildering succession of short, sharp visits that have left us panting a little and looking forward to a respite.
In all that time, though, we’ve only ever had one visit from friends that we wouldn’t wish to repeat. Fortunately, it happened quite early on and, with hindsight, probably did us a service as it underlined the importance of ground rules. We didn’t know them that well and initially they wanted to stay for a fortnight. We managed to trim that down to a week – and even that soon became quite long enough. ‘She’ didn’t help at all and was quite happy to watch us wait on them hand and foot, while ‘he’ – the clumsy git – managed to break something every time he did help. They contributed very little in terms of shopping and, to put the old tin lid on it, their visit coincided with a spell of awful weather, which meant that they were indoors and on top of us for seven long days. No names, no pack drill; suffice to say that we successfully parried all future suggestions of a return visit.
The family I read about didn’t manage to get over the honeymoon period. The other day I was talking to some nearby friends, who have just negotiated theirs. She told me that during their first or second season they undertook something like 40 return trips to Limoges airport to pick up visitors. That’s at least 80 hours of road travel. I only hope that their visitors were prepared to contribute to the cost of all that diesel. Anyway, things are considerably easier now. They’ve found that they can get on with the business of living a reasonably normal life during the summer months.
Maybe we’ve been lucky or maybe we’ve made our own luck – by being a little firm and assertive when necessary – but in almost every case visitors have been respectful and generous. Most recognise that it’s a time-consuming and expensive business, having people to stay, and most act accordingly: doing unto others as they would have done unto themselves. Most recognise the element of truth in the adage that friends are like fish: after three days they start to smell a bit. You could add perhaps that the best are like frozen fish: they don’t start to smell for a week or so – when the fish has been taken out of the freezer and allowed to defrost in a cool place.
Inevitably, though, no matter how much you like someone and no matter how considerate they have been, there’s always the double-edged emotion when they take their leave. I think back to my grandparents, who used to have my parents, my three siblings and me to stay with them in Bath for a month every summer. I would look back from the car to see them both waving until the car disappeared around the corner, my grandmother dabbing away the tears with the handkerchief she kept up her sleeve. But I never saw them step back inside their house, close the front door and say, no doubt, ‘Well, thank God for that. We can get our lives back again’.
I’d be interested to read about the fall-out from the newspaper couple’s house-in-France misadventure. I imagine they must have sold the house eventually. But did the experience cause them to sit down and evaluate their friendships? Or did they just carry on gaily as before? I don’t know. I only hope that if they sold their house to Brits, the newcomers had a rather more sensible attitude to the conundrum of visitors.