On Being a Guest

Many years ago, while I was on a buying trip in Paris, I attended a dinner at the home of an artist's widow. She was an elderly woman who was Spanish by descent and still fiery and sharp despite her age. As the after-dinner conversation lingered on into the night, she suddenly got up from her seat and asked the table, "Is there anything else that I could offer you? A nice dessert wine, perhaps?" Obviously, it was a cue that she was ready to call it a night. I graciously shook my head, but another guest, an art dealer, shouted out, "That would be lovely! What do you have?"

Unbelievable! I recoiled, aghast that someone could be so insensitive to her polite signal. She, herself, was taken aback. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "I didn't think anyone would actually say yes. I'm actually very tired, but, I suppose, since I offered, I should be a proper hostess."  She went into her kitchen, brought back a bottle of dessert wine, and poured him a splash. 

It's a memory that sticks out like a sore thumb; a reminder that always made me aware of what it meant to be a guest. Guests should be as gracious as the hosts, as I was taught. My father drilled it into my head at a very early age. I used to think that he liked to impose his rules, just for the sake of it:

"Never go to a dinner party empty-handed," he would say, "Always bring something. Like a tin of cookies." Yes, Dad. (This would later become a bottle of wine or something of the like. But he would bring anything thoughtful, really. Even when visiting a neighbor, he might bring over an interesting newspaper clipping or a sack of ripe pears from our tree.)

"Don't forget to pay compliments to the host" Yes, Dad. "Even if the food isn't good, tell them that it was a wonderful meal. After all, it's never about the food."

"And send a thank you card when you get home. A handwritten one. Nice penmanship; no mistakes." I know, I know—use a pencil and a ruler to draw faint lines and erase them after the message has been written in ink. 

"Wait until the eldest person or host has taken the first bite before you start. It's rude to dig in." Yes, Dad. I've always waited! When have I not done this?

"When you put food on your plate, don't take too much. Don't be greedy. If you're still hungry after you've finished what's on your plate, only then do you take a second helping." Got it. I'm very aware of that.

"Don't slurp or eat too fast. If you're eating soup, remember to tilt the bowl and spoon the soup away from you." I know! 

"If there's one bite left, offer it to the table before taking it." Sigh.

"Oh, and if you have to use the bathroom, turn on the bathroom sink faucet." Geez! Okay, Dad!  

As a child, it felt like a lot to remember. How can I have fun if I'm thinking about all of these rules, I used to wonder. Like all of the ingredients that go into a cake batter, everything gets folded in and fully incorporated. Before you know it, it's baked into you. I like to think of myself as someone who's acutely aware of manners and etiquette, but not a total stickler. Although, admittedly, I do find myself cringing at the occasional social misstep. What can I say, like father, like daughter.