I showed up with a giant basket of gourmet foods from my favorite international market. It was covered in cellophane (the classy kind), neatly tied up with a red satin bow. My other hand carried a sweaty bottle of champagne and a card — letterpress, of course. It looked as if I were dropping in for a visit with the first lady. Instead, I was arriving to stay with friends who invited me to their vacation home for the weekend.
As soon as the door opened, I immediately panicked. What if the gift basket contained the wrong kind of Stilton? Had the MarieBelle artisanal chocolate ganaches melted from being unrefrigerated for too long? Did my breath still smell like the Quarter Pounder I inhaled at the rest stop?
I’ve known this anxiety before. It happens every time friends invite me to their vacation homes.
I am among the secondhomeless.
I have friends who are fortunate enough to own lovely vacation homes, and they generously invite me to stay over. To have people in my life who can stomach me for a few days and allow me to sleep on their Sferra sheets is a blessing. But there is a heavy burden that comes with being secondhomeless. I have no second home for them to visit, no way to reciprocate their generosity. Unless the ghost of Ed McMahon floats up to my door with one of those giant checks, there is no vacation home in my near future.
The best I can do is invite them over to my place and serve them salsa and slightly stale chips, which may or may not contain traces of cat hair. I can’t even invite them to stay the night, unless they’re content to sleep in the guest room, which in my case is also the living room, except with an air mattress on the floor.
Before all of you Judgmental Judys crush me in your verbal trash compactors for having the gall to publicly whine about this, let me add an important disclaimer: I am extremely grateful that I have a home at all.
I’m well aware that secondhomelessness strikes only the entitled and neurotic. But the fact is it’s on the rise in this country, so you’ll be hearing more about it as the economy continues to wake from its slumber.
According to the National Association of Realtors, vacation home sales rose 57 percent last year over 2013, to 1.3 million. That, my friends, translates into a pretty steep increase in invitations to visit these second homes.
“You are neurotic,” etiquette expert Diane Gottsman told me in the kindest manner possible when I described my curse of secondhomelessness. “It sounds like you’re bringing a guilt basket, not a gift basket. When people are in doubt, they tend to overspend. You can be a good guest without blowing your budget.”
That’s easy for Gottsman to say. She doesn’t have a second-home-owning friend who wakes up early every morning to make blueberry buckle for his guests. I didn’t even know what blueberry buckle was until I started staying with this lovely couple.
When I receive an invite, I’m excited — and then begin to fret about the details while stress-eating frosted cinnamon Pop-Tarts.
The first decision is choosing the appropriate number of days for a stay. My friends are usually open with invitations, so I keep in mind the Benjamin Franklin quote about guests, like fish, beginning to smell after three days. If Ben is to be trusted, then a weekend stay is good. But should I arrive Friday night or Saturday morning?
I once visited friends in Puerto Rico and made the bold decision to stay for four days. When a snowstorm hit Boston on my departure day and my flight was canceled, I received looks from my hosts that were as icy as the winds back home. Or maybe that was in my imagination. Lesson learned.
After the length of stay is determined, it’s time to think about a gift.
A bottle of wine seems insufficient for a weekend stay. Thus begins the secondhomeless hunt for the perfect present. An expensive candle? A Marimekko platter? How about a subtle-yet-tasteful throw pillow? I’m usually so overwrought with guilt that I buy too much. Stupid! Now I look desperate.
“It doesn’t have to be tit-for-tat,” Gottsmansaid, attempting again to calm me down. “They are asking you because they value your friendship.”
The secondhomeless must also navigate the choppy waters of social graces. Do I try to spend as much time as possible with my hosts? Or perhaps they want quality time alone with other second-home-owning friends to lament how their guests are using too much of their Molton Brown hand moisturizer? At least those are the conversations that I imagine are taking place.
Meals are another minefield. If the hosts decide to cook at home, I volunteer to go to the grocery store, and then peel, chop, or grate anything in sight. Other times I’ll offer to make dessert — but oh, the pressure. It once made me so clutzy I burned my arm as I rushed a batch of molasses clove cookies out of the oven. The cookie sheet burn left a scar, marking me secondhomeless like a steer branded by a cowboy.
I then insist on washing the dishes, cleaning the counters, and sweeping up any stray sand that may have come from the beach. If there were a can of lemon Pledge, a vacuum cleaner, and a box of Tide in sight, I’d probably transform into Mr. Belvedere.
Meals out? I play quick draw with my credit card so it hits the table before my hosts have a chance to touch their plastic.
“Your host shouldn’t, and probably doesn’t, assume that you’re going to pay for every meal just because they’ve invited you to stay over,” said Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of manners maven Emily Post, and author and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast.
Post then dropped a bit of information that truly shocked me.
“Only take them out to dinner if you didn’t show up with a gift. You only need one real gift,” she said — as I inwardly chided myself for being such a clueless dolt. “And make sure to send them a thank you card after your stay.”
A new twist came earlier this summer when I was visiting vacation-home-owning friends on the Cape. Another friend offered to take us sailing on his boat. It sounded great, but while I was out on the ocean looking at seals in the distance, I felt distracted and then it hit me: Not only am I secondhomeless, I’m firstboatless.
Please pardon me for a moment. I need to call back the etiquette experts to determine the proper protocol for reciprocating a boating invitation. And need a few more boxes of Pop-Tarts.Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.