by ANNE T. DONAHUE
I AM A TERRIBLE COTTAGE GUEST. It’s not because I’m messy or disrespectful, but because I would rather be anywhere than at a cottage.
My heart belongs to hotels and glorious access to one’s own private bathroom. I will never be relaxed enough to sit calmly – smelling of lake – and I will always ask how long the hotdogs have been sitting out.
I realize this is my own problem, and not one I developed as a result of the cottages I’ve visited. From 17 to somewhere in my early twenties, I was a delightful (albeit uncomfortable) cottage guest. I washed dishes, I didn’t cram toilet paper down temperamental toilets, and while there’s no photographic proof, I swear I helped with dinner at some point, somewhere, for someone. In 2003 I refrained from complaining about the mosquitos swarming me and my bed; and in 2004, I downplayed the rash that was the telltale sign of my inevitable tango with West Nile Virus. It was summer, there were Sea-Doos, and I refused to be the friend everyone regretted inviting; even though I often just plopped down on the couch, suggesting to anybody who would listen that a movie day (despite the sun) is always an underrated activity.
And of course, all of these proved valuable lessons. First, that I’m not meant for locations that necessitate bug spray. And second, that by being a well-intentioned cottage guest, I was still one of the worst guests of all. My obvious lack of enthusiasm outweighed any and all kitchen duties I took on, and my passive-aggressive responses to suggestions that we swim or boat or suntan gave me the air of Dame Maggie Smith in Downton, inquiring as to what a weekend is. I may not have wanted to miss out, but I just shouldn’t have gone anywhere. This is the first rule of cottaging: if you aren’t fluent in nature or beaches or wherever cottages tend to be, avoid them at all costs. Or, go up for the day and book a hotel room. This way, you free yourself and your friends from having to entertain your whims of card games inside, silent reading inside, movie-watching inside, and shopping at the mall you passed 45 minutes away. This way, when they pile into the boat to watch what’s-his-name waterski, you’ll be spared from distracting what’s-his-name by endlessly offering him sunscreen.
Which is the other thing about cottages: it’s important to remain upbeat. Or social. Or any descriptor you wouldn’t assign to a surly teen, livid she’s got to spend an afternoon away from the closest suburban plaza. (See: a glimpse into my past.) For someone to invite you to their home-away-from-home is a bigger deal than most of us are willing to give credit for, especially since most cottages are remote and can’t be abandoned on a whim or without a car. To invite someone to their cottage is to say, “I am vulnerable, we are creating a memory, we are sharing time that stretches past brunch.” And it must be reciprocated with enthusiasm. With excitement. Or, at the very least, more than a shrug and comment about why there isn’t any air conditioning. (Something I think is a fair question, but one I have been told is grossly out of line.)
It also means that you pick up the slack. If the host has provided beds, blankets, towels, and the option of food or drink, it’s up to you to make the meals, share your beverages, and clean up the kitchen mess you helped create. And for me, I prefer spending my days and evenings this way. As someone who greets a forest with screaming and tears, I much prefer to make myself busy by doing literally anything that isn’t outdoor-centric. Which also works for regular parties, too: need a break from socializing? Camp out in the kitchen, washing and drying. Don’t trust anybody else to prepare food in a responsible and hygienic way? Thaw out the shrimp in the sink and prepare the vegetables yourself. And then set the table indoors, forcing everyone to come back inside to where you are in control. Plus? More importantly, doing so ensures those you’re with are under obligation to compliment you for working so hard. Especially since they were all hanging outside, playing on some type of water trampoline.
Because that’s the secret to excellent cottage guesting: doing the least will always seem like the most. Getting up to make coffee (your way a.k.a. The Best™) will make you seem considerate. Plus, sweeping and cleaning and washing and polishing will also ensure you are not the most responsible guest, but the one most deserving of praise. A factor I take into consideration every day, under every circumstance.
Just remember that regardless of how comfortable you’re urged to be, the cottage is not your home. You can’t leave towels on the floor, and you can’t waltz into the living room in a sopping-wet bathing suit as if you don’t know how expensive hardwood floors are. (And even if it’s stick-on tile: get a clue, man.) You’re an adult in another adult’s living-ish space, and if you’ve committed to fun, nature, and spending time among more people than I think make for a decent weekend, your fate is sealed: act accordingly. Bring a host gift. Splurge on the kettle chips.
Also, please avoid getting heat-stroke. You’re no less exciting for drinking a barrel of water every afternoon, and your sun hat looks great. Plus, nobody wants their weekend ruined by someone in the fetal position, crying about whether or not they’re about to perish. Or, as I like to call it: the Anne T. Donahue special.