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Sweet Hospitality

by on August 21, 2019 5:00 AM

In my next life I’m going to be a bed tester.

I have slept in 15 beds this summer and I’m not done yet. By the end of September, I may sleep in as many as eight more. 

The beds have all been comfortable (well, except for the two nights I spent in my sleeping bag on a rock in Yosemite National Park), the situations somewhat less so. 

The problem has not been with my hosts, whose hospitality has been wholehearted, even lavish. The problem is with me, the guest. 

It’s always a little awkward staying with other people, isn’t it? Hospitality is such an exalted value in our culture – in most cultures – that it’s rarely obvious when your host is going through the “mi casa es tu casa” motions while secretly counting the hours, minutes and seconds until you shoulder your overnight bag and give them back their lives.

The tension between welcoming with open arms and grudgingly sharing your space with others finds its expression in the saying that houseguests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. In other words, you’re welcome to stay, but you need to take care not to overstay.

I spent six days with friends in California in July, showering twice a day to keep the fish smell at bay.

Showering can be one of the problems. If you’re sharing a bathroom with your host, you worry that you’re occupying it at exactly the moment when they intended to occupy it, maybe even when they were desperate to occupy it. A person who is desperate to use the bathroom can be forgiven for resenting the person who aced them out.  

Strange bathrooms pose other challenges, unrelated to hospitality issues: I once spent 15 minutes in a tub trying to switch from bath to shower. And I have endured both frigid and scalding body-washing experiences because I couldn’t figure out how to regulate the water temperature. 

This problem has been exacerbated by my increasingly blurry vision. And if I can’t read the temperature gauge on the tap, I also can’t read the labels on the shampoo, conditioner and body-wash bottles. If I ruled the world, the manufacturers of such products would be required to identify their wares in large type. 

Then there are the kitchen issues. I’m an early riser, which means I have spent inordinate amounts of time hunting for coffee filters, sussing out unfamiliar coffeemakers and fretting about whether to forage for breakfast or wait for my hosts. 

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who’s invited you to make yourself at home would begrudge you a splash of milk for your coffee or a bit of bread and jam, but with any but the closest friends, opening the fridge or rummaging through the cupboard can feel like a trespass, especially if your host catches you in the act.

Some people avoid all this awkwardness altogether by always staying in hotels, though the primary consideration here, I suspect, isn’t their hosts’ need for privacy, but their own. That, and an understandable dread of being thought a mooch.

My response to all this squeamishness about sharing space is to consider how spoiled so many of us are compared to Harris and Jenny Levine. The Levines came to the United States from Poland in 1890. Soon after, they settled into an apartment at 97 Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The apartment, now part of the Tenement Museum, consisted of three rooms that measured a total of 325 square feet.

Harris and Jenny lived there with five kids. They converted the front room into a little garment factory and hired three workers. That’s 10 people occupying a space that was about the size of two parking spaces, according to a website called “The Measure of Things.”

I figure if the Levines could cram that many people into that tiny space, surely those of us who have as many bedrooms as people in the family, or as many bathrooms as bedrooms, can stand to share our relatively palatial living quarters with houseguests for a day or two or even three, fishy odor and all.

If you’re wondering why I’m doing all this bed testing this summer, I assure you, it isn’t because I was evicted from my house. It’s because, in addition to the usual summer travel for business (conferences) and pleasure that academic life affords, I’m about to spend the coming academic year teaching and writing in Greece. So my wife and I have temporarily vacated our home in State College and have been on what we’ve called a farewell tour of friends and relations on the East and West Coasts. 

The visits have been delightful, and I hope all our hosts will allow us to return the favor by visiting us in Greece. Before we go though, I still have one or two openings on my calendar at the end of September, so if you need your beds tested, just let me know. You’re hiring an expert.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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