There are a handful of authors that will achieve that elusive trick of making you laugh out loud. For me, it’s James Herriot, Bill Bryson and Susie Kelly.
I had loved her previous book “The Valley of Heaven and Hell – Cycling in the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette” where Susie takes off on her bike accompanied by her husband, retracing the fateful steps of the French Queen when she tried to escape the Revolution. She manages to weave history, travel and anecdotal references that made me laugh, think and want to go to the places she described.
As soon as I heard Susie had published a new book “Swallows and Robins, the Guests in my Garden”, about her experiences running a gîte in France, I asked her to share an excerpt with us. If you are thinking of taking in paying guests in France, you can pick up some tips, and if you already have experience running gîtes or chambres d’hôtes, you’ll probably recognize some the same guests, although none of them (I hope) will come near this one chez Susie:
Gîte Guests – The Deadly Sin
During the five years we ran our gîtes we were privileged to welcome nearly 300 guests, who were in general the nicest people you could hope to meet. I suppose the law of averages says out of so many, we were bound to have one certifiable maniac.
“A taxi pulls up, and out clambers a large ungainly woman carrying a couple of plastic shopping bags. She ignores my outstretched hand, and kicks the cat who is walking beside me.
“Shoo!” she bellows at the astonished animal, which is used to being spoilt and fussed over by guests. I ask if she doesn’t have any luggage, and she replies that she has all she needs for her stay, which is to give her a chance to “express her creativity.”
Does she have plenty of food, I ask, mentioning that the nearest shops are nearly six miles away and there’s no public transport.
“Do you not go into town yourself?” she asks. I can’t identify her accent, it’s guttural with sharp corners. I say I’ll be happy to take her shopping with me tomorrow. By then I expect she’ll be in a better mood.
But when I knock next morning she opens the door with a scowl. Pointedly ignoring the open front passenger door of my car, she climbs into the back and buries her face in a magazine. We drive in silence to the shops, and all the way home.
Then she makes me jump, shouting “Do you think it’s right to keep all these damned animals when people are coming here on holiday? Don’t you know they’re full of diseases?”
Before I can reply she takes her shopping and slams back into Pissenlit. I’m shocked to find that I dislike her so intensely I want to punch her in the face. She is making me feel nervous, and I am glad that there are people staying in Lavande. For the week she is here the only sounds I hear are of her shouting at birds in the garden, and throwing stones at the cats, who soon learn to keep out of range. Early on Saturday morning, a taxi arrives. She climbs in and the vehicle disappears down the lane.
From the open door of Pissenlit I can hear water running. When I step inside, I’m stunned. It looks as if the only thing that hasn’t been vandalised is the welcome pack I had left, lying in the middle of the kitchen floor, untouched. I run up the stairs to the bathroom. The plug is in, and both taps turned on full. The water is half-way to the top. I pull the plug and turn off the taps. Then I go from room to room, my heart racing.
In the bedroom the curtains are hanging down from their rails, the carpet kicked into the corner, red wine staining the bed linen and mattress. Two light switches have been levered off the wall exposing the wires.
An open bottle of cooking oil lies on its side leaking all over the kitchen surface and running down into the drawers and over the floor. Everywhere is covered with greasy crockery and cutlery, and food left-overs. Tins and cartons are scattered on the floor. The futon is covered with grease stains. A table lamp is smashed, books thrown on the floor, a pair of wooden salad servers broken in half. On the bedroom walls are graphically violent charcoal sketches. Even the pillow cases have charcoal smears all over them. And it will be a fortnight before, following remarks from guests about smells and bluebottles, I discover a piece of raw meat wedged behind a pipe under the sink.
This is one of those rare occasions I feel the need for alcohol, and I knock back a couple of vodka tonics and start trying to sort out the mess. Armed with bin bags, buckets of hot water, kitchen roll and an array of cleaning products, I begin frantically to clear up, soaking up grease and mopping at the stained mattress, then drying it with a hair drier.
Scrubbing the sketches off the walls results in grey smudges, so I slap a thick coat of emulsion over them. It should just about be dry when the next guests arrive. I spray the rooms, open the windows wide and put on an electric fan to get the paint smell out.”
Despite all that, our mad visitor caused me less stress than those people who either arrived hours earlier, or left hours later than our advertised checking-in/out times. There was nothing I found more traumatic than not having the gîtes ready and myself looking relaxed and welcoming. Scarlet faced, sweat-streaked and clutching a bucket and mop wasn’t my best look. So whether you’re arriving or departing, be kind and give your hosts the time they need to prepare the welcome new guests deserve.
•An adapted extract from Swallows and Robins, the Guests in my Garden by Susie Kelly
Susie Kelly was born in grey post-war London, and spent much of her childhood and young adulthood in the beautiful country of Kenya. She now lives in south-west France with a menagerie of assorted animals, and is passionate about animal welfare. Her first book “Best Foot Forward” was published by Transworld Publishers in 2003, followed by “Two Steps Backward”, “A Perfect Circle”, “Travels with Tinkerbelle” and “Swallows and Robins, the Guests in my Garden.” Susie has recently published her memoires “I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry” about growing up in Kenya.