Read Roberta's reflections on the Bar Harbor bed and breakfast experience. The following items are included in the forthcoming collection by Roberta Chester called “Be My Guest: The Inside Story of a B & B in Maine.”
“Everything I learned, I learned at the B & B... almost”
A bed and breakfast can provide some interesting lessons as to the nature of human nature. Observing a group of assorted strangers around our big dining room table would not provide these insights if our guests were separated, seated at small tables as couples whose sole contact was with each other. Consequently, it is fascinating to watch the interaction among as many as 16 people from a variety of places and backgrounds who’ve never met before and who are suddenly in close proximity rubbing elbows, toasting their bagels and waiting a turn at the coffee urn.
Lesson #1. SMALL TALK:
After years of my somewhat bemused observation, I can state with some authority that we human beings are not dissimilar to our four legged friends when meeting each other for the first time. We actually “sniff each other out,” not in the literal sense (no pun intended), but by way of conversation that is totally innocuous. The weather is always a safe, non- threatening subject and never fails to elicit some equally safe response. Our wide dining room windows provide the perfect view for this subject, and whether it is brilliantly sunny or totally dreary or whether there is a nor’easter brewing, the subject of the weather is a perfect opening, eliciting a safe reply from even the most reticent.
Once the atmosphere appears non-threatening, by an unspoken, tacit agreement, the conversation can progress to a more personal level while still within the totally non-threatening range. Questions like where are you from and how long are you staying and is this your first time in Bar Harbor easily follow from statements about the weather. Occasionally one couple will discover that they are sitting next to folks from whom they live just a few blocks away, at which point they will acknowledge that yes they recognize each other from the same shops they both frequent. Or, they have cousins who live in the same town or their children went to the same camp, proving once again that there really are, at most, only six degrees of separation.
Usually, by the second day when they seem to be exponentially more familiar with each other, first-time visitors to Bar Harbor feel comfortable enough to ask our returning guests for suggestions about hikes and other activities. The atmosphere is not nearly as guarded and they smile at each other and actually greet each other warmly, now that they are sufficiently reassured that the guy in the room next to theirs is not Jack the Ripper.
However, even on day two, definitely off limits are questions relating to the nature of relationships (e.g. Is this your wife you are with?), statements indicating some political affiliation, negativity about people and places. To use a metaphor, it is all pretty much like white bread or “pareve,” meaning non-descript. Sometimes, though, folks sitting next to or across from each other find they have common interests and what follows is a friendship that extends beyond their vacation.
While I am in the kitchen with my ears tuned to the dining room, I am always delighted when I hear lively conversation and even more so when I hear laughter. That is a sign that someone out there is an extrovert, the kind of people-person who can’t abide the silence, (the conversational analogue of a vacuum) and is compelled to liven things up.
Occasionally, but thankfully not frequently, folks can meet each other at the breakfast table for several days and the ice never thaws. That’s when I know the situation needs an assist by way of my presence. I have the benefit of knowing just a little bit about each of them from our initial correspondence and a short conversation upon their arrival. I can ask about the restaurant I recommended and hope they were satisfied. Or I can address the group as a whole asking for recommendations. Or I can assume they are so enjoying our Shore Path breakfast that they prefer not to dilute that pleasure in idle conversation and small talk.
Lesson #2. FUNDAMENTAL INEQUALITY:
Having made so many blueberry muffins that I can repeat the recipe in my sleep (It beats counting sheep.), I have the luxury of letting my mind wander without forgetting the baking powder. Even if I were obsessively compelled to make sure that every scoop of batter had the same number of blueberries, it would be impossible. Through no fault of mine it just happens that one muffin might just have one berry while another is just bursting with Maine’s signature fruit. This inevitable inequality is totally unpredictable and completely arbitrary; if I try to create a more equitable distribution, it is hard to avoid spilling batter in between the muffin tins and the result is a mess, not to mention that it would take hours , at the end of which I would be certifiable.
So I’ve been thinking that even if theoretically I am in control of the ratio of batter to blueberries, I am not really the mistress of this distribution. If blueberry muffins have an analogue in the human sphere, can we really maintain that “all men are created equal?” All men (and all women), like all muffins, are entitled to the same gifts (or “blueberries”), but regardless of whether they emerge from the womb or from the oven they have not been created equal. Any given baby has more less gifts just as each muffin has either more or less than its share of berries. I would agree that they are entitled to the same inalienable rights, but are all men created equal? I humbly disagree.
Lesson #3. GEOGRAPHICAL GENERALIZATIONS:
Comparisons may be odious and generalization and stereotyping even more so, but it is hard to resist indulging in this temptation in a B & B when people from places far and wide can all too easily betray certain regional and geographic differences.
On the national level, the easiest guests by far are those from the Midwest. Of all those states, the folks from Minnesota are without doubt the most easygoing. But people from Missouri, Michigan and Iowa are also easy to please. I would put folks from North and South Dakota in this category, but we’ve had very few from those states. I do remember one couple from a town in South Dakota with 110 people; those guys were pretty easygoing. In this rough hierarchy of easygoing guests, Texans are next, followed by Southerners who are always very polite even if they aren’t totally pleased.
Not that they are hard to please but folks from the northeast (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts) are just not as easygoing. They are far more likely to immediately request the key to the room than guests who live in Iowa or Wisconsin. The guests from New Hampshire and Maine feel like family, as if we share certain experiences like our survival in bitterly cold weather and a certain isolation from living with more trees than people.
The English are also wonderful guests who are not only easygoing and undemanding, but also seem somewhat stoic as if they don’t flinch from a bit of deprivation; they would be the least dismayed by having to share a bathroom with other guests if they had to Of the Europeans, the Italians have tremendous joie de vivre ; I am especially grateful to them for teaching me how to make good, strong coffee.
Having guests from throughout the US as well as so many place from around the globe has taught me a respect for the subtleties of language, as well as the nuances involved in verbal communication, even when speaking to English speakers. I remember our mutual frustration when my English guests were making a reservation for themselves and their 23 year old daughter. I kept assuring them that I had a cot for their daughter in their room; it took some time before I realized that “cot” for the English means “crib.”
Lesson#4. ON BEING NICE:
After visiting with me at the B & B, a friend of longstanding commented that the hardest part of my job (at least from her perspective) was having to be “nice.” Having known her for years and having been around her in numerous situations, in which it was obvious that she was definitely not a people person, I could understand her point of view.
Rare occasions notwithstanding, I am fortunate that I find it easier to be nice than otherwise. Given the laws of probability, I have had guests who have tried my patience, folks who just seem unhappy from the get-go and impossible to please, but thankfully they are the exception.
Our guests are already happy when they arrive at the front door. The trip is always invariably longer than they thought it would be, and if they are coming from a distance and arriving after dark, they are relieved to have finally arrived with solid ground under their feet. If they arrive at night, for much of the trip from Bangor the road is not only dark (interrupted by one or two little oases of lights) but the view to their left, not at all very comforting, is the deep black space of the ocean. They are delighted to find an open door and a friendly smile from someone who knows just how difficult that drive can be. And they especially appreciate the best and closest dinner suggestion for the restaurant they can get to by foot. These are primal needs and in the B & B business they are gratefully received when they are graciously given.
These days, the expression “people pleaser” is definitely a pejorative, but aiming to please is a necessity in this business. Even if moments before I dropped a full jar of honey on the kitchen floor, threw away my best knife by mistake, or the washing machine just gave out, I still have to smile at the guests who’ve newly arrived as if life at the Shore Path Cottage is a piece of cake.
Lesson #5. LIFE IS FATAL BUT IT ISN’T SERIOUS:
I first heard this expression in the ancient history days of the Shore Path Cottage when the kids lived in the rooms that years later would be occupied by guests. Those days, pre computers, internet, cell phones, mobile apps and all the wizardry of today’s telecommunications, having a B & B was barely a twinkle in my eye.
Considering the possibility of having a B & B (or at least one room for that purpose), however, I proceeded with the ill-advised idea of housing two young guys who would do carpentry and odd jobs in exchange for room and board. Both 21, one, an Israeli, was the son of a friend of a friend; the other was Kuwaiti, the brother of my daughter’s college roommate. I was entertaining what would prove to be pie in the sky possibilities of fixing the house and doing my little bit to foster peace in the Middle East.
The Israeli arrived with a backpack and a motorcycle that chewed up the asphalt in the driveway. His English was minimal, but he was quite charming and was eager to get into town and meet the local lovelies. His hands-on skills with my tools were not obvious, but it seemed he’d be much more adept making an impression with the girls in town. The Kuwaiti came several days later, preceded by a set of luxurious leather luggage we were sure had been delivered to us by mistake. His English accent, a product of years in a London boarding school, was quite impressive. I had to admit that between the lothario and the intellectual, I’d be lucky if they could distinguish between a wrench and a hammer.
Time and space do not allow for a blow–by-blow description of the events of that summer, but sometime in July when I couldn’t decide which of the two was more rogue or rascal, my youngest daughter contracted septic arthritis. After a dreadful week when it was finally diagnosed, we traveled by ambulance to Bangor where, except for brief visits home for a change of laundry, she and I were together for seven weeks on the pediatric floor of the hospital. I had to ask what the weather was like that summer, but I had gained a respect for antibiotics and a first hand education in the dangers of staph infections.
By the time I returned with my daughter, thankfully recovered, the two guys were up to their own devices; the Israeli was entertaining the local girls in the tree house, (furnished with my best linens and dangerously electrified), that he had built for my children. The Kuwaiti had emptied the liquor cabinet and read all the Great Books collection in the library. By that time, the summer was over and I was happy to see them go.
The Kuwaiti is the one who told me “life is fatal but it isn’t serious.” I have forgotten the occasion, but I have always remembered what he said. In pre-computer days, I assumed that it was a quote he acquired by virtue of his voracious reading. I have since googled the expression?finding many wonderful pithy maxims about life?but that one seems to be original. In the years since that unforgettable summer, I’ve survived many disasters, including acts of nature, unethical carpenters, plumbing mishaps, powder post beetles, and the usual travails with the children. I’ve learned that in the vast majority of those “catastrophes,” I’ve been able to laugh in retrospect, though at the time they were all a colossal pain in the neck. So before life becomes fatal, I’ve learned it isn’t serious….
- Roberta Chester, 2013