Are you a guest or a host? It’s my loose theory that we’re basically one or the other at heart. Ask yourself this, which makes you more anxious – arriving at a party or throwing one? For me, it’s the latter. Even (especially) on my birthday.
Last year, I finally clambered on to the housing ladder. The morning I picked up the keys to my flat – a baking hot Friday in July – my glee was off the scale. I lay down, star-shaped, on the empty living room floor and daydreamed of the furniture and fun I’d fill my new home with.
Finally I could have people “over to mine” and start paying back the endless hospitality I owe friends – generous folk who think nothing of inviting me round for a school-night dinner or a lovely, lazy Sunday lunch.
The thing is, an entire year later, I can count the number of pals I’ve had through the door on one hand. A hand and a half at most.
Turns out being a homeowner changes nothing. I’m still a rubbish host.
It’s not that I don’t want to have you round – in fact, you’re welcome to pop in anytime, unannounced. I just don’t really invite anyone. It feels like a lot to ask: I live off the tube map; the bus from the station is a bit irregular; my flat is tiny; and everyone knows I can’t cook. Wouldn’t it be easier if I came to yours?
I’ll travel anywhere if you ask me. One Saturday this summer, I managed the full social compass of Hampstead to Romford to Chiswick to Brixton. Don’t believe everything Taylor Swift sings. If you’re a Londoner, you’ll know that’s madness. But somehow being a guest energises and relaxes me in equal measure.
Some might say, nice for you, Nancy, you’re not the one catering and keeping everyone happy. Except that ‘guest types’ also have important duties to attend to – I promise to bring goodies and gossip, play with your kids, wash up after dinner, and chat to strangers and outliers at any social event.
When I’m in hosting mode, that sense of responsibility morphs into anxiety. I scan the room for signs of hunger, discomfort or boredom. I start talking and can’t stop. I worry someone, anyone, is feeling left out; that the gathering isn’t living up to people’s expectations (despite not having any when I’m the guest).
Even my BFF has only been round a handful of times – and that’s my fault. She moved in with her boyfriend when I got my place and they have me over all the time. Cakes. Hugs. She’s a brilliant host! Come to think of it, when we lived together, we’d mostly hang out in her room, too. I was happy to loll about for hours. If she wandered into mine, I’d often feel awkward.
Solo living, while a luxury, is a constant negotiation. And you have to let people in.
Am I the only one? In pub psychology terms, I’m an extrovert with a strong side of introversion. I love being out and about and busy. I also love living by myself – shutting the front door behind me after a long day at work or night in said pub.
So, when even my siblings questioned whether my ‘new flat’ was a complete fiction, I invited my little brother and girlfriend round one weekend. This, a couple who have friends and family over for a roast every other week. Feeding your guests is hosting 101 but – as discussed – cooking stresses me out, so I bought some cheese and wine. And crisps. Always buy crisps.
They arrived at 4pm, declared the flat gorgeous and settled down on the sofa. Three hours later, showing no signs of leaving, someone ordered Thai takeaway and I opened the fizz that’s been in my fridge since I moved in. It was 11 when they finally called an Uber and sent cheery messages all the way home. I’d done it! Seven hours of hosting. And my flat felt more homely for having them there.
A coda: last month, we all went on holiday to Cornwall. My brother and his girlfriend, my friend and her boyfriend, and me. My parents started the week with us, too, but when they left, I became de facto host and felt the panic rising. Was everybody having fun? Did they even like each other? It took walking down to the beach, sitting on a bench and repeating a silent mantra out to sea – “I am not responsible for everyone’s enjoyment”– to calm down.
When I arrived back at the cottage, they were all chatting in the kitchen. Someone had made G&Ts and handed me a glass. I sat down, took a sip.