Potato and onion

Tonight my airbnb guest delighted me. She surprised and delighted me. I am surprised at myself for being so delighted. And then I’m not. It’s perfectly reasonable that I should be delighted, I say to myself. It isn’t every day — in fact it has never happened before — that a guest asks for potato and onion.

That’s right. She asked for potato and onion. They were out to dinner. I got a text. “Keswick Hall is beautiful,” Erika wrote. “Thanks for the recommendation … one question, do you happen to have a potato and onion? Or is there a little grocery store nearby that will be open after dinner?” I had sent them to Keswick Hall because you can bring your dog to dinner there (in the part of the hotel they call Villa Crawford), and these guests have a little dog. They seemed quite attached to their dog, Chuleta is her name, plus the Villa has amazing parmesan truffle fries, and it is worth the trip just for that. I was watching a movie when the text came in, and I did not look at it right away. It was a good movie. Then I had to get up anyway, so I paused the movie and looked at the message. Do you happen to have a potato and onion?

Perhaps I should explain two things.

One: Assuming I have chickens (which I didn’t for a while last summer, so this is not to be taken for granted), there will always be eggs waiting in the fridge for my guests. I have also taken to leaving a stick of butter because an egg fried in butter with a little salt and pepper is pretty close to perfection in food as far as I’m concerned, though I know some people prefer olive oil, and to each his own. This is available as well, standing where a bottle of olive oil should stand, just behind one of the gas burners, ready should you need it.

When these guests arrived this afternoon, I explained about the wifi and the stairs and the eggs in the fridge. In response to my eggs statement, Alex said, “Is there oil?” I smiled, feeling my heart soften (he’s planning breakfast, I said to myself, I like these people). Why, you may ask, is it significant that they are planning breakfast? Why does that matter? What does it say about them? It says they cook. Not everyone does. Many cannot. Or don’t have time. Or cannot be bothered. These people would take time to make their own breakfast.

Alex kept going. “I’m excited about your eggs. I guess they are really fresh.” Oh, such welcome words. “You can’t find fresher,” I say. “I hope you’ll enjoy them.” Then I said the rest of what I ordinarily say about letting me know if you forgot anything or if you need anything and to have a nice night and enjoy yourselves. And off they went to dinner.

Two: It is a rare day under the sun that there are no potatoes or onions in my pantry. Anyone who knows me will verify this truth. I keep them in baskets so they can get air. I use them frequently. I love them. I cook them in numerous ways, but most often I slice up an onion, saute it in olive oil, and add thinly sliced potatoes (skins on) and salt and pepper. The onion gets soft and sweet and a little brown as the flame does its work, and the potato crisps up just a bit as it, too, softens to peak doneness. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, this works for me. Simple and delicious.

Now you see why I am delighted. This man is not only going to cook eggs for breakfast, he is going to fry up potatoes and onion as well. Who does this?

When guests come, when you first meet them, you don’t know what’s coming. You can get an inkling, and you may or may not be right. I had a good feeling about Alex and Erika and Valerie when Alex asked about the oil. Now I will never forget them.

I know it’s not usual for someone to get excited about potatoes and onion. I know I am unusual in that way, and perhaps I will talk about my unusualness another time. Tonight I’m just smiling. Oil. Potato. Onion. And more.

Truly it’s a magical night. In the distance, I hear fireworks – must be a wedding at Keswick Hall. All by itself, that would add to the potatoes and onion delight. But as I write tonight, I am facing the new windows Bradley put in for me a month or so ago. It’s May, one year since another very special guest left me a note saying he had woken to a ballet of fireflies, and he had never seen real fireflies before. I wrote about this in my ‘People love surprises’ post. A year ago, I had questioned and then dismissed whether or not those were really fireflies, as I myself had been used to seeing them in August but not in May. But if he says he saw fireflies, he saw fireflies, and far be it from me to question that. Tonight, guess what is dancing on my windowpane. — fireflies

How can it be? In one night: Oil. Potato. Onion. Fireworks. Fireflies! 

People love surprises

On the other hand (and there is always another hand), some surprises are good and should be reserved for the wow-factor. This is another way of saying Never underestimate the power of magic. In the spring of 2015 a special guest, a delightful man named Rick, came to Golden Hill because he needed a place to stay one night. Rick is an established, accomplished, highly regarded trainer in the high-end hospitality industry. I admit I was a little nervous and that I probably (ok, definitely) paid even more attention than usual to the way I prepared the cottage for him.

When he arrived, I gave him the brief (but hopefully thorough) orientation that I usually give, then said good night. It had been a long day. I knew I would not see him again until he might return to Virginia another time in the future, as he was leaving by taxi for the airport somewhere around 4 a.m. Any feedback I would get, if he chose to leave it, would be in written form. Sure enough, a note waited for me (on his personalized note card, no less!), propped up on a little toy dog he also left behind. He did not note, as many do, Bradley’s fabulous job on the cottage itself, or the peacefulness of the wooded setting, its proximity to local venues, the chickens, the garden, the architecture. Instead, he wrote:  

In the middle of the night, I awoke to a ballet of light. Four fireflies were shining bright, darting back and forth. It was a magic and wondrous moment. I’ve never seen real fireflies before. Your Golden Hill is enchanting on so many levels. Thank you for opening up your home to me!

Did I plan the fireflies? Would that I could. Do I even think they were fireflies? It was May in Virginia — one has reason to doubt. Does it matter if I planned this light show or that whatever he saw could be verified? Not in the least. If he says he saw fireflies and was enchanted by them, I will just smile and think (and probably say out loud, even to myself): How delightful!

Some things we can’t explain. They strike a chord within us deeply and move us to a sense of wonder and thrill. That thrill is compounded by the understanding that we — we who also deal with much that is not so wondrous in this life — get to experience a truly striking moment, a moment unlike any other, a moment with some confluence of factors that create a unique image that may forever be part of the memory bank we hold dear. We have the honor and privilege of being in that place at that time with these various pieces all coming together for this one amazing experience. These are the you-can’t-believe-what-happened-at-that-very-moment images, and they are special not only because we did not plan them, but also because they are so amazing.

Is it any wonder that the value of experience is gaining ground compared to the value of goods? We see it in gift-giving as well — instead of buying a tangible item, people are buying someone a dinner, an overnight stay, a horseback ride through vineyards, a day pass at the local resort or theme park, even an ice cream cone. Tangible items are still very nice, and it is hard to imagine the day when a lovely bouquet of flowers or exceptional piece of artwork or a soft or sparkly anything will not be gratefully received (I, for one, am happy to accept any of the above). Needless to say, the flowers could have been gathered roadside, the artwork drawn by a precious grandchild and the soft or sparkly anything coming from commonplace sources. Certainly monetary value is far less important than the heart from which the gift comes. But sooner or later, “stuff” needs to find a tangible place to be displayed or stored. Experiences create memories, intangible images, moments in time, and in the end, though images of them may be stored on the memory cards in our phones and cameras, they live in our minds, not on a shelf.

Within the experience, there is all manner of room for surprises — even when the basic elements are known ahead of time. Those of us who create experiences do so using what we have to work with, in my case a sweet cottage, a peaceful and outdoorsy setting, a warm welcome, fresh cookies, a handwritten note. There is a  downside when guests mention these things in reviews. Part of me wishes the cookies and notes and ambiance could be surprises for everyone; I hope they are never expectations. On the other hand, guests can read as much as they want about a place and hosts can prepare every detail prior to arrival, but until you are there for real, written descriptions and photos are merely representations on a screen. Words and images are hard pressed to stand in for the majesty of the tall trees towering and perhaps swaying above, the sound of clucking hens or rustling leaves in the background and the taste of fresh strawberries out of my garden if you are lucky enough to be here in late May/early June!

Even if you know something is coming, the real thing eclipses the representation any day. Speaking of eclipses, if you are expecting one because you read about it or someone told you it was coming, and you stepped outside and looked up into the sky at the very moment when the eclipse was taking place and there was no cloud cover so you could actually see it, you are bound to be awestruck. Such a phenomenal sight very well may live in your memory forever. But if you somehow missed all the memos and randomly walked outside on that very clear night and happened to look up, imagine your reaction. You can research all you want. Prepare all you want. Surprises have a mind of their own.

And I like to allow for that. You may have noticed that there are a lot of windows on the back wall of the cottage. Here’s what it looks like from the back (thanks, again, Rob).

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In the wintertime, from inside the cozy space, you can see the full range of the Southwest Mountains. It’s pretty much an entire wall of windows. Amazing. This photo gives you some idea of that view.

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Every one of the windows was custom made by Bradley, by the way – did I mention that earlier? With such a phenomenal asset as this, you might think I’d want to showcase it on the web site. Unlike the stairs, however, which would be a bad surprise if guests did not know about them ahead of time, I chose not to include any images of the back wall. I think it better to save some good surprises for the moment of arrival. People walk in and invariably utter some form of Wow… as they take it in. If they arrive after dark, I know that the wow moment will happen in the morning, and will be equally impressive. Some things are best in real time, and you have to let them present themselves in their own glory.

The very nature of a surprise means that you cannot predict what or when or how it might strike your guests. You can lament the rain that came over their very special weekend and come to find out that their favorite part was listening to what soft rain sounds like when it falls on a metal roof. You can put three teddy bears on the bed, thinking their little children will snuggle with them, and instead the girl finds the one you forgot you put upstairs on a shelf. This happened.

A family with two sons and one daughter came. I did put the three teddy bears on the bed. I also placed the toy chicken coop that Beth made with its two stuffed chickens and its straw and wooden eggs where the children would be sure to find it. But I forgot about the bear on the shelf upstairs who now, thanks to Brianna, has a name: Mrs. Teaberry. The handwritten note this little girl left behind is among those I cherish.

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When surprises are in the picture, there are often multiple surprises going on. The fireflies surprised Rick, but then he surprised me with his description of the experience and left a stuffed toy behind! The upstairs bear surprised Brianna, but she surprised me with her sweet note.

As a host, I must say that one of the nicest surprises is to find a handwritten note in the cottage after guests have left. Some people even send them in the mail after they get back home. I am among those who think that a handwritten, personalized note is among the simple delights of this world. The uniqueness of the handwriting reflects the human hand that wrote it. The paper has its own character too — you can’t imagine how many people seemingly brought note cards with them in order to leave a note. Such lovely designs, and the paper itself by its weight and color and texture speaks to the individual who chose it. Then there is the text, every word chosen, whether carefully or quickly, comprises a different and equally touching message every single time.

I keep these handwritten notes in a notebook on the coffee table. Recently, Keith and Anna, on their honeymoon at the cottage, said to me that they had been looking through it and realized by reading the notes that some friends of theirs had stayed at the cottage as well.

“Yes, Adam and Allie were here. I’d know Allie’s handwriting anywhere,” Anna said.

“You know Adam?” I said. “What a coincidence! Adam and Lincoln went to school together at the University of Richmond.”

“Adam and Allie were at our wedding! You’re Lincoln’s mom?!” Surprise!

See? People love surprises! I love surprises! Not long ago Daniel and Mattie came to stay, a delightful couple. Daniel admired Bradley’s woodwork, so I asked him if he too were a woodworker. “No,” he said, “I’m an artist.” I did not pursue that topic, though now I wish I had. Imagine my surprise when I came into the cottage in the afternoon after they left, and I found that Daniel had taken the time to draw the cottage and left it as a thank you to me. Trust me, this drawing could not be more perfect. He even put his own dog (Cali) and his truck in the drawing. Thank you, Daniel!

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