What do you do when your weekend away comes with a side of uncomfortable conversation?
The idea of “polite dinner conversation” is well known, but what about breakfast? Bed and breakfasts offer a welcome intimacy and familiarity, especially when compared with the relatively impersonal experience of staying at a large hotel. But it can be tricky to balance the opinions and idiosyncrasies of complete strangers who become temporary companions. And it can get awkward, quickly.
Some travellers report uncomfortable moments with either their hosts or fellow guests—often because of political or social differences. Lindsay Burgess, who lives in Montreal, recently stayed at a B&B with a “no Trump talk” rule, the owners perhaps shrewdly surmising that any references to the president can be an expedited route to using muffins as projectiles. While meeting new people and lively political debate are important, these stories demonstrate that hell can indeed be other people—especially at breakfast.
Julia Buckley, who lives London, was visiting Denver to do some research on medical marijuana but when she mentioned it at breakfast she “basically got treated like the devil.” A younger woman at the table said that she was a nurse, her father a police chief, and that they both think marijuana is “disgusting and kills people.” When the younger woman suggested, somewhat archly, that her police chief father was coming to join them at the B&B and perhaps Buckley would like to speak with him, Buckley hustled out of there. “I literally ran to my bedroom, packed my stuff and waited for them to come upstairs and crept downstairs to run away forever before the dad got there,” she says.
The “polite” dinner-party no-go zones tend to be sex, money, and politics, but religious zealotry can also be hard to swallow over pancakes. “A couple of times, I’ve run into owners who were super Christ-y,” says Christy Karras, who lives in Seattle. “I'm fine with people being religious, but when there are religious artifacts in every room and when the hosts ask whether you know Christ...” For Jennifer Ceaser, a New Yorker, a host’s religious devotion got even more uncomfortable: “I had to say grace over breakfast in a very Christian household,” she says. “And I'm Jewish.”
Americans are, perhaps more than ever before, being accused of silo-ing their social connections, surrounding themselves with people in lockstep with their political perspectives. But that’s surely preferable to sharing a breakfast table with overt racists, sexists, or homophobes. When Mary Zakheim, who lives in New York City, was staying at a B&B just outside of Amsterdam, her host launched into a unwelcome monologue about immigrants ruining traditional Dutch culture and how Holland would be much better if only white people lived there. “My friend and I said something like, ‘That's not how we see things at all’ and promptly cancelled the rest of our stay,” says Zakheim.
And what about the well-meaning oddballs among us, who exist across a political spectrum? Suzanne Guillette, who lives in New York City, was staying at a B&B in the Pyrenees when the owner invited her to a “womb cleansing” session. “She offered to run an egg over each person to draw out any impurities, including sexual trauma,” Guillette says. The owner noted that the session would take place in a nearby pitch-dark cave and that “it will be terrifying.” Guillette politely declined, despite the fact that this sounds like a pricey therapy exclusive to a Goop conference.
In the end, weird or offensive experiences aside, even just exposure to strangers first thing in the morning can feel like punishment. Rebecca Hall, who has lived in both Greece and England, notes that Europeans rarely speak in the mornings. “It's an unspoken recognition of private space and we all smile politely at each other,” says Hall.
Perhaps a move to Europe is in order for Catherine Winter, who lives in rural Quebec and isn’t exactly a morning person. “I try not to speak loud for the first couple of hours after I wake,” she says. “Chirpy people who insist on trying to engage me in conversation may find themselves eviscerated with my grapefruit spoon.”