Philda at word
Regular blog readers may have noticed that most of my blogposts have been removed. That is because they are being to be worked into a book that will be published by NALEDI Publishers! Title: Guesthouse Life. Deadline for it to be on the shelves and available for online sales is the end of August 2024. They will also do a book for e-readers.
I know that most fellow guest house owners could have written a book about their guest house lives – this one is for you.
The story is as much about restoring a long-neglected historic home and the stories of the people who call it home. And home away from home – that will be the guests. My book was developed from diaries, journals, blog posts, and more than twenty-eight years of experience in the hospitality industry. The reader is transported into the life of a guesthouse owner - memories, advice, inspiration, and the odd recipe. Not a coffee table book or recipe book, but an easy read.
To quote Nikos Kazantzakis in Zorba the Greek. ‘Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe’. Thirty-two chapters, variable in length. The last six chapters clearly show a build-up of frustration as the B&B owner becomes overwhelmed by the responsibilities and frustrations of running an accommodation establishment but gradually regains her equilibrium and finds joy and contentment again.
What an exciting exercise this has been. I now know that submitting that manuscript is a very humbling experience. I am so encouraged by the Naledi team who are tasked to turn my manuscript into a book. I keep on questioning whether people will buy the book - Imposter Syndrome is real!
When our children were still in school they formed a band and, as you know, a band needs to practice. When you grow up in a house that is your home as well as a guest house that proves to be a problem. Our children's solution was to claim a small storeroom below the swimming pool as their little music den. They called it Shanty 21. I asked Alex: 'why 21?' and he answered: ' every abode needs a number...' I suppose when you are 16 years old 21 sounds like a grand number to be. Shanty was kitted out with seating - discarded rickety chairs, logs covered with old carpets, lots of candles and cobwebs for ambiance - the perfect music den. The words 'herein lie the sound of music' were added next to the crude signage of 'Shanty 21'.
In Summer of 2013 we decided to restore 'Shanty 21' and use it as a small guest room for single occupancy, but let us start at the beginning:
When they removed the door frame the wall collapsed! Not much left, but the restoration of a listed building means it has to be rebuilt in exactly the same place (we were tempted to sneak in a square meter or three!)We had clay bricks held together with mud and ferns...unbelievable if you scroll down for the end result.
Copyright © Philda Benkenstein All Rights Reserved
I could not possibly tell you about every guest that jumps to mind immediately, but the truth is that over the years many people have arrived as guests and left as friends. Initially we would receive letters of thanks after a memorable stay and as I even in these modern days love to write a letter, I would inevitably reply and that would lead to more letters and, joy of joys, Christmas cards decorating our fireplace mantel any time from November. Today it is Facebook, WhatsApp and e-mails that allow us to keep contact.
I still remember my first ever guest. She was from Germany; she came to Fairview after she picked up our brochure at the local tourist office. Her name was Ulrika and she paid R110.00 for bed and breakfast. A few years after she stayed that first time, she arrived unannounced at our door and was most surprised when I exclaimed, ‘Ulrika!’ and gave her a big hug.
Then there is the truly remarkable Ms Meyer, descendant of the Justus Meyer who built Fairview. As a sprightly eighty-year-old she traveled from America to visit the country of her forefathers. When she arrived in Cape Town, they did not have an automatic vehicle available for her, but no trouble to her – she had last driven a shift car when she got her driver’s license as a young girl, but she drove around in the parking lot a bit and then took to the road to drive the 450 km to George. “Wrong” side of the road no trouble either.
Subsequently she has stayed with us several times, charming the hosts and other guests with her knowledge, wit, and stories. The room that she stayed in used to have an old mahogany cupboard that had a doorknob that always fell off. Prior to her arrival I had asked Desmond to fix it. When I walked into her room the next day, I was surprised to find the job done, as I normally must ask Desmond at least three times to fix anything around the house, his excuse being that he is a gardener and not a handyman.
When I thanked him that evening, he admitted sheepishly that he forgot. I asked Thea and she, with a shrug of her shoulders, replied that when she drove past the hardware store, she knew exactly what type of screw I needed to fix that doorhandle, so she quickly popped in to buy it and fixed it herself. Now how can any guest house owner not remember such a guest?
When the South African corporate travelers could travel again, after nearly a year of Covid-19 lockdown and remote working, one of our most our long-standing guests arrived at the door with a big bunch of white roses. I still get emotional just thinking about this kind gesture. When he stayed with us the first time, he asked me if I would mind if he practiced his flute in the afternoon. Now I must explain, all three our children played the recorder and I have had to suffer through many a false note for many years. So, I am sorry to say, but I held my breath for a few seconds before I said that I would have no problem with that, if it was not into the evening. Oh, my goodness – I could only stand there and smile like an idiot as the sound of the most heavenly music drifted down the Fairview corridors.
I am reminded daily, as I look upon a set of red leather-bound English Classics, that a widower had delivered those to my house after a stay during which he attended the funeral of his brother. He explained that his one son had emigrated to England and the other to Australia; they had taken what they wanted from their family home and the set of books was left unclaimed. As he was now also moving into a Retirement Home, he was selling off the last of his possessions but could not bear with the thought of that collection being split up as he and his wife bought it together as young students at Stellenbosch University. He saw that I loved old books and asked me if I would take care of it. Every time that I dust the set, proudly displayed in my lounge, I think of him.
During the past year with international travel suspended, I have been communication with several overseas guests via social media and per e-mail. It brought it over to me just how many people have impacted my life after a stay at our B&B. When we moved to George, Desmond had just turned 40, I was in my 30’s, as old as my daughter is now. Now we are talking about retirement, our arthritis and lack of energy. I remember an elderly Dutch couple who came to us for many years for their annual golf holiday to the Garden Route and on greeting me the one gentleman took my hands and told me solemnly that this would be their last holiday to South Africa as they just thought they were getting too old for the long trip. We both had tears in our eyes. Those are the kind of guests I remember.
Our children were all three still in primary school when we moved into Fairview. Within months I received my first paying guest and our children had to learn a new set of rules: ask before you take fruit out of the fruit bowl, tell me when you finish the juice or milk, no sport equipment lying around, no loud music, no loud shouting and the one that drove them to distraction - no telephone calls on my dedicated guest house telephone number! This was prior mobile telephones and even though we had a private number too, their friends would phone on the guest house number and that would not be tolerated as their teenage calls could go on for hours.
Apart from the frustrations we also had funny incidents - once my son ran into the breakfast room, changed the Gregorian Chant music that happened to be playing as 'soothing' background music and ran off to school with blazer tails dangling in the wind. When he came home I asked him why did he change my music? His answer: "Mom, I walked by, heard that freaky music and thought to myself - these poor people will never get their breakfast down listening to that".
We did learn that it was absolutely necessary for us to close down over Decembers (our summer holidays) so that the children could enjoy their home and yard without having to share it with outside guests. Now that they are married and we are grandparents it is still just as important to keep Fairview to ourselves for the period from mid-December to 5 January.
I believe that growing up in a guest house taught Eckart, Alex, and Nelleke very important life lessons: to be considerate, mind their manners, be hospitable, not to shy away from house chores, It also opened their minds to the big world out there where people have different accents, speak different languages, come from different cultural backgrounds. All three love traveling, cooking and are excellent hosts.
When our daughter moved into her first flat the two of us went to the factory shop in York Street to find a few basic items in their little 'reject' room. She was sitting flat on the floor, sorting the Wonki Ware into little piles of four. Di Marshall happened to walk in and gave her an amused smile at which the 18 year old, not knowing she was speaking to THE Di Marshall, started telling her what amazing crockery this was - pointing out the artistic designs, beautiful colours and delicate, yet durable quality of the items.
One of their bestsellers is called the lace design. They make this plate by pressing real lace into the soft clay before the plate is fired in the oven. Then, as it is placed in the oven, the lace design burns off, leaving behind a ghostly pattern. They are manufactured from non porous clay and the glazes are non toxic and lead free ; chip proof, oven, microwave and dishwasher friendly.
Her tableware is also used by the Swedish and British Royal families. The business also have outlets in UK, Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Switzerland and Ireland . So there you are all the South Africans in London - go and look at the Wonki Ware in Harrods when you get homesick! You can also go to their website and order your items prior to coming to George. Address: 42 York St, George South, George, 6530.
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 8.30 am to 5 pm.
e-mail: email@example.com | Tel: +27 (0)44 884 1883
9 people sharing, 8 people asking, 7 agents phoning, 6 guests a-parking, 5 children swimming, 4 telephones ringing, 3 drop-ins knocking, 2 couples asking, 1 call for multitasking - and no golden eggs.
Yes, it's that time of the year again...
You have to understand - as much as I hate the start of blaring 'Jingle Bells, jingle bells,jingle bells' rocking in my ears while I'm shopping for our daily bread, eggs, bacon, mushrooms... IN OCTOBER! As much, do I love the advent of Christmas.
I light my 4 candles in anticipation of the last candle - one on each Sunday and the last candle we light on Christmas eve. I hang an advent wreath on our front door, I use my navy blue cloth napkins with the golden stars that my children helped me to stencil on when they were small. There is always a small Christmas tree - often one concocted with thorn tree branches. In Namibia (where we lived for 13 years) this is quite a traditional Christmas tree - the thorns are perfect to hang the tree decorations from and I also find the thorn tree symbolic of the thorn wreath that was put on Christ's head during the crucifixion.
Our friends in the northern hemisphere probably find it incomprehensible that we can have Christmas without snow, but yes that is our reality: Christmas day temperatures average about 27 degrees Celsius. Some people do the whole hot meal with turkey and gammon, others prefer to go the more sensible route of salads and cold meat or salads accompanied by meat grilled over the coals (a braai).
This year we will be spending Christmas on the Namibian coast, leaving Fairview in the capable hands of Thereasa. We will be accompanied by our two Namibian born children and their small families. Most of the time will be spent on the coast - a week in Walvis Bay where Desmond can windsurf to his heart's content and a week in Swakopmund where the children can play in the rock pools and the parents can laze under umbrellas.
And on that note we would like to wish all our guests (and potential new guests) a blessed Christmas season.
As a Guest House, I joined an accommodation bartering site called Swop and Stay. I love their website - the swops work on a point system (you do not have to stay with the establishment that you host) The automated swop process, once you have accepted the swop request, makes the process of gaining or losing points so much easier.
Swapping accommodation with fellow accommodation providers makes so much sense. Not only do we get to stay for free, but we also get to establish network opportunities and we get to learn from each other.
Which brings me to the topic of my blog post - why are we so averse to bartering ? If there is one thing that gets me hot under the collar it is when a prospective guest wants to bargain me down. Is it even fair to lower my price and in that way take the business away from another establishment and forcing them to lower their rates to the point where it is actually costing them to fill their rooms? I'm not exaggerating - I know of one B&B that cut her prices to the point where she was actually subsidizing the guests sleeping over - how crazy is that?)
Yet, I have just exchanged 3 boxes of wine from a well-known wine estate in exchange for a weekend's accommodation. Sitting down with a glass of excellent Pinotage, which we would otherwise never have sampled, as it falls into a price range we consider above our limit, I just realized what a clever concept this really is. It's a win-win situation Being a strictly a one-glass-girl already half a glass above my limit, I drew my laptop closer to research this bartering story further. That left Desmond obliged to sample the Pinotage further and his nods of encouragement at my excitement over the bartering system just became more encouraging as the level of the bottle dropped. Understand, this is a man who is cheeky enough to walk down to the corner deli with a bag of homegrown peppadews and come to an agreement to exchange it for our daily bread and milk! According to him, he was just desperate because I was too lazy to bottle his abundant harvest of peppadews, but that's a story for another day...
The definition for bartering reads: Bartering is a trading system in which you offer products in return for credits to purchase other products and services in your barter group. An American girl innocently required: "i'm doing a travel project for school and i need to know if you have to barter in South Africa? " (At least she had the good sense to use capital letters for South Africa...)
To this naive question she received two rather indignant replies: "NO, we do not barter! South Africa has a very well developed economic system, while the country was very socialist during Apartheid, the country is now far more free market. We have our own currency, the Rand. We also have one of the best banking systems in the world."
"We aren't a group of uneducated idiots who live in huts and hunt lions... We actually have a currency, its called the Rand." And then from someone calling himself Bob Mugabe: "I do not barter. I take." Well, it's certainly true that we have a well developed financial system here in South Africa and we rarely barter, but perhaps we should not be so quick to turn up our noses at the time-honored tradition of bartering. I have come to the conclusion that a good barter system must have the following:
I'm sold on the idea of bartering! But not on bargaining my rates down. I have recently been asked to quote for a one-night booking for the 1st of January - giving my 'best price'. Why would I give a discounted rate for a one-night booking on a public holiday when I have to pay double time to my staff -surely that should make no sense even to the person requesting a 'best price'?
In the winter it actually costs me more to run my guest house - the rooms need heaters, electric blankets, and the linen have to be tumble dried- so why should I lower my rates in the off-season?
Bargain, no. Barter, YES!
Before starting my guest house blog I had planned to start a blog where a few guest house owners could share stories and recipes, but it turned out that I was the only one who ever posted!
Because I blog regularly I changed to a blog-based site, where my blog posts form an integral part of my website content. I have kept the Blogspot blogging going even after the development of my new blog-based guest house website as it attracts a different readership. I am still humbled by the number of people who read my blog posts - my monthly unique visitors are a constant surprise to me.
I write from the heart, the way I speak and, as my mother tongue is Afrikaans, my grammar is not always perfect. I keep a post in 'draft' for a day or two to make sure that I am happy that the sentiments expressed are ready to go out on the world wide web. That also means that I will sometimes have two or three blog posts that I am working on and I always have something to post regularly every fortnight. You do not want to overdo it and have people trash your posts to junk mail because you post too often.
Another alternative is to blog around a theme. If you live in a quaint little arty town you could blog about local artists. You could blog about activities in your area, about a restoration project, about a charity project that you support, about pets. I know of two sets of guests who stayed with me because of a post that I did about Bull Mastiffs being such perfect guest house dogs - the one couple googled "bull mastiff" as they wanted to get a buddy for their elderly dog and my website came up amongst that of the breeders! They kept the details and a few weeks later decided to make use of a flight special and come to meet our Bull Mastiff.
My posts also go onto my facebook page and selected group pages. It is a constant surprise how often people will 'like' my blog posts and 'share' it with friends. I have found that the best time to post to social media is in the evening and weekends - that's when people have the time to read, 'like' and comment on the posts. Or on a Tuesday - maybe because they have no time for social media on 'blue Mondays'?
Blogging is forgiving in the sense that one can delete or edit posts as time goes by. Sometimes I will start off by just saving a recipe in the draft and when I make that dish I will take photo's and add that to the post. To finish it off I will write something personal about the recipe and there you are - ready to go! The most difficult posts are the ones where guests are involved - you do not want to infringe on people's rights. On the other hand, I do know that people enjoy reading my blog posts because of my honesty and ability to tell it as it is. By reading my website blog posts they get their questions answered: how do you handle difficult guests? Have you ever had guests who you did not want to stay? Do you not find it a terrible invasion of your privacy? Have you ever had stuff stolen? Have you had some funny incidents?
I notice that many web designers put a 'blog' link on guest house websites and then it will read: No Results Found. The page you requested could not be found. Rather ask them to remove the tab until you are ready to start posting.
I do think that people who stay in Guest Houses, opposed to Hotels, appreciate the personal aspect of a B&B stay and I, therefore, share personal anecdotes too. That calls for some funny moments - like when my husband came home and asked: 'what on earth are you writing on your website? I had a friend phone me and he called me 'Lady Chatterley's lover'.
That actually stands for Bread and Butter Pudding.
This recipe is perfect for turning left-over croissants into a delicious dessert, but consider this: made in an individual ramekin and offered as a little breakfast starter - with plain yoghurt and a berry or prune compote? Why not? It has all the breakfast ingredients: eggs, croissants, fruit, orange juice, milk, butter... What about the chocolate I hear you ask?
Well, when I walked the Camino through Spain in 2007 I stumbled on a Chocolate Museum in Astorga. They had a collection of vintage posters advising mothers to give their children the perfect breakfast- a bowl of drinking chocolate. I'll drink to that - chocolate is good for you. The Spaniards think so, the French think so and the Germans took it one step further by spreading chocolate on their bread. (Recipe for home made Nutella below...)
Chocolate & Orange Bread & Butter Pudding
4-5 Croissants, torn into pieces
100g-450g Dark Chocolates, broken into pieces
1/3C (90g) Castor Sugar
1C (250ml) Milk
1C (250ml) Cream
½ tsp Grated Orange Rind
1/3 C (80ml) Orange Juice
2Tblsp coarsely chopped Hazelnuts
Set oven at 180°C. Grease and line a 20cm deep sided cake tin. Layer croissant pieces into the baking tin. Scatter chocolate pieces evenly amongst the pieces. Beat eggs and sugar until pale & creamy. Heat milk and cream on the stove until almost boiling. Remove from heat. It will curdle if it boils. Gradually pour egg mixture over it stirring all the time. Add orange juice and rind and stir well. Slowly pour this over the croissants, allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding more. Sprinkle Hazelnuts over the top and bake for 45-50 minutes (until a skewer comes out clean when inserted).
Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge and invert onto a plate. Serve with cream or ice-cream.
I put hazelnuts into the croissants with the chocolate
I use Lindt Orange dark chocolate
If using more croissants make more custard
Today's children can't imagine that there was a time when Nutella was not for sale in South Africa.(In Namibia one could find it in the shops that specialized in imported produce.) My brother's children found it fascinating that their Namibian born cousins could be as decadent as to eat chocolate spread on bread! For years a jar of Nutella made a perfect Christmas gift.
At Fairview's breakfast table I always have a jar of chocolate spread and a jar of peanut butter - for the odd children staying over. But most of the time it will be the business men reaching out for it with exclamations of: 'ah, I haven't had this for years!'
Homemade Chocolate Spread (about 3 jars)
200 g Hazelnuts
1 can Condensed Milk
255 g good quality dark Chocolate
125ml hot Milk
Roast the hazelnuts for about 10-15 minutes either in the oven or in a dry pan over the heat.
When the nuts are ready (golden brown) let them cool down a little.
Chop fine in a food processor until they reach hazelnut butter consistency.
Melt the chocolate in a bowl placed over boiling water.
When the chocolate has melted, you pour the condensed milk in and mix well.Add the mixture to the hazelnut butter and process it some more. Add some hot milk if you find it too dense.
Knitting is the new yoga, but actually, the inspirational topic for this blog post is an issue with toilet seats...
I doubt there is anyone out there who is not yet aware that I can now claim the title GRANDMOTHER. It is with the greatest of self-discipline that I do not insist that every guest looks at photos on my mobile phone before they are allowed to enjoy breakfast. I became a champion knitter overnight - shortly after Luella's birth I woke up with tennis elbow pain and suddenly realised: I just finished my 6th jersey for 2-month-old Luella - no wonder!!
But back to toilets...
At Fairview we take the comfort of our guests to heart. So when a guest tells me that the toilet seat is uncomfortable, I am not going to ignore that complaint. I am going to use that toilet to get up to speed with the level of comfort my guests are expected to enjoy (or not) when they spend a penny. Initially, I thought he was exaggerating, but then I reminded myself that I am far better padded than he seemed to have been and he mentioned that he liked to read his newspaper on the loo, so maybe sit a few more minutes. Being a multi-tasker, I sat, mentally making to-do lists in my mind and yes, the discomfort grew proportionately to the length of my to-do list. Not excruciatingly uncomfortable, but yes, uncomfortable.
I am forever upgrading, replacing, renewing, all the time beating myself up about how I can ensure that my guests are comfortable because let's face it - when they stay at Fairview there are enough little idiosyncrasies typical to a house over 150 years old that they have to put up with. This particular bathroom had one of those old-fashioned toilets with a high cistern that you flush by pulling a chain and about 3 months ago I decided to replace it as it was just too noisy and used too much water. Quirkiness had to make way for practicality.
I remember when I bought the toilet I was skeptical about the square shape of the toilet seat, but because the toilet had to cover the markings made by the old toilet and had to have a section that covered the ugly drain pipes at the back that was really the best choice. Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought it necessary to work up the row of toilets on display to find the most comfortable one. Yet, that is what I will do when I buy the new toilet for the Banksia Annex in the making. In the meantime - who has a knitting pattern for a padded toilet seat cover?!
About the blog
This is the story of our house, lovingly restored and shared with guests and family since 1995.