I guess I first became aware of bed-and-breakfast accommodations when I went to Europe years ago. At that time, in the late 1970s, there didn’t seem to be any similar options for lodging here in the United States. Maybe because our country is such a car-happy place, motels were the popular choice, and, too, suburban sprawl was sucking people out of cities and towns, cities and towns being the most likely settings for B&Bs. In America, generally, if you had money you stayed in hotels in the city, and if you didn’t, motels outside the city. I am thinking, too, about all the Automobile Club-rated motels and also the Motel 6s, the cheapest accommodations to be had in almost any out-of-the-way place. Maybe it was in the 1980s and early 1990s that I started to see B&Bs come into their own. What I have been noticing lately is that B&Bs have morphed over time from what their intended purpose had been to what it is now.
My initial forays into B&Bs I found a little weird, I admit. So much togetherness with strangers. There were stays in people’s homes, in their spare bedroom, where I felt odd and uneasy, like I had just married into the family, never having met them. Then at breakfast, there was the coming together of the “parents” and all the new guest in-laws, which I was being introduced to for the very first time. We were all chatting as we awaited breakfast, mostly about why we were here, where we were from and how long we were staying. Although it was congenial, it was like orientation at college – a kind of forced intimacy that I found uncomfortable. The thing was, though, the interaction was part of the deal. You were ostensibly there for the interaction, this being part of the travel experience. You were meeting the natives, plus you were meeting other non-natives, and you were all shaken, not stirred into one big wayfarers-filled happy family with a hosting happy family. The melting pot. Home away from home, so to speak. Although, unless you run a B&B of your own, this setting would be nothing like home.
There were, of course, variations on this theme but, basically, you would become a foreign exchange student in an English-speaking land. Over the years I had noticed subtle changes in dining style. Rather than everyone together, breakfasts could be had at different seating times so that individual digestive tracts could be accommodated; serving was winnowed down so that the meal was not necessarily one for all, all for one. And, too, food choices could be made apart from the original farm-style breakfasts. Once in a while, there was a place that had a stocked mini-fridge in your room so your morning face wouldn’t have to frighten the other guests. And, too, there were the rare places that delivered a basket to your door, like Saint Nicholas filling your shoes overnight – no interaction whatsoever and your time was entirely your own. And, except for check-in, you never had to associate with your hosts again. Or were they elves?
It has occurred to me of late that now, often, the hosts don’t even live in the house. They have another private house on the grounds, or better yet, they live next door or nearby on a separate property. Two things seem to be working here: B&Bs are becoming more impersonal, more like inns with innkeepers who are there to give you directions or find you a corkscrew; and, travelers’ time is deemed more precious in our hurried-pace world so that, face it, talking with strangers is a waste of time. Get up and get going, don’t lollygag around making small talk with people from Des Moines. There are sights to see and someone just left a personalized tray of breakfast items on the hall table for us to pick up. In this instance, I think that we have created fast-food B&Bs. Although it is still, quite literally, a bed and a breakfast, has it become something other than the original concept?
So the question begs: Is there or should there be placeness in overnight accommodations? Do B&Bs provide that or should they or can they? There is probably the placeness of where they are located, meaning their proximity to your destinations. And, undoubtedly, there is placeness in the style or design of the house or room, depending on where your tastes lie. And, if lucky, there is a placeness to the view you may have from your bay window or porch for the limited time that you will be in your room. But, in terms of the placeness of meeting fellow travelers, there isn’t much of that anymore. Even bed-and-breakfasts have turned into anonymous motels. Sure, there might be dizzying wallpaper, and more doilies than your great-grandmother had in her whole house just in one room, but the idea of a shared experience is over. The independent American spirit prevails, a B&B stay becomes a roof above without personal investment. Get back in your car.