Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from home. In which is argued the convenience of making friends abroad.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Of course you do know these words introducing the Nativity Story in the Gospel according to Luke. Famously, Mary and Joseph spent the night in a stable where they had to call on the hospitality of donkey and sheep, “… because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Alone in a foreign city, alone in a foreign neighbourhood, alone among foreigners. This queasy feeling to be confronted with something completely new, the both stimulating but also intimidating thought of the unknown and unconversant must be known to anyone going on a journey, would you follow? Eventually, each of us is depending on the hospitality of someone abroad in one way or another. So, lucky is for whom there is room in the inn or who can entrust himself to some attentive host’s care. You know me well enoguh to to understand that I travel gladly. And, I would like to think, quite a lot. Well, of course you’re aware I’m not only roaming around in my spare time with backpack, hiking boots and kayak (with a certain preference for Scandinavia and the even farther North), but also occupationally stuffing my bits and pieces into the duffle bag time and again to go on an excavation expedition for some weeks or even months (having led to the Near and Middle East in recent years as you certainly recall my letters from there, don’t you). And, doing so, quite often I was and still am happy to enjoy the hospitality of friends and acquaintances as well as strangers (who not seldom should become new friends very soon).
Hospitality, my friend. Grown from religious mercy, this empathy with the traveller far from home and in need of protection is deeply rooted in human culture and history. The absolute and termless protection of the committed guest is such a noble good that it even was governed legally binding in Ancient Greece and Rome and gained such economic meaning in times of increasing commerce – traffic and trade – that it found institutionalisation in the form of hospitals and inns. From there, the next step towards modern day hotel complexes was only a short one. Although, with this, the right to and hospitality itself also definitely took on the nature of a commercial service, it certainly did not forfeit importance.
But even (or better: even more) in times of advancing globalisation, the particular experience of travelling still is about the real, personal and interpersonal contact. Any hotel room, as luxurious or convenient it may be, ultimately is only staged. Staged, thus locking out the ‘real life’. And I honestly got to tell you: I for myself am actually travelling in particular just because of this real life. Because of this life to see – could you follow my drift here? This straight contact is a crucial element of the overall package one should admit to when travelling (otherwise this whole going-on-a-journey thing would quickly lose its purpose and one could just stay at home – at least in my opinion, but maybe this is the urge to discover running wild). This could thoroughly start already with the proverbial roof over your head and the bed you are sleeping in. Even if it is ‘only’ the spare couch of a distant relative or the friend of a friend. Or of a stranger. Apart from the large lodging establishments even today the curious traveller finds plenty of opportunities of a more familial kind of accommodation. In times of ‘couchsurfing’ and online communities even more so, I think. To invite someone into your four walls is a huge act of faith on one hand, but the right people can also, on the other hand, create something like a ‘home’ far from home. A domestic island amidst the unknown, a base camp for further exploration abroad.
New acquaintances are made virtually automatic by this means; and it was never easier to keep in touch with travel companions than these days, in the era of social networks which could – despite any valid criticism (and of course I could just see you raising an eyebrow here my friend, yes I do) – show their strength right here in particular in my opinion (of which I am not only convinced, but confirmed from own experience). Travelling acquaintance could grow into friendship straight away – the peculiar affinity and deeply rooted relation between guest and host are of course playing a significant role here. And if you ever enjoyed such hospitableness abroad, you’d certainly never query the reciprocity of this gesture.
It is some incredible luck – and one not to be underestimated – to arrive by train in a foreign city on a rainy evening, stepping onto the platform knowing that there is some snuggery and a mug of hot coffee only a short bus ride away. Much better than spending the wee hours of the night searching the area around Copenhagen’s main station for some hotel not only still open, but also corresponding the remaining travel budget – to finally end up in the next best affordable lodging (I mentioned the pouring rain, didn’t I) and only find out in the course of the night that the host usually rents his rooms by the hour (but that should be better left for a separate letter, I assume).
I can tell you that it is indeed a very special moment when a clutch of Kurdish workmen invites you to keep their company while they spread out their sparse breakfast in the shadow, naturally sharing it with you and thus offering a welcome break to escape from the midday heat of the Anatolian steppe for a moment. If then the meal is – despite the language barriers on both sides – accompanied by a stimulating, cordial conversation, you’ll probably begin to sense how Oriental hospitality picked up its legendary reputation.
It is a heartfelt pleasure to finally go ashore at some beautiful flat riverside after an energy-sapping day in the kayak and to find out that – without circumstance – the owner of this sheltered meadow is happy to allow your camp there, and finally, when the boat is unloaded and the tent ready, even offers a beer to the exhausted canoeists.
Well, quite some contemplating on my part in this letter here. Hope, I didn’t bore you, but these were just some thoughts running through my mind and since we already correspond on ‘travelling’ I thought this could be an interesting addition to our conversation. Say, wouldn’t you agree?