Travel Tales: Hospitality

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(HOST)All this week VPR commentators are recalling momorable travel experiences. Today commentator Mike Martin observes that sometimes travelers depend upon the kindness of strangers – and recalls a trip when he learned this firsthand.(HOST)

(MARTIN) When I read The Odyssey by Homer for the first time, I thought the Greeks were a little weird. I just didn’t get why they treated complete strangers so well. Any unknown traveler who showed up received an olive oil rub-down, a change of clothes, and a feast.

I never understood the Greeks’ hospitality, that is, until I became a traveler myself.

When I was a student in Nice, on the French Riviera, I met Heinrik, a Danish athlete who was training for the Nice Triathlon. For a triathlete, Heinrik seemed to have pretty loose training rules, and we spent a lot of time together in seedy cafes. When he finally had to leave, Heinrik invited my fellow student, John, and me up to Copenhagen for Christmas. We said we would come.

It took twenty-six hours to go from Nice to Copenhagen by train, and we were bored numb during most of it. Things got interesting when the train went onto a ferry. We got out, stretched our legs, and discovered the ferry had fancy shops and TVs. We were watching cartoons on these TVs, when we saw that our ferry had landed. We went back down below just in time to see our train already on land and fading into the distance-with our luggage. We got the next train into Copenhagen, but we never saw our bags again.

Christmas in Copenhagen was a blur of lobster, aquavit, and discotheques. We were welcomed heartily, as if we had come to Valhalla to party with the Vikings. After our train ordeal, Heinrik lent us clothes and organized a series of feasts and parties. We told our epic story over and over to pretty Scandinavian girls who smiled and seemed to feel sorry for us.

On the way home, the train conductor sternly informed us that we’d mistakenly bought one-way tickets back in Nice. We had no tickets home and no cash to get new ones. We didn’t want to admit that we were total idiots, so we cursed the gods for mistreating us. Oh God of Trains! How have we angered you?

We slept in a train station, and at dawn started hitchhiking across Germany. Standing sadly in front of autobahn on-ramps, we were surprised at how often people picked us up. Thanks to their kindness, we were at the Belgian border by dusk.

A French lady picked us up there, evidently unafraid of two tall, confused, scruffy strangers. She told us she had sons our age. She drove us the four hours to Paris, and even invited us to stay at her house. We had a hot meal and a shower thanks to her and I think we had tears in our eyes when we thanked her. But she just said, “C’est normal. It’s what anybody would do.”

The Greeks invented democracy and aesthetics, but the best idea they ever came up with was philoxenia, the love of strangers. If you’ve ever been a foreigner, or a traveler, or a stranger, you’re glad they did.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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