On hospitality

and what we do, and don't, own

This week was supposed to be an intrepid one. I’d planned a solitary trip to revisit old haunts: a bike trip from Duino, just north of Trieste, through Slovenia and Croatia, to Poreč: following the old Parenzana trail, repurposed from the old Austro-Hungarian trail line. Halfway through, while crossing the Croatian border, I threw my back out.

For three days, now, I have been almost unable to walk. For three days, I have been completely reliant on the hospitality of strangers. One such stranger in the town of Buje, watching me limp, ran to the pharmacy to get me ibuprofen; this morning, when I arrived by taxi at a doctor’s office too busy to see me, another would-be patient, waiting in line, brought me into his car and took me to the emergency room himself. A third, here in Poreč, gave me an umbrella to use as a cane. A network of waiters, guesthouse owners, and random sympathetic passersby have co-ordinated to transport my bike in the back of various minivans; I have leaned on the arm of more people than I can count, people I will almost certainly never see again

Despite the discomfort, and the nightmarish logistics (I do not recommend becoming immobilized in a rural hill town with minimal car access, while lugging a mountain bike around, two countries over from where your return flight is) I was very rarely afraid. From my first encounters, when I was having trouble walking but the damage done was not yet evident, it was clear to me that nearly everyone I encountered took seriously their sense of obligation: I was in need, moreover, I was a guest, and thus there was no question that I would be collectively, safely, ferried homeward: through the effort, at this point, of dozens.

As a former travel writer, I’ve become leery of talking about hospitality culture, particularly when it comes to cultures not my own. During my time in Tbilisi, I have seen, for example, Georgian “hospitality culture” become its own kind of commodity, with tourists eagerly seeking out invitations to birthday parties or weddings of total strangers on the grounds of having a “real cultural experience”, and Georgians forced — whether through politeness or commercial necessity — to transform that same hospitality into a brand, performing Georgian hospitality at the expense of authentic interaction. It would be a mistake to reduce what I experienced in Croatia to a kind of Romantic stereotype: hospitality-culture as a politer-sounding code word to mean “anti-modern.”

Yet the experience made me think more seriously, and gratefully, about hospitality as not just a personal virtue but a political one, maybe even the ultimate political one: something as necessary in, say, New York as in rural Croatia.

In thinking of hospitality in this way, I am not interested in hospitality’s strategic utility — which is to say, the idea that hospitality is good because, in a harsh and unforgiving world, I would like to reliably be given food and shelter and also not be murdered by my host, and the most reliable way for me to achieve that is to help promote a taboo against refusing to give your guests food or shelter, or murdering them.

Rather, I am interested in hospitality as a starting-point for how we might think about property, and place, altogether: as an obligation we have, as hosts, not because of anything we might get in return, but simply because what we have (our property, our privilege) does not actually belong to us. We might say that hospitality culture correctly identifies whom the securities of the world belong to: all who need them. It understands the universal destination of goods.

Hospitality is a virtue of knowing as much as a virtue of action. It is the acknowledgement that we are contingent beings, in need of one another by virtue of the kinds of creatures that we are. It is the acknowledgment, too, that our relationship to our seeming property (including invisible forms of property, like our leisure time) is itself illusory: what we have does not actually belong to us. To fail to help a stranger in need (because one is too busy, say, or, because one is attached to one’s possessions) might be common, certainly might be understandable, but nevertheless rests on an assumption — implicit or explicit — that we are rightful possessors of money or space or time, that we might choose in a supererogatory way to give some of these things away, but that fundamentally they are ours. 

Hospitality, at its best, reveals a different model of ownership: in which we are not sovereigns but stewards, tending what we have at our disposal so that it might be made available to those who need it when the time arises. When we are hospitable, we are not showing off our largesse, nor indulging in noblesse oblige, but rather simply and directly doing, and in so doing acknowledging, what ought to be done.

In so doing, hospitality posits too the fundamental relationship of stranger to stranger at the incipience of political life, rather than any relationship of blood or family or even the personal affinity found so often in friendship. It is the relationship of strangers, transformed — at least, for a time — into family. Shared vulnerability becomes the mechanism by which strangers become less strange. Friendship can — and ideally should — arise from this polarity, to be sure (perhaps even Aristotelian friendship), yet it is not prior to it. 

Yet, even in the cases when the relationship is only temporary — kindness to the limping woman who just traveling through — the act of hospitality trains us in our capacity for understanding, and attending to, right social relations. It makes us better hosts, more grateful guests; conscious of those obligations which, while absolute, are too often neglected. It makes us conscious that there are some things you just do, and the flinging-open of doors is one.

There are many ways to practice this kind of hospitality. There are, of course, the obvious ones that function within existing extended social circles: the sofa bed that is available to anyone who needs it for a night or two, the picking-up from the airport as one dear friend will be doing for me when I arrive, the bringing of too much wine: so that there will always be abundance. But it is true that all these bring us, more often than not, into contact with friends or that nebulous category friends of friends, people who are strangers but also vouched for in some way. (In an ideal world, we would all be able to welcome complete strangers to sleep in our living rooms, though I recognize the impracticality of this in a society not already structured for such possibility).

There are, too, those that specifically link us with strangers, in such a way as to confound the categories of “host” and “guest” in the first place — I am thinking of spaces like the Bowery Mission, where I volunteer serving meals (serve as you would serve a King is its motto), where the work is designed toward the creation of a good, useful space that none of us own. We serve the guests who are there; nevertheless, the space is never ours, in the sense that we are “hosting” them (indeed, it is far more theirs than ours), and yet through both the act of serving food itself and through the relationships we cultivate, it is on us to create an atmosphere of welcome and invitation.

So too the work of hospitality at a neighborhood level (such as in community-level activism or mutual aid), or through the work of parishes: the creation of spaces that transcend the mythos of individual ownership altogether. We are, all of us, after all, wayfaring strangers; we are none of us in a land that is ours to keep.