A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 15 May 2011


Forget not to shew love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. HEBREWS 13:2

In spring 2010 the climate change activist Adam Weymouth walked 3,500 miles from London to Istanbul. It took him eight months. (A plane takes four hours.) He went through twelve countries, three seasons and two pairs of walking boots.

One thing that struck him on his journey was the warm hospitality he encountered - particularly in Muslim communities. Most religions have a tradition of hospitality, but none more so than Islam, where the principle of hospitality is a duty not only to the stranger but also to God. This faith in and openness to strangers he found both heartening and moving. It's something that we suspect is disappearing in many countries and cultures, so it's wonderful to find this natural and human core of hospitality very much alive. I found it thus on the Caminos I've walked, and I'm delighted to find it experienced by Weymouth here.

Without delving too deeply into its linguistic derivation, the word 'hospitality' implies a relationship between a 'host' and a 'guest', a relationship which nowadays tends to be seen as one-way, ie the 'host' gives and the 'guest' receives. But at one time the two roles inherent in the word were synonyms rather than antonyms. After all, a 'host' needs a 'guest' in order to give (to fulfil his or her human duty and duty to God), and a 'guest' needs a 'host' in order to receive (and we all need to learn how to receive gracefully, which, strangely, we often find more difficult than giving). When you think about it, we are 'hosts' and 'guests' all the time, in some way. Giving and receiving are the basis of our daily interactions; both should be done with dignity, grace and a light touch.

Weymouth viewed his momentous walk as a chance to challenge the culture of fear, the distrust of strangers, that seems to be a given in a world where we are increasingly denied the opportunity to interact with the unknown. Perhaps opening up one's home and opening up oneself to strangers is a risk - but it's a risk that holds the promise of a deeply satisfying reciprocality. In others we recognise ourselves; and in ourselves we see others. I know of no better way than a pilgrimage, secular or not, to remind us that we are dependent on strangers, writes Weymouth.

Walking seems to me like one way of trying to recognise all parts of this world, in sickness and in health ... The people and places I saw stretch out from where I write this now, not as unconnected parts but as a continual thread. It is this that seems to show that both the good and the bad of my journey, the environmental destruction and the beautiful landscapes, the recent wars and the incredible hospitality, are all part of my world, and, as such, must be embraced.

For more on Adam Weymouth's journey read this. And my own blog post on the hospitality I met with on the Camino is here.


Tramp said...

In Czech the word "host" means guest, the word "hostitel" means host.

Grizz………… said...

As a once near-constant traveler who spent nearly 300 days per year on the road working stories, I can't begin to tell you how many kind and helpful and wonderful folks I encountered who extended me, a stranger, their warmest hospitality. Rooms, meals, transportation, helping me to get out of jams and solve all sorts of problems. The list is endless.

Only yesterday, though, I had another side of hospitality tragically reaffirmed.

Last summer, as twilight gave way to dark, a man knocked on my door. He wore a mechanic's uniform, was none too clean, and appeared to have been drinking. Yet he was very polite, introduced himself, and asked if he could fish—specifically, he wanted to sit on the steps which lead from the front corner of the cottage down to the water. Which meant he'd be within three or four yards on the door and various opened windows.

It wasn't the right time and maybe not the right way to make such a request. And the cynic would say, in this day and age, that giving permission was a foolish and dangerous thing. And yet I couldn't bring myself to say no. In spite of appearances, there was a gentleness and a …sadness…about the fellow.

My wife was frightened, and I was was certainly apprehensive, but I said okay. Over the next hour, I went out and talked a bit with the guy and learned he lived on the river maybe a half-mile down the road. He worked for a local car dealership. And his wife, whom both my wife and I knew, owned a nearby jewelry shop. After that I left him to his fishing and he stayed maybe two more hours.

He subsequently came around once or twice a month to fish, always just at dark. Sometimes he brought a buddy, another guy who worked at the garage with him. I always sensed an undercurrent in the man—melancholy, quiet despondency, sadness, depression? Yet he was always polite, always appreciative of being allowed to fish. And never caused a problem.

Yesterday, my wife stopped by the lady's jewelry shop…and learned her husband had committed suicide a couple of weeks ago in a park just up the road. He had four kids—a couple now married—one grandchild; he was 52 years old. I don't know the details, or how his life brought him to such a decision and act. I do know he was always polite and respectful, quiet, appreciative. I liked him, and wish I could have gotten to know him better.

And I'm so very glad I always allowed and welcomed him to fish.

Ruth said...

It's a beautiful journey Weymouth took. We found our neighbors and friends, and yes strangers, in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey to be the most hospitable people we've met. It's clear that it is part of their cultural breeding, and would be ayip (rude) if they did not practice it.

In that last passage of Weymouth's you quote, how interesting the phrase in sickness and in health is to me, after just attending a family wedding Saturday. We are married to the earth, or should be, and all its inhabitants.

Grizz's story is incredible. I hope I will always be as open and helpful when I encounter a stranger in need.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for that, Tramp. (The Latin word 'hospes' means both 'host' and 'guest', also 'stranger'.)

As I commented yesterday on your own blog, Jim, thanks so much for this sad but significant and compellingly told story. It's so frsh in your mind, and that immediacy and shock comes across. I'm glad you welcomed the stranger, despite some initial misgivings.

And Ruth - yes, we are married to the earth for good and ill, and to all of its denizens, however trying some of them are. (See my latest 'Turnstone' post for a beautiful poem on marriage by Gillian Clarke.)

Amanda said...

what a beautiful and thought provoking post. i look forward to reading more about weymouth's pilgrimage.

i am reminded of a book titled the singular pilgrim by rosemary mahoney, who wrote about her experience walking to santiago de compostela and several other journeys on foot.

as ruth said, grizz's story is incredible and so sad. at least he knows he helped give comfort to this poor man.

George said...

Forty-eight years ago, as a penniless student, I hitch-hiked through Europe for three months, depending literally upon the kindnesses of strangers in order to survive. This was the formative experience of my life, the experience from which everything else seems to have flowed, and the heart of that experience was the hospitality extended to me along the way — people who not only gave me rides but shared their lunches with me, people who invited me to spend the night in their homes, people who allowed me to pick fruit from their orchards.

It's reassuring to hear about Weymouth's experiences. I have wondered if the world is still as hospitable as it was in my youth.

A great post, Robert!

Vivien said...

Did Weymouth bring any small portable gifts to give to the people who gave him hospitality? It's not mentioned.

am said...

Wonderful evocative post.

Good to read that post from that Camino walk again and to be reminded of the hospitality I encountered some years ago at Redwoods Monastery in Whitethorn, California, and the astonishing silence in the chapel there, with its view of redwood trees. That was where Thomas Merton visited on his way to Thailand in 1968.

Tears of joy, tears of relief.

Just finished reading a used copy of a textbook called Connected Places: Region, Pilgrimage and Geographical Imagination in India, by Anne Feldhaus:

"This important and engaging book interprets a rich set of oral and written sources from a single Indian state. Yet, through its focus on the myriad connections among Maharashtra's holy places, it transcends its geographical confines to illumine broad vistas of religious meaning: the persistence and power of holy places, the ritual elements of human community, and the sense of being at home in the universe."

Thanks so much for the link to Adam Weymouth with this:

"In her wonderful book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit suggests that the mind works at 3mph."

And thanks for suggesting Wanderlust some time back. Interesting that one of the many aspects of walking she talks about is the American Civil Rights Movement. Now I want to read her book about Ireland that you suggested.

And then there is:

"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm."

The Solitary Walker said...

Amanda - thanks for your pointer to Rosemary Mahoney, whom I did not know. I'll definitely investigate her writing.

Yes, George, I recall your hitch-hiking European trip. So many formative, mind-changing, life-changing experiences seem to come from that mid-teen to mid-twenties period of our lives.

Not sure if Weymouth carried gifts, Vivien ...

... and, am, many thanks for your interesting and valuable comment. You commented on my original 'hospitality' post too, which I was so grateful for. That book by Feldhaus looks like my kind of text. Glad you enjoyed the Solnit. Her book on Ireland is terrific also.

'Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine ...'

Friko said...

The operative word in your post is "opening" up;
Without openness there can be no life, only a cramped, fearful existence.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

You are always welcome for tea and giraffitude cake at Necky Knoll House, SW! :)

The Solitary Walker said...

Friko - yes, I agree, opening up, in all its various ways and meanings, is the thing: let light and life in, release your love without fear. Despite some risks, and dangers, and discomforts. (Though those risks, dangers and discomforts are all part of the all-encompassing embrace.)

Cheers, Raph. Put a plate on the table, slap a large slice of cake on it, and I'll be there in neckst to no time!