A Couch to Sleep on


by Lia Da Giau, United World College Maastricht
26th September, 2019


Odyssey and Iliad are known to be the first collections of societal and ethical norms of the archaic Greek society. One of the main themes that revive in both poems is the concept of hospitality. To host a traveller was considered to be a duty, as legends have it that every traveller could be a god.
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Hospitality had also the function of connecting people living far away from each other. In a time period when hotels -or hostels- were not accessible, travelling as well as meeting people was the only way to get in contact with foreign cultures.
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It can be said that hospitality was a unifying cultural aspect for the numerous populations living in Greece and in the Anatolian region during the first phase of their development. There was a common ritual that defined the relationship between host and guest. Firstly, the guests were invited to wash and rest after the long journey. Afterwards, a feast was prepared in their honour: only during the meal, the newcomers were asked about their family name and hometown. The stay ended with the host giving precious gifts to the guest, in memory of the bond built during the time spent together: a lifelong bond of friendship and alliance between host and guest, called xenia, that would extend also to future generations of the two families. An example of the practice and the nature of the “hospitality bond” is given in the episode of Glaucus and Diomedes (Iliad, Book VI): they are two warriors from opposite factions that decide not to fight because of a relationship of xenia between their grandfathers.
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A similar sequence of events characterized my recent visit to Armenia. During my stay, I’ve been hosted by an Armenian UWC friend and her family. An Armenian feast awaited me upon my arrival; her mom and brother knew almost nothing about me when they welcomed me at their doorstep. What the journey left in my heart was a deep feeling of gratitude, the only thing that also a guest in ancient Greece, travelling with nothing, could give back to their host to thank them. Moreover, before I flew back to Italy, a necklace with my name written in Armenian was given to me: the trinket reminded me of the gift given by the host to the guest in the past.
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What I read many times in Homer’s poems, and more recently in a tourists’ guide of the Caucasus praising the hospitality of its people, took a concrete shape in the people I met both in Armenia and Tbilisi (capital city of Georgia). It was unusual to see so much kindness given without expecting nor wanting anything back: the words I used the most were “Thank you”, “Shnorhakalut’yun”, “Madloba” (“thank you” in Armenian and Georgian). The reason why guests are treated so preciously is the perception of the guest that Caucasians have in their cultures. However, living in an era where travelling is more of a pleasure than a necessity and tourism is the reason why most of the people travel, hospitality has ultimately become a business. It can be argued that in most cases, hospitality is carried out in specific structures (hotels, hostels b&b, restaurants) more than in personal homes: here’s the reason why I felt so grateful and amazed in experiencing the Armenian and Georgian view of hospitality.
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This led me to reflect on the importance that hospitality has in today’s world. Realities like the UWC Movement create global networks of people that help to spread the other meaning that hospitality can have, contrasting the commercial side of it.
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For sure, the role of hospitality as the main tool for international relationships, as it was in ancient Greece, is lost. Nevertheless, hosting a person is still a meaningful insight to the concept of diversity. If that diversity “invades” the everyday routine of a family or a person, it becomes even more impactful in understanding the importance of being tolerant towards others’ habits and uses. My mind goes to the experience of my family, that through this year hosted several groups of UWC Students. Seeing my 67-year-old grandmother asking questions to my co-year from Syria and still being surprised by the answers made me understand the value of being exposed to a mindset and life experiences in contrast with one’s own: such contacts that are fundamental to keep questioning our beliefs and points of view. Initiatives such as the Facebook group “UWC Travels” create incentives to build those magical connections by hosting or being hosted. The announcements on the page clearly highlight that the “game of hospitality” is mainly based on sharing cultures and ideas: indeed, in exchange for a couch to sleep on, the most common offers are typical food and interesting conversations. We are part of a shift in the concept of hospitality, from an almost diplomatic approach and a duty to a cheap way of travelling while enjoying the company of a stranger, that after a while is not a stranger anymore. In the UWC dimension, hosting a friend is also an opportunity to get to know them under a different light, bursting the bubble of the campus and living the experience in the “real world”.
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Whatever the meaning given to hospitality is, it’s for sure a human connection: being hospitable is not a duty, but acting in a respectful way is a basic pillar in every interaction. In spite of having the possibility to choose the type of host to be, it’s important to remember that the warmth in welcoming the person changes the impact that the stay will have on them. With the rise of platforms that promote “hospitality for-profit” (like Airbnb or Booking.com), re-discovering the use of giving a couch to sleep on just for the pleasure of sharing stories might be more meaningful than ever. Ulysses and the Phaecians would recommend the experience.

 

                        

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