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Travelling Without Hospitality
Have you ever relied on the kindness of strangers?
Amid the summer doldrums, I very much appreciated this essay by Clare Coffey for the Bulwark on being unashamed to be a tourist.
As a New Yorker, I was raised with a certain level of cheerful snobbery about tourists. Tourists were marks, looking at maps openly, accepting the comedy club flyers pressed on them, inviting pickpocketing. When I traveled, I snuck secret looks at maps, I spent a month doing Duolingo, I tried to plan out days with tiny, cramped notes so that I wouldn’t need to rely on cellphone data abroad. The ultimate triumph was to have someone ask me for directions.
But Clare is making the case that mastery isn’t the right way to explore a new place and meet new people.
[L]eisure travel is perhaps the most vulnerable to humiliation of all types: You are spending your own money, your own time, to come to a strange place purely to taste the sweetness of somewhere else, to see it and understand it and love it the best you can. It is motivated, undeniably, by desire, and therefore subject to rejection in a way travel for business or necessity is not.
Committing to the reviled, arrogant, narrow-minded way of being a tourist is one way of insulating oneself from these possibilities. But so is embracing the anti-tourist aspiration. And in both cases, rejecting the vulnerability means rejecting the occasion of its reciprocal mode: xenia, guest friendship, love of the foreigner. Admit that you are an outsider, a stranger, and people will open themselves to you in unforeseen ways. The degree varies from place to place. (In Georgia, you are at risk of sustaining permanent liver damage from everyone’s competing eagerness to fill your glass; in Sweden, you apparently may not be fed at all.) But more often than not, here’s what you will find: your faltering Spanish corrected, directions given, indiscretions tolerated with amusement, advice offered, coins spilled out of a purse on the subway picked up and returned, drinks bought, homes opened.
[…] for all the fear of looking visibly American that enterprises like Airbnb capitalize on, there is something distinctly American about the company’s promise of living like a local: preferring to negotiate a cultural exchange through the narrow independence of a market relation rather than remaining open—exposed—to the prospect of hospitality, characterized as it is by an asymmetrical reciprocity.
I had a sharp experience of vulnerability when travelling, not as a tourist, but as a reporter. I had gone to Charlotte, North Carolina to report out a feature for America on the largest Catholic Church in America. On a rainy afternoon, I jumped over a puddle to avoid getting wet, missed, and sprained my ankle.
I managed to hobble through the rest of the day, but the following morning I could not walk. I had to call the front desk of the hotel to get a wheelchair, and I had to ask for help getting into it. The parish kept extra wheelchairs at the church, so I relied on parishioners to help me get around, and find all the ramps in the enormous building.
It was a far cry from the image a reporter as a model of professionalism and detachment—a lens, not a person. None of those details made it into the story, but it was different to write a story where I didn’t just observe how the parish cared for others, but where I relied on that care, too.
Did my injury distort my coverage? Or would it have been the experience of being a pristine, self-sufficient visitor that would have distorted my view?
I don’t seek out injury on reporting trips, and I take fewer of them with two children to juggle. But when I do, my visits are always marked by need—I could use an extra hand with the carseat, an interview is interrupted by needing to help the baby set up to nurse, etc.
I travel to cities, not to places where I’m more isolated and need to guess how a stranger may respond to a woman alone with no witnesses. I have the advantage that a smiley baby is one of the most recognizable and most welcome kinds of need. I am more confident that someone will step forward to see if I need help, than I would be if the kind of need I experienced made me disheveled or erratic.
Still, a certain kind of professionalism and polish is out of reach for me now (and will be for some time). And, as Clare writes, I see something different in the people I meet when I arrive relying on their mercy.