There is a word in Greek, xenia, which translates (badly) as ‘guest friendship’. It manifests as generous hospitality to strangers and travellers and is a common theme in Ancient Greek mythology.
I remember studying xenia as a central theme of The Odyssey. As Odysseus is battered and blown from port to port across the Mediterranean Sea, his return to Ithaka is made possible thanks only to extravagant displays of xenia by the people upon whose shores he washes up. (With the exception of witches who turn his crew into pigs and the like.)
One of those to help him (after a seven year delay…) with wine, bread and a raft was a nymph who gave her name to the the Thighs of Steel support van – Calypso.
Thighs of Steel, like the famous Odyssey, is a journey entirely dependent on the extraordinary xenia of those we meet, those who fill our water bottles, find us camping spots, give directions and food and welcoming smiles.
Xenia may be a Greek concept, but there must surely be a similar word in Albanian. Everywhere we went this week we have been almost assaulted with outrageous generosity.
Three cafe owners refused to let us pay for our coffees or cold drinks, and one gave us chocolate bars when we asked if we could use his toilet.
A car wash owner (Albania is full of lavazh car washes) broke off his siesta and fixed my bike while his black-clad mother brought out a watermelon and ice water for the rest of the group.
It seemed that whenever we went to pay, we were met with a touch of the heart and a smile. Such was the hospitality that it became almost an embarrassment.
One afternoon, as the sun crushed us like bugs into the asphalt, we spotted what we thought was a bar where we might be able to buy drinks and eat our leftover lunches from last night’s dinner.
But when we rolled up to the establishment, the bar turned out to be a restaurant. Quite a fine restaurant, with white cloths on busy tables that were piled up with plates of salad and grilled fish.
‘Maybe they’ll let us eat our lunch here anyway?’
At this suggestion, two thoughts surfaced:
- This is Albania: of course the proprietor will let us eat our pots of chilli and bread rolls at his restaurant, use his toilet, fill up our water bottles and cool off in the shade of his veranda. He would touch his heart and smile.
- If this Albanian man showed up at any restaurant in the UK and asked to eat his packed lunch, use the toilet and fill his water bottles under the shade of the veranda, there is no way in hell he’d be given anything other than an angry clip round the ear.
I felt ashamed and walked off down the road, looking for any corner of unbleached stone where we could sit and picnic. By the time I came back, the rest of the group was pulling out our food as the restaurant owner welcomed them with a fresh table cloth. A neighbouring table of soldiers clinked beer bottles and translated.
As it happened, we ended up buying quite a lot of extra food, so I think it worked out pretty well for the kind restauranteur, but that’s not the point. I have never known such unrelenting generous hospitality from an entire citizenry on my travels before.