London was the first stop on our trip. Tom and I originally had no intention of traveling here, but we found a killer rate (less than $550) for a non-stop flight from LA to London, so we added it to our itinerary.
With so much shared pop culture and a common language, we thought we would be bored by its similarities to the US. And there were a lot of similarities, but the subtle differences in our language and cultures delighted us. Peter, our gracious host, insightfully joked that the US and England are “two nations divided by a common language” (quoting George Bernard Shaw).
As we did a little pub crawl one evening, we felt at home at a fantastic little pub, Lamb & Flag, that opened out the backside to a small cobblestone walking street used as a patio. We stood there, Tom enjoying his cask ale, and I, my cider, surrounded by young professionals mingling over a pint after work. We eavesdropped on their conversations and marveled at how an English accent made even the most crass comments sound sophisticated and smart.
The food was okay. Meat and potatoes are not exactly exotic to us, but I have to say they have conquered the art of making chips (or as we say in America, “french fries”). And boy do they love their chips.
At one restaurant, I scoured the menu for an option that included fresh vegetables only to find that the options for my side dish were chips, crisps, or jacket potatoes. Which translates to potato, potato, or more potato.
So with the exception of Borough Market, an outdoor market brimming with beautifully displayed organic meats and seafood, fresh produce, hot paella, artisan cheeses, warm homemade breads, and gourmet chocolates, Tom and I chose to eat for nourishment, not tourism in London. We made the ales and ciders our British culinary treat instead, and they didn’t disappoint.
Other than the pubs, we trekked all over town (over 10 miles each day) to see the London Tower, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and many of London’s other glories. The party hats even made an appearance on a few of the bridges. And when we looked down long enough from the famous sites and attractions, we found an abundance of beauty in the ordinary details of the city.
While crossing one popular foot bridge, we were tempted to keep our eyes on the astounding view of St Paul’s Cathedral, but thankfully we looked down. A man nearby was painting and his canvas was a piece of old chewing gum stuck to the sidewalk.
He wouldn’t reveal his name; he only called himself the chewing gum guy. Below is a picture of one of his tiny pieces of artwork. Apparently, he does this all over London.
However, while all these adventures and corky observations are wonderful, I don’t believe this will be what we sit around and discuss two years from now, five years from now, and certainly not fifty years from now.
But I am certain that the names Peter and Solveig, our hosts, will roll off our tongues time and time again, because, from Peter and Solveig, we humbly experienced true hospitality.
I say “humbly” because there was absolutely nothing we could do for them in return. Peter and Solveig are closer in age to our parents than to us. They are well-established in life. And while a warm, healthy home-cooked meal, a ride from the airport, and a free place to stay means the world to two backpackers, they will never need our help (although we would welcome the opportunity to give it to them).
It is humbling to need someone when they don’t need you back and to accept undeserved favors from a stranger to which you can’t repay.
We did not know Peter and Solveig before this week. We were introduced to them via email through one of my work associates. So, when they originally agreed to have us stay with them for the week, we were just grateful for a soft place to lay our head at night. But we got so much more; we got two new friends.
Peter and Solveig picked us up from the airport, cooked us dinners, shared their wine, engaged us in conversation, and took an interest in us, and our story.
Someone once described to me the difference between entertaining and hospitality. Entertaining is about your self, putting on a show and a certain appearance, but hospitality is about the other person, making them feel welcome and comfortable.
Peter and Solveig showed us true hospitality; so much so, that when we returned to their house after a few days in Wales, it felt like coming home.
One evening, over one of Solveig’s tasty meals and a glass of Peter’s red wine, we asked why they were willing to take in two strangers like us. Solveig explained that several American families had been hospitable to their sons when they traveled through the States and this was an opportunity to repay, or should I say, pay forward, the kindness of those American families.
This sentiment struck Tom and I. We decided that, while there is not much we can do to repay Peter and Solveig for their hospitality, we can seek out future opportunities to open our home, rearrange our schedules, and give up some privacy in order to make people feel welcome and treat other travelers like family. We anticipate our opportunities to pay it forward.
Although, I’m not sure we have to wait till we get back. I’m not convinced hospitality requires a home. Through conversation, grace, assistance, and simply putting others first, we can practice our own form of hospitality on the road and we look forward to the opportunity to do so.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!