Foreign Hospitality

In Traveling on November 16, 2011 at 4:12 am

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune of being taken in by someone while traveling in a foreign country knows what an incredible and truly comforting experience it can be.

Following an arduous eight days in the south of Italy characterized by numerous misbooked accommodations and non-functioning credit cards, my friend and I found ourselves in Amsterdam on the final day of our summer trip. Content to never hear another “Grazie” or “Prego” again in our lives, we walked across the tarmac to the terminal of Schiphol Airport. It was cold and wet outside, and although we were still wearing shorts and t-shirts, the inclement Amsterdam weather provided a welcome respite from the intense Italian sun, as rain drizzled down and hit our tired, sunburnt legs.

Because of an inconveniently placed layover, we had arranged to stay with a family friend of my traveling companion for our one night in the Netherlands. As we exited the gate we looked for our host, whose appearance we were only partially familiar with from pictures on Facebook. When we located her in the sea of blond-haired blue-eyed travelers, we were met by a spritely brunette wearing flats and a leather jacket, who was about ten years our senior. Immediately, I was stuck by the amount of warmth she naturally radiated; within minutes of meeting her, the three of us were on a train headed towards her home, deep in conversation like old friends.

Once we reached her apartment, she poured us each a cup of tea and went into the kitchen to begin preparing a snack. Cradling the cup in my hands to warm my fingers, I began looking around her home. Many of its surfaces were strewn with candle sticks whose wax had been allowed to drip and collect into long semi-translucent stalactites, and its walls were lined with bookshelves housing old philosophy texts and Film Noir titles. “Do you guys like beets?” she asked from the kitchen. “I just picked some up at the farmers market.”

More welcoming words could not have been said at that moment.

A few minutes later our host emerged from the kitchen with a white ceramic bowl filled with a salad consisting of raw-beets, apples, carrots, goat cheese and walnuts. “Eat up,” she said — as if we needed any encouragement. It’s possible that I was influenced by the fact that the fresh fruits and vegetables we had eaten in the week leading up to that moment had been few and far between, but I maintain that that salad was one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life. It had a wonderful balance of a richness from the fats in the nuts and cheese, and earthiness from the raw beets which stood in stark contrast to many of the heavier dishes that we had been eating. In my mind, it also served as the concluding act of a long trip and an even longer summer, and, cliché or not, represented the beginning of a new stage in my life — as in ten days I would be packing up to go to college. For the next couple minutes my friend and I sat there, alternating between mouthfuls of food, and expressions of profuse gratitude, to which we were told was, “so American” of us.

“Dinner?” she asked cheerfully once she had cleared away the empty bowls which were still colored a deep hue of magenta from the beets. Looking out the window at the blank grey sky, I realized how woefully under-packed I was for the weather. I had filled my backpack to the brim with t-shirts, sandals and shorts, but had neglected to pack anything beyond what was needed to go to the beach. So, a few minutes later, wearing a sweater that belonged to our host which only covered my torso down to my belly button, we left her home and walked to the tram stop.

As the tram weaved through the city’s landscape, I was reminded at each corner of the West Village of Manhattan, only threaded with long, winding canals that reflected moonlight off their black waters. It had just begun to pour when we reached our stop. We quickly ran with our hands on our heads through the labyrinth of alleys and side streets, carelessly stepping in puddles, until we reached a remotely located pub. Our host described the place as a “brown cafe,” a type of pub differentiated by its old wooden decor, smooth and worn from centuries of use. Surely, I thought, we would never have been able to find this place left to our own devices. The three of us, now accompanied by one of her friends, took a seat at a table next to the bar. Our host and her friend looked over the menu, pointing at things that they had on previous occasions, and ordered a wide variety of appetizers in rapid Dutch.

The most memorable of these dishes was a plate of little croquets called Bitterballen. “They’re like fried creamy meat,” our host described. “It’s a Dutch specialty,” she continued, as if almost to say, “Don’t worry.” Thinking perhaps that something must have been lost in translation, we nevertheless dipped the little fried balls into mustard and popped them into our mouths. They had a texture unlike anything I had ever tasted before. The crunchy exterior yielded to a  soft inside that seemed to have been made from a ragout of minced meat thickened with a roux of butter, flour and stock. “They are like fried creamy meat!” I proclaimed, not able to think of a better description.

Once we cleared our plates, we got up and put on our sweaters (me struggling into mine), and walked up to the bar to settle our tab. The chef, still in his whites and checkered pants was sitting at the bar eating and talking to the bartender. We nodded to him in appreciation and returned outside, noticing that the rain had stopped. Guided by our host, we passed by the countless Asian take-out restaurants, tattoo parlors and dry cleaners that lined the streets, until we reached another small tavern. A clock tower struck one o’clock, indicating that we would have to be up in four hours to catch our flight home, but neither my friend nor I seemed to care. In almost absolute silence for the first time the entire night, we sat outside the pub looking out across the canal, admiring the rows of identical white houses with black slanted roofs, slowly sipping Belgium beer and smoking cigarettes.

It was in that moment that I became overcome by a deep sensation of being taken care of. For our entire trip, it had been required of us to always be “on”; it was imperative that we constantly check the map to ensure we had not gotten lost, and be certain of the exact location of every one of our belongings, lest we misplace something important like a passport. To be able to let down your guard and to put yourself totally in the hands of someone else, is not only extremely comforting, but also allows you to experience the city as it should be experienced.

My friend and our host began talking about how their families first came to know each other. On a trip to Europe, when they were only a few years older than us, my friend’s parents were taken in by a couple they had met on the street. Almost thirty years later they have remained in contact with one another, allowing each to stay in their homes while on vacation. Hearing this story, I was again struck by the deep connection that can be fostered by an experience like this; and although my friend and I were not in dire need of food or drink, or even down to our last dollar, it is an experience that I’m sure I will remember for the rest of my life.

~   ~   ~

This reflection was prompted by a link to a website that my father sent me a couple of days ago. The website http://eatwithalocal.socialgo.com/ is a social network site designed for travelers who want to get to know people in a foreign country by eating a meal with them. Members specify location, dining preferences and if they would prefer going out or eating in. What I had intended originally to be a short blurb about the novelty of the website, ended up being a rather long reflection that made me realize how grateful I am to have had that experience in Amsterdam.

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