Hospitality is an important virtue in my family. I feel a bit strange phrasing it like that, but it’s true — having people over, for dinner parties, for tea, for weekends, for visits, at random times, is an important thing for us. We all like hosting (and also being guests!). I find it’s a theme that recurs in my writing as well: from the formal requirements of the guest-law to what it means to be inhospitable on a personal or a civic level.
One of the things I dislike most about living in small apartments/shared accommodation is simply the difficulty of being hospitable. I can have one or two people over for tea, maybe lunch … many more than that and it becomes awkward, simply because of physical space. (Though I did have a family over for tea reasonably successfully!)Do I have a big enough teapot? Enough mugs? Enough chairs? Enough space in one room for all the chairs?
When I think about the One Day House, there are two important things: space for guests (including beds), and enough food for there always to be room for someone else at the table.
This is an ancient duty. All cultures have old stories about those who open doors to strangers — or who don’t — and discover they are gods, angels, good kings in disguise. It’s something rather paradoxical, because there’s definitely a certain fear involved when you start opening your door to people. Obviously this is the case with complete strangers, but it’s there with partial strangers, too. Inviting someone in for a meal is a big step, not to be taken lightly. Maritimers don’t invite come-from-aways to their house soon; it only happens when you have earned their regard.
I have two stories about hospitality I want to share.
One happened when I was in university. I was going out for dinner at a family friend’s house. Just before I left, I got a phone call from downstairs — I was living in residence — and had one of those bizarre conversations with people trying to deliver pizza you didn’t order, which you know is a prank call but still have to go through with. I eventually went downstairs to see who it was, not recognising the voice, and discovered it was my older sister, her boyfriend, and a friend — the friend being the one on the phone. They’d driven up from Kingston to Ottawa to go to a store and wanted to take me out to dinner.
Once we stopped laughing about the prank pizza delivery, I explained that I was already going out. Nichola, my sister, was also good friends with A. and C. (the family friends), so decided their party would come with me to say hello, then leave before dinner — just visiting, not imposing. When we got to the house, A. said, “Don’t be absurd! Of course you’re staying for supper,” and proceeded to feed three extra people without blinking or much apparent difficulty. (A few more potatoes, a few more vegetables, fewer leftovers on the roast chicken…)
I’ve always thought that that graciousness, that instant generous hospitality, is how I want to live. It was a wonderful evening and such a delight all round.
The second story isn’t really so much a story as a tendency, how the people I met walking across England were often as gloriously hospitable as any in the old stories. They offered me water, shelter, tea, a washroom, a drive: not always, and I didn’t always need it — but on the very hot days when I needed water, or the rainy ones where all I wanted was to dry off for a few minutes, or the couple of days where all I wanted to do was sit down and weep from exhaustion and folly — even now, even in the 21st century, even when the old duties are not much valorised, there they were.