Last week I wrote about a memory of radical hospitality during my study abroad experience during college in 2005. But even more radical than the encounter on the train to Edinburgh was the absolutely brilliant host family I was blessed to live with during my three months in London.
We flew "across the pond" all through the night. A night of restlessness meant dragging suitcases wearily through the airport and hailing a cab to take us through the city. My dear friend Katherine and I arrived in front of a house on a lovely street, rows of tall, narrow homes stacked side by side. I'm not sure what felt heavier to me, my carry on bag or the bundle of nerves in my stomach.
We were met at the door by Ingrid, she opened the door wide and greeted us; her voice a song of Irish lilt. She gave us a tour of the house which concluded with our sunny little bedroom overlooking the garden. Twin beds, a desk, a dresser, and a sink. I can still call to mind the pastel colors of the bedding.
We were told that the rest of our host family would return that afternoon--father Jeff, teenage daughter Charlotte, and two young boys, Tristan and Toby. We were also informed we would have a housemate of the four-legged kind, a gray tabby-cat named Harry (yes, after Harry Potter). But, we should not be offended if Harry didn't make friends, he was a bit of a loner.
Did we nap then? Unpack? I don't recall. My next memory is of sitting in what we would call a den being served English Tea and Biscuits. Did I like milk in my tea? Well, I do now! Around that time we met the rest of the family. My first true memory of Jeff is sitting in the den with us, Charlotte stomping down the stairs, running out the door....then knocking only seconds later to be let back in. "Oh, Charlotte," Jeff exclaimed, "you've got a brain like a sieve!" And I knew, I knew in that very moment--in a new country, in a new culture, even in the midst of a deep longing for home-- that I would love these people as dear friends.
We quickly made friends with the beautiful Charlotte, who said the most darling things like, "Properly" and "Actually" descriptively in every sentence. Charlotte loved American things, especially clothes which are so much less expensive for her with the exchange rate. Tristan would come into our room and tell us lots of jokes....I distinctly remember one about David Beckham, a plane crash, and lack of a parachute...how they all tied together I don't know. Toby loved The Simpsons and never missed an episode. Toby also loved to play postman, and would invite us to "post letters" to our friends, but he had a specific formula for the address, so don't mess it up!
Perhaps our most unexpected kinship was with Harry. Harry quickly began sleeping with us in our room at night. At first he loved to cuddle on Katherine's bed, it being closer to the window. Then he realized that Katherine was much taller than I am, and therefore he had way more room to spread out on my bed! Every morning we would have to turn on our sink as we got ready for the day so he could drink from the faucet. One night after we returned from a weekend away Harry was so happy to see us and we were so delirious from travel and lack of sleep that we fed him peanut butter from a spoon.
While I fondly recall funny things like watching the Sound of Music bundled in blankets with tea cups pressed to our nose before we found the heat override button for the house furnace and Jeff hurling toilet paper rolls at us over the banister from the second floor.... what I cannot adequately express is the nature of the absolute welcome and hospitality we were shown by this family. We were invited not only into their homes but into their lives in a way that I do not think many other students on that trip experienced.
If the family was sitting down to a meal, we were invited to join them, far beyond the three meals we were "required" to be provided. We could do laundry anytime. We had plenty of space in the fridge. We had a space heater in our room for those first chilly minutes getting out of bed! We were allowed to bake Bisquick biscuits from the box my mom sent us, making a huge mess of the kitchen (Jeff's fault). If the family was going out of town, they trusted us to be in their home. We could have our friends over anytime.
It is radical, the way this family opened their home to us--and not only us but to Hollins students over and over again, for many years. It was more to them than a way to make money (sadly for some hosts this is the case). For them, it was a way to allow people to experience the best of their country and their lives, and for their children to have different experiences too. I was so sad to leave them, more so than I ever thought possible. One of my favorite parts of Christmas is getting their annual letter, to see how their lives have changed and how the children have grown into young adults.
Would you open your home in that way? Do you open your church that way? Are your doors always open to the newcomer, is your table always filled and ready to share? How open are you to widening the circle not only to let others in, but to link arms with them and keep them there?
I am so incredibly thankful for this family. I am so thankful for their kindness and their love. Without them it would not have been possible for me to have many of the experiences I had that spring, meeting new people and being introduced to a variety of cultures, seeing places I could only have dreamed of visiting. I can only hope one day my son will have the same opportunities. Who knows, maybe Charlotte, Toby, or Tristan will host him! :)