17 April 2011

The Importance of Hospitality

Jean-Bernard Restout, Philemon et Baucis Offrant
L'hospitatlite a Jupiter er Mercure, 1769 
This weekend—this whole past week, actually—was epic. Absolutely epic. First off, it was the Sandhurst Competition, so teams from every Company, the other Academies, and then foreign Academies all participated in the giant military training event comprised of different tests, each one more of a haze than the last. The teams arrive usually about a week before the actual competition to get acclimated to the weather (shitty) and altitude (super low??) and terrain (horrible) and, likely most importantly, the time zone. Thus, academy grounds were crawling with the best and brightest from all over the world.

So myself and all my fellow female cadets were just drooling over the eye-candy and reveling in the music of accents. Sandhurst week is always epic, and everything culminates Saturday night after the competition.

As I tend to stand out among my peers for the loudness of my clothes and attitude, I also tend to acquire a lot of friends during this time. This year was no exception. I’ll be sad to see my friends on the Australian and British teams head back to their own Academies. It’s always nice to build connections in foreign countries. As an avid traveler, I obviously support the expanding of one’s cultural horizons by communicating with those of differing perspectives and backgrounds. Plus, it’s nice to have a place to crash when in otherwise unfamiliar territory, and all of my foreign friends know they’re welcome to stay with me if they ever want to visit the States. They have an open invitation, no matter how inconvenient it might be for me at the time or where I am in life. Hospitality is something I’ve always taken very seriously.

Which brings me to a little story I once translated from Latin into English back in the early years of my high school. I remember this story in particular because it resonated with some of my opinions towards hospitality and likely further influenced my thinking on the subject. Because my memory is a little foggy on all of the details, and because the translation of the excerpt would be rather lengthy, I decided to go with a good summary courtesy ancienthistory.about.com. I made a few tiny grammar corrections, but other than that, the text is pretty much just copy/paste. Enjoy.

According to ancient Roman mythology and Ovid's Metamorphoses, Philemon and Baucis had lived out their long lives nobly, but in poverty. Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods, had heard of the virtuous couple, but based on all his previous experiences with humans, he had serious doubts as to their goodness.

Jupiter was about to destroy mankind, but was willing to give it one final chance before starting over again. So, in the company of his son Mercury, the wing-footed messenger god, Jupiter went about, disguised as a worn and weary traveler, from house to house among the neighbors of Philemon and Baucis. As Jupiter feared and expected, the neighbors turned him and Mercury away rudely. Then the two gods went to the last house, the cottage of Philemon and Baucis, where the couple had lived all their long married lives.

Philemon and Baucis were pleased to have visitors, and insisted that their guests rest before their little hearth fire. They even lugged in more of their precious firewood to make a greater blaze. Unasked, Philemon and Baucis then served their presumably starving guests, fresh fruits, olives, eggs, and wine.

Soon the old couple noticed that no matter how often they poured from it, the wine pitcher was never empty. They began to suspect that their guests might be more than mere mortals. Just in case, Philemon and Baucis decided to provide the closest they could come to a meal that was fit for a god. They would slaughter their only goose in their guests' honor. Unfortunately, the legs of the goose were faster than those of Philemon or Baucis. Even though the humans were not as fast, they were smarter, and so they cornered the goose inside the cottage, where they were just about to catch it.... At the last moment, the goose sought the shelter of the divine guests. To save the life of the goose, Jupiter and Mercury revealed themselves and immediately expressed their pleasure in meeting an honorable human pair.

Asked what divine favor they wanted, the couple said that they wished to become temple priests and die together. Their wish was granted, and when they died they were turned into intertwining trees.
This tale also reminds me of a tradition one of my good friend’s families performs at every major holiday. They’re devout Catholics from Poland, but this is nonetheless a tradition I would love to adopt when I’m on my own or have a family. At Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, literally every time there’s a holiday and their family gets together, they set one extra seat at the dinner table. The role of the empty seat is twofold. On the one hand, it is reserved for any unexpected guests, whether they be strangers or close kin, who might show up on the doorstep hungry. On the other hand, the seat is also reserved in honor of the spirits of the family ancestors who might drop by to be with their descendents on such a holiday. Beautiful tradition, and it definitely speaks to me of Pagan hospitality alive and kicking.

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