We just got given some cheap plastic trestle tables. Cheap but eternally useful. The man walked across the campsite to give them to us after he saw us cooking on the ground. Twenty minutes before that another permanent caravan resident in this small English campsite rummaged around his van for 10 minutes to find me a power board and converter – which he then gave me. We have just come from spending a night with a friend of a friend who we barely knew before a few days ago. Sprawled on the lounge room floor of their mid-renovation house consuming their only liveable space, making their teenage daughter sleep in their room. That was after spending all day at their place building the bed in our new van. Using their tools, using timber they had put aside for me, our girls plonked in their lounge room all day watching their TV, eating their food, drinking their tea.
And not two days before that we spent two nights in a 400 year old farm guest-house – for free. Staying with the most gracious and generous of elderly couples (they’ll hate that description) who took us in like their own children and gave us the run of their house. The connection? Mel’s sister had worked at their guest house for 6 months as a young gap year student – more than twenty years ago.
The list of generosity we have received just goes on and on and on. Free houses, homes, wetsuits, meals, lifts, help or assistance. It has really struck me in the last few weeks and begged the question: “Do I give as good as I am getting?”
You notice the difference in community connection a lot more when you travel. I know Australian society is generally good at heart. The stereotype of the laid back welcoming Aussie has some roots in truth. I honestly believe that most people are generally good – but when it comes to opening doors to strangers I feel we are far behind. I stood on the lawn at dusk talking to Mel and asked “When was the last time we took a stranger under our roof and let them stay for several days?”
When was the last time back home that I had a meaningful interaction with a stranger that I had instigated? Not just meeting someone but reaching out to someone and offering something with no expectation of return? I don’t mean money but true hospitality. Time, our personal space, our effort.
I don’t know if it is just one of those travelling things that only happen because you are on the road. We just don’t get the opportunity to take people in or meet strangers because in the normal routine of life we move in very familiar circles. We trace the same path with the same people and rarely does anyone new wander across that path, stop and truly engage us.
But then I realise that the people opening their doors to us ARE in their “normal”. They are treading their habitual patterns and then we come along and they offer us anything we need.
It’s a cliché to talk about the isolated city dweller. The hurrying people with pallid faces and their ceaseless tramp of feet (sorry Mr Lawson). Too busy to talk to others. I don’t think people are mean in the city – but the isolation is very, very real. The strange thing is that I have become immune to it. I have been a part of it so long that it is normal NOT to reach out to strangers. It is accepted that you don’t talk to others in the street, that you don’t interact. Stare ahead, keep your eyes down, focus on your own world. (As dodgy an 80’s movie as it is I love the scene from Crocodile Dundee where Mick Dundee is walking down the streets of New York trying to saying hello every single person just as you would in a small country town. He tries and then just gives up. A beautiful statement about the difference in social norms.)
But these interactions with strangers has made this trip what it is. When you travel with a family you don’t meet half as many people as you do when alone. You don’t invite interested conversations from youthful fellow travellers – they seem to steer away from us a little. But when someone breaks into that social zone it shakes me awake and makes me look up more. And the more I look for it the more I realise how generous people are around me. Seemingly less wary of strangers.
That wariness of strangers is an intrinsic part of every higher organism in the animal kingdom – including humans. It is wired into the animal brain to be cautious of the new and unfamiliar – and for good reason. The consequence of blindly interacting with a malicious foreign animal is pretty high. The cost and benefit of waiting a few minutes to make SURE that you won’t be killed / eaten / attacked is pretty damn self-explanatory.
As smart as we humans are we haven’t been able to over ride that wariness of others. I remember reading a psychology study years ago that proposed to prove that racism was hard wired in our brains. White American test subjects were shown faces of African Americans and Caucasians in similar situations and people consistently displayed longer, less decisive and favourable reactions to the African Americans. The researches deemed it proof we are “hard wired” or at least innately inclined to be slightly racist. (Curiously I don’t know if any smart psychology graduate has reversed the study to see if African Americans are “afraid” of white Americans).
But I was always unsettled by this “proof” of racism. I think it is a little less provocative but way more pervasive. We are just wary of ANYONE different. We accept those in our “ingroup” and we are wary of those in the “outgroup”. People who are the same are good. People who are different are to be cautiously suspected until proven worthy.
Of course it is all a spectrum (as almost all behaviours are). There are some who are excessively generous even to their own detriment and there are others who put Scrooge to shame with their stinginess. Most of us settle somewhere in the middle of that ever present bell curve that seems to haunt nature.
But being on the receiving end has made me take a long hard look at where I sit in that bell curve. I try to offer effusive thanks to all these givers. Mel and I are at pains to not overstay our welcome or encroach on people’s lives. We try to be good guests (though it is hard when our girls have become so familiar with new living space that they walk into any house and immediately drop their shoes, walk to the book shelf and open the books or within minutes are making craft projects).
But thank you doesn’t seem to be enough. It always feels inadequate and I am left desperately wanting to show these people how appreciative I am. (I also am wary of crossing that line to become one of those people who say ‘thank you’ so much you feel like shaking them by the collar and saying “STOP!!! ITS FINE!!!)
So I think the best way is to try and become one of the givers. Drop the caution a little, ask one more question about someone’s life story, take a gamble, open the door. And of course return the favour to all those who have given to us directly. Then you get that brilliant moment when 8 years down the track there is a knock on the door at our little home in Ocean Grove. We open it up and there stands one of the teenage children of one of the givers. Surfboard under the arm, their Pommy accent softened a little by their gap year adventure, with no money to their names, uttering the words “Mum and Dad said it might be OK to crash here for a while….orright?”