It’s as good a time as any to jot a few thoughts on hospitality, precipitated by being “voted off the island” as Dan put it at a recent stay. Now, I’ve always tried to be the best guest: I wash all the dishes, cook for my hosts, return early, clean the kitchen or the bathroom should it need to be, etc. This endeared me to my European hosts. When I’m hosted by an individual living within a suite, I try to acquaint myself with the suitemates. Find some common ground to talk about, watch a show together, whatever.
I had a wonderful conversation about the meaning of hospitality with Fatih, my host in Bursa. For him (and for my hosts in Poland and Turkey), his home is my home. Hospitality isn’t sharing food, or providing blankets or giving a map – it’s taking his guests into town and showing them around, leading them about and illuminating specific points of interest, going out of his way to make the stay more special. The basics are so obvious in the East, that Murat, my host in Istanbul, was completely surprised that I bought groceries – saying, “Eat everything in the fridge!” The feeling of hosting is that of sharing. I’m not “taking” their food or their space or their time. We’re sharing it.
I’ve noticed the ironic trend that the more someone has, the less generous they tend to be. I don’t get tips from people in suits. Or women who wear designer brands. I get tips consistently from the shabbily dressed, other buskers, the poor and homeless, the lower working class. The same holds for hospitality. My hosts in Poland and Turkey weren’t poor, but certainly not so well off as an average New Yorker. And yet a group of medical students living on the upper east side are loathe to share even a bottle of milk. Naturally it’s partly a result of experience. Never having had to work or having been in a position where the cost of food is a constant dilemma they cannot sympathize. But I think the greater reason for this attitude is a consequence of consumerism. It’s the logical extent of that cultural notion.
Because you can’t profit off other peoples selflessness or kindness. People hosting each other – there’s no money in that, but there is in hotels, and thus we have this huge fear of “crazy people.” That’s the single most common query I get in the States about my use of couchsurfing abroad – questions about the safety or whether I ever encountered anything sketchy or murderous or rape-intending. Never a question if I met someone wonderful, or clicked deeply with them regardless of cultural differences or perhaps because of them. There’s no profit to be had from hitchhiking. There’s little profit to be had from sharing music on the street. There’s none for sharing food.
And thus the culture of excess. Where in America we have this scene played out after every meal – a haggling over the bill that takes agonizing minutes. Each person trying to undercut their portion as deftly as possible. The total always coming up too small. Arguments erupting over who spent more on their food. While in Eastern cultures someone usually takes the whole bill in the understanding that the next time someone else will. Arguments erupt around my family gathering’s dinners not in competition to spend less but to spend more. And if ever the bill is split, it’s done evenly.
So Busking is bound to fail in the northeast. A place where time is money and might makes right. Where beggars make more than buskers (and they certainly do). Where the bystander effect predominates so strongly. New York buskers have to wrangle for their money – a whole new dimension to the art – and that’s sad to me. On the 6 train to grand central station a bongo/guitar duo introduced themselves for two minutes or so, getting people attentions and soliciting responses from the reluctant car before playing a two minute song. They wouldn’t have received a single tip had they not gone person to person asking for one, which took over three minutes. I’m not knocking this – not like I look down on the gypsies playing in Oslo – it takes bravery and a certain kind of charisma to engage the audience so directly. And I think they really did make people’s days better. They didn’t ask for tips specifically, but simply if their target enjoyed the music: the song Three Little Birds by Bob Marley, with the refrain “Every little thing gonna be alright”. All smiles and positive energy.
I’m not cut out for that. Maybe I lack humility, maybe I have too much “artistic integrity.” Either way, this culture is why New York is not the place for me.