October 23, 2017 - The University of Rochester

The Ancient Greeks practiced a concept called "guest friendship" (xenia in Greek, the same root from which we derive words like "xenophobic").

Xenia dictated that visitors should be treated with hospitality and respect, as well as provided food, drink, and gifts.

The reasoning behind this practice was rooted in what we might think of as superstition: a strange traveler might be a God or Goddess in disguise so it behooved one to treat all visitors with kindness and generosity.  I suspect that it was also practical: the traveler one fed and treated kindly might very well become one's host at a later date. Instances of xenia built connections between families that might stretch for generations.

As you might imagine, xenia is central to The Odyssey, a story about a chronic stranger in strange lands.  There are instances of properly practiced xenia (Telemachus, Nestor, Eumaeus), well-intentioned but slightly off xenia (the Phaeacians), and complete lack of xenia (the Suitors, Polyphemus... an understatement!).

As a constant traveler, I am the beneficiary of a modern form of xenia, yet another example of the blurred lines between my life and Homer's epic, as demonstrated during the first of what would be 9 shows in 8 cities in less than two weeks.  The shows were broken into two different trips: one for 4 days in the Finger Lakes region of New York and one for 5 days in the Midwest (Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan).  

On this particular Monday I flew from Chicago to Rochester, New York, without incident and met my friend Nick at the airport.  Nick is a professor at University of Rochester but our friendship stretches back to my freshman year at UW-Madison when we met in first semester Greek class.  We wound up having the first four semesters of Greek together as well as the odd Classical culture class here and there.  Nick went on to get his Ph.D. at Indiana University and actually advocated to bring me there for a performance very early on in the life of my Odyssey. He then brought me to Monmouth College when he taught there and finally has brought me several times to University of Rochester.  

In fact, I wouldn't have had nearly the success with my Odyssey that I've had if it weren't for a number of people from my UW-Madison days like Nick.

It was great to see him and we spent some time catching up in the beautiful fall air, walking around Mount Hope Cemetery and taking in the graves of Susan B Anthony (heartbreakingly still covered in hopeful memorabilia from last year's election) and Frederick Douglass, whom I understand people are recognizing more and more.

From there we went to WBER, a Rochester radio station, for an interview to promote the show (and my latest release), back to campus so Nick could teach, and then to the lecture hall in which I would perform.  

The crowd filled in nicely and though my voice was tired from travel and the radio interview, I felt like I sang really well.  The discussion following the show was also excellent: a great variety of interesting questions.

From there we went to dinner at which we met Nick's wife and son, with whom I've also grown close, and after we adjourned back to their house where I was staying for the night.  

In the morning, I took a run to Lake Ontario and back, and readied myself to go on to Cornell University for the second show of the tour.

Back to xenia: I feel lucky to encounter generosity on a daily basis on my travels.  The material expressions of it are wonderful: I'm given places to stay, food to eat, wine (okay, usually beer) to drink... all of these things make my experience as a traveler that much more enjoyable.  

But as much or more than the material expressions of xenia it's the interpersonal ones that I remember the most.  The conversations, the sharing of ideas, the laughing, the intellectual intensity of Classicists, the meeting of strangers who become fast and lifetime friends... the human connection that my visits provoke and evoke is what stays with me when I leave.  

In my travels, I always offer to reciprocate the generosity shown to me by my hosts.  I always say "You have a friend in Chicago (a friend with a spare bedroom) should you ever need one."  I imagine this is the simplest way to honor the concept of xenia.

As I left Nick's house to drive to Ithaca (!) we remembered that his family had stopped through Chicago around the holidays in 2015 to stay for the night on their way to Wisconsin.  We made plans to possibly do the same this year.  

And Zeus Xenios smiled.

And I was off to Ithaca.

1 comment

  • Nick
    The pleasure was all mine. You are welcome any time. We need to not wait for two years to go by to connect again.

    The pleasure was all mine. You are welcome any time. We need to not wait for two years to go by to connect again.

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