I'm a Southern gal, born and bred. Sweet tea, Southern gents, and good manners were a staple of my upbringing. Looking back, I can see that there is an unspoken code written into the hearts of those south of the Mason-Dixon—the art of hospitality. Born of a rich tradition of appreciation for neighbor and communal interdependency, Southern hospitality is now the stuff of legends.
But imagine my surprise to experience it, of all places, overseas! "Céad Míle Fáilte!" the Irish locals said to me on my recent visit—"A hundred thousand welcomes!" At each stop, I was the recipient of warmth and generosity. Each person I encountered was present and eager to attend to my not-so-convenient requests: "Can I borrow your cell phone to make a local call?" or "Will you drive me to the neighboring town?" (Occasionally, I felt like I should offer to help write the sequel to Leap Year featuring my adventures and misadventures.)
What exactly is it about these overwhelmingly welcoming cultures I appreciate so much?
For one, I learned that true hospitality is rooted in a heart overflowing with love and kindness. The guest comes first—that is, the person comes first. It begins before anyone steps across the threshold into the home, and continues long after they've bid farewell. The guest experiences a haven where they can truly relax and enjoy the company of their companions.
This is not to imply that the guest is waited on hand and foot, but instead becomes part of the family rituals. Dinner needs to be prepared? All hands on deck! Cooperation builds a sense of closeness; the food needn't be extravagant, but it is made with warmth and there's enough for all. There is a simplicity and ease that is simultaneously elegant.
Also, both Southern Americans and the Irish seem to have a conversation style in common—the love of storytelling. Conversation is never wanting, and silence is never awkward. And the storytelling extends beyond the exchange of facts. It opens the room to a world of ideas and the humor of others' lives. It is only possible with a lack of time constraints; everyone enjoys leisurely camaraderie and the rhythm of conversation is natural.
While I began the summer biased toward Southern hospitality, my recent travels to the Emerald Isle broadened my perspective. Whether offered in a hearty "Céad Míle Fáilte!" or "Ya'll come back now, ya' hear?"—I learned hospitality has a universal language: the language of the heart.
Photograph via Stefany Alves.