Let me put this right out there: The weather sucks. Enough said. A month ago, I came back from the South of France, tanned and full of beans. The tan is fading, but I’m holding on to the beans for dear life. I refuse to let the rain and cold burst my bubble. I’m not giving up just yet. There’s still a whole month of summer to go. Who knows — by the time you read this we might all be roasting! (Here’s hoping…)
Summer is always delightful, no matter what the weather. The house is busy all year round, but it goes up a notch in the summer. Over the last twenty years, along with friends and family, we’ve had a long list of total strangers come and live with us, many during the summer months: foreign students, au pairs, woofers (www.wwoof.ie), lodgers, and people who just needed a break from whatever they were doing. They’ve mainly come from Europe, though we’ve had a few from down-under and the US. This summer we’ve started doing Airbnb. So far we’ve had visitors from France, England, the US and Switzerland. As I write we are hosting a delightful family from Germany who are touring around Ireland avoiding the rain (it would seem that they have been lucky enough to be a day ahead of the downpours throughout their holiday).
I’ve often been asked if it’s not strange to have ‘strangers’ in your house. Many of my friends feel that it would be awkward and uncomfortable to have a ‘stranger’ around. My response is often to fudge the issue by saying that the house is big enough so that we’re never stepping on each other’s toes. There’s always a room where you can escape to if you don’t want to talk to anyone. However that’s not the whole truth. I’m sure we’d feel a bit cramped if we didn’t live in a six-up, six down, but the fact is that we often spend time with our ‘strangers’ and enjoy each other’s company immensely.
We started down the path of inviting strangers into our home for primarily financial reasons. A writer’s life is feast or famine, and having another source of income is a way to keep the bank off my back. Having woofers to work in the house and garden helps keep costs down as well. However, over the years we have met such an amazing array of interesting people — many who have become lifelong friends — that the human capital totally outweighs the financial one.
Opening your door to a ‘stranger’ is opening your heart and mind to the world outside of your ordinary life. I guess I was lucky to have grown up in a family that both moved around a lot and had many friends of different nationalities. My ‘Aunties’ and ‘Uncles’ were as likely to come from Saudi Arabia, and Syria, as Spain, or the Philippines. It made me understand at a young age that people are just people, no matter what their religion or the colour of their skin. We all profess to embrace that idea in these enlightened times, but it is one thing to have the love of humankind as an ideal and a totally different thing to have a dear and trusted friend from Nigeria, or Poland. I’ve learnt so much from the ‘strangers’ we’ve welcomed into our home, from recipes (courgette bread — Thank you Liz), to songs (Old Fashioned Morphine —Thank you Bree). Our lives have been changed by meeting each other. I was in France for the wedding of a young woman whom I consider my fifth daughter. She originally came to us as a woofer 12 years ago. One of our American woofers married a German girl he met in Clonakilty and is now living in Bavaria. And of course, I wouldn’t be living in Ireland at all, if our au pair Karen hadn’t invited us to her wedding in Portstewart twenty-five years ago.
Mark Twain wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” I’m sure that discovering a different landscape is an important part of the magic of travel, but it’s the people you meet that land the real sucker punch to prejudice. Meeting people that are different from yourself, having a chat, sharing a laugh, discovering something about their lives as you show them something of yours makes it hard to buy into stereotypes. It’s the one on one exchange with other cultures that break down barriers, and make the screaming headlines in the news less threatening, more measured, better understood. We fear the unknown. The word ‘stranger’ is often synonymous with danger, but the Oxford dictionary defines it as: ‘A person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar’. In other words: a stranger is just a friend that you haven’t met yet.