When was the last time you turned up in a stranger’s house and stayed the night?
It’s not something we tend to do much, staying with strangers. It’s the stuff of travellers’ tales or a lost age of exploration. We might find it in an adventure from Walter Scott, in the footsteps of Byron or the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Could the internet be bring this old world tradition out of the pages of boys-own adventure stories and into the daily lives of ordinary people?
Taking in travellers has long been a part of traditional hospitality. We’ve just lost it a bit, here in the UK.
My most vivid memories of Russia and Eastern Europe are of the hospitality of strangers. In Bulgaria, Russia — even in the now-benighted Ukraine — I stayed with old folk who waited at stations to take in lodgers. People would regularly house passing travellers. I loved their stories of a faded world and their almost painful kindness to someone totally unfamiliar whose accent probably resembled a Dalek.
It amazed me how much we had in common, from our different sides of the Iron Curtain. But it also amazed me how vast is the gulf that separates seemingly similar peoples — different habits of thought, speech, culture, history run deeper than our superficial connections in the ‘globalised’ world suggest. People still live somewhere. Home matters. Family matters. Geography matters. History matters. Our lives are surprisingly local.
In a pre-Industrial Age, travellers found rooms in towns they passed. They spread news, gossip and trade. We lost that with the advent of mass travel, which required fewer stops and mass accommodation. We lost the tradition of hospitality.
Then came the internet. It gives us our news and certainly our gossip, but it also gives us our chance to form the kind of personal connections we lost when the world got corporate.
A vague sense of this came to me in the prosaic surroundings of a small house in Llangollen. I had booked it five days in advance, for £25, for the Welsh Conservative Party Conference.
I needed a bed for one night and that’s exactly what I got. But I got more too. I got the hospitality of my host, Vanessa. We talked about her family over tea (what else?). She laid out a delicious breakfast. Her ageing dog, Hettie, an indeterminate otter hound cross watched from the sofa.
I’ve used Airbnb many times before, from Croatia to Colombia. I now learn that millions do the same for everything from a student couch to a family home or a tropical island. Such is the power of this change that the company is apparently worth $10bn, with more rooms than major international hotel chains.
All power to them, I say. I could have spent £70 in a hotel for a bed I used for less than 12 hours. Instead, I found a room, in a house and some wonderful company. I discovered – again – that the traditions of hospitality, like those of history and culture and geography, run deep.
The wonder of the internet is that, across the world, it is releasing these ancient habits of human behaviour in totally unexpected ways.
So, next time you travel, forget hotels. Go back to the old ways. Stay with someone you’ve never met! You’ve no idea what you’ll discover.