Written by May Bayer (Colgate University)
Southern hospitality is not only an American phenomenon. In Sicily, you may be cut in line mercilessly at the post office or pharmacy, but you will also find some of the most open and hospitable people I’ve ever met.
My first night in Catania, I stayed in a hotel before moving into our apartment. I was tired, jet-lagged, and nervous to be in a new place all by myself. Online reviews had said I would have to carry my suitcase up three flights of stairs to get to my room, but I couldn’t even open the front gate of the hotel.
The hotel manager Oscar came to my rescue. He explained that to open the gate, I had to first pull, then push (a method which everyone else seemed to already know. This information would come in handy for other gates I encountered in Catania). He also dragged my huge suitcase up the never-ending flight of stairs.
In my room, I immediately passed out from exhaustion, but when I woke up the next morning, the hospitality continued. Oscar served me a huge breakfast—a crème-filled croissant, an entire loaf of bread with jam or cheese, cappuccino and fruit juice. When it was time for me to go, he gave me directions to find my apartment, carried my suitcase downstairs for me and offered to give me a ride. I thanked him and declined his offer—surely he was just being polite.
But as I lugged my suitcase along the sidewalk, I got confused and wondered if I had missed the correct street. Suddenly I heard someone behind me. “May!” It was Oscar. I had gone the wrong way, and he had run after me to tell me. He insisted that I let him carry my suitcase, and he led me to my new apartment—which turned out to be right next to the hotel! I thanked him again, hardly believing how much he had gone out of his way for me. He told me to come visit the hotel anytime for a coffee.
Again, I assumed this was just a polite formality. But after living in Catania for two months, I now understand that Oscar was not an exception, but an accurate representation of Sicilian hospitality. I really am welcome at his hotel for coffee anytime.
Since that first day, I have witnessed all sorts of kind acts that would be unheard of at home. For class one day, another student, Sam, and I had to interview a person in the street. The person we found insisted on buying us coffee while we asked our questions. We ended up sitting at a café with him for half an hour and he promised to take us on a tour of Catania.
I soon forgot about his promise.
That Friday, though, he called and took all six CET students on a perfect tour of the city—buying us gelato from his favorite gelateria (which is now our favorite gelateria), showing us a historic castle on the sea, and a cool restaurant where you can eat underground in a grotto.
I am still surprised every time someone follows through on an offer like that. It happens all the time—when we accidentally became part of a birthday party that was happening in the Piazza, when our professors insisted on taking us out for coffee in the middle of class, when the doctor gave me a ride home after my appointment. Sicilians may seem tough at first, but they take hospitality to a whole new level, in a way that seems completely natural for them. It’s hard for me to get used to.
What does it say about our culture that I am so shocked every time I witness this kindness? Maybe the rest of the world needs to take a lesson from the Sicilians. As for me, I am going to take Oscar up on his offer of coffee at the hotel.
CET Intensive Chinese Language in Beijing program, Fall’10
Wow! What a day. You know, it’s a good thing that I’m keeping notes as I go to jog my memory about what happened a few days ago because I am pretty far behind in updating you all on my escapades!
((Let us talk a walk down memory lane)) I am learning about all my classes and meeting my teachers. Today, I met my Service-Learning teacher and he told us about the course. I chose my new program because I could 1) speak English and 2) do Service-Learning. I never knew it would be as cool as this, though. Some previous students were able to work in a women’s empowerment group, work with autistic children, and even work with a historical society! After learning about the course, my professor treated us to lunch and told us about his time in Beijing. He has been here for about 15 years and was even here during 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. He told us that people came up to him and his wife shaking in anger and asked if they could talk to the foreigners. He said that people just started to crowd around them and tell them all that the government had done to them because they couldn’t tell anyone else, anyone Chinese, for fear of being arrested!
I also met my Chinese teacher! I am in a class of two, myself and a girl from UPenn named Meghan. She’s really nice, and we just had a debate in class about whether we should believe or not believe the media. That debate goes with the essay we read in our textbook about this woman who is a follower of diet fads and things that will make you healthy. What was even weirder were our vocabulary words, I mean 乳腺病 or mammary gland disease??
After a break between meeting teachers we gathered to take a trip to a hutong/lane called Nanluoguxiang, which is a tourist spot. I might have told you all about this place before, but it is a lane that once was purely residential and now has been converted into upscale shops and coffee bars. While we were approaching the entrance to the neighborhood, there was a group of people gathered around a shop. I was curious, and approached. My roommate came with me, and I asked her what was going on. I found that many shops were going to be torn down, many used-to-be hutong/courtyard homes were going to be destroyed (again!), all for the sake of a new subway line. Apparently, the inhabitants of said shop were protesting the government by not vacating their place of business. This situation made me sad, but also, made me feel happy that the people were “sticking it to the man” as it were.
As Tingting and I were wandering around, we walked down a lane away from the “main thoroughfare”. As we walked down the lane, maybe 100 feet or so, all the sound from the neighboring lane (very very noisy by the way) just seemed to get swallowed up. It was so cool, to come from such a busy street, with cars going through it, to a whole new world. I even took a video of it to show the difference in noise levels. Kinda made me wonder if the lanes were constructed in such a way as to muffle the sound. Not sure if you all remember, but last semester I talked about another experience about going down a lane and finding it very quiet as well. I also want to tell you all that I spoke Chinese all day!
After Nanluoguxiang, Tingting and I were invited to visit my old campus and go eat dinner with my friend Nick and Li Tao, his roommate. I had met Li Tao last semester as well, and we have been great friends since! Dinner was nice, just the four of us, laughing and talking.
Before dinner, the highlight of the evening, I went to see my little friend. My mom tells me that I have not blogged about my four year old friend, but I think I have, at least mentioned her. I still don’t know what her name is, but this is how the story goes. Everyone who know me, knows I can’t stop petting animals, right? So, in the beginning of last semester there was a family who owned a store not far from the campus gate. We probably all went there every day to buy various things. In front the store, they kept an orange kitten in a cage. Can we see where the story is heading? So, perhaps each time I went to the store, I would give the cat some jerky or some attention, even if he was a little dirty and I probably shouldn’t have been touching him anyway. One day, a little girl with a scruff of brown hair and big brown eyes came up to me as I was petting the cat. She just stared at me for a moment then told me in quite a grown-up voice, that that cat was hers. Once, a few days later, she even grabbed the cat away from me to show me that he was hers. After a while, she seemed to get used to me a let me pet the cat. I remember that she once just put the cat in my lap. She is quite a cute girl.
They had to give up the cat to a family friend, but our friendship lasted beyond fuzzy animals. Just about every week we would have little “competitions” or “races”. I once saw her running around on her heels, and seemed like she wanted someone to pay attention to her. So, I mimicked her, and she gave a great giggle to see how silly I looked following her around. Thus began the infamous race, a race I would never win (of course ) As the semester ended, I told her I’d be back in two months, and that I’d hope she’d remember me. In the States, I decided to get her a little pink kitty toy with some candy hearts (from Valentine’s Day). So, when I went to visit Nick and Li Tao, I gave her the toy.
As I was so attached to her, it made me a little sad to see that she didn’t really remember me that well. I know, four-year-olds have a tough time with memory. After I gave her the toy, though, and bounced on my heels, her face perked up! We ran outside together and raced around to the soundtrack of her giggles and my huffs and puffs.