Alexander Simoen lives in Brussels. He’s a project officer at the International Social Tourism Organisation (OITS-ISTO) (website) and a volunteer at Youth for a United World. Alexander wants to help build a society in which people are more aware of how they relate to each other. “Each and every respectful, patient and curious step is a step towards peace,” says Alexander.
From the Latin hospes, ‘host’, ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’.
The subtle art of making a guest feel welcome.
“It all comes down to welcoming another human being as they are, letting that stranger be themselves and allowing your guest to access your world.”
Alexander is telling us about a special week he spent in Cairo. He had felt welcome there, at Kirolos’ home, a young man he’d met at a wedding party in the city. Kirolos took him in as an accidental – and fortunate - guest for a whole week. Kirolos gave Alexander very valuable gifts, including these three:
Alexander tells us about Kirolos, who gave him a present in the form of time, attention and curiosity. About the voyage of discovery he undertook with two sisters, Yousra and Nermine. He talks about the beautiful things they showed him and the lasting impression this had on him – of everything that is so different from home. Overwhelming beauty that keeps resonating and makes him hope he can one day spend more time in the Middle East and work there.
Cairo. The sun-baked sandy colours of the land and buildings, which stand in sharp contrast to the steel blue sky in the background. The hustle and bustle. The traffic chaos, making you run for your life every time you cross the street. The silence of a mosque. Street life. Finding out that people share their lives in public areas. Food that tastes different and delicious. Where you can have a clandestine beer, somewhere on the upper floors of a large hotel complex.
Taking a car to jostle your way out of town and into the villages. Buying juicy oranges and succumbing to their delicious flavours. Being welcomed into people’s ordinary village lives.
We can see beauty when we are open to it. Beauty shows itself in the unexpected, the abrupt and in simplicity. Alexander: “This appreciation of simplicity took root, deep within me. Tasting delicious kebab, or having some ice-cold water on a scorching afternoon. Connecting with other people. Having deep conversations. That’s when you want to live in the moment, when you want to see, experience, and just be.”
Hospitality comes back at you
Kirolos showed Alexander his country and was eager to learn about life in Europe. “We had long, deep conversations, which is exactly what made them so liberating,” Alexander remembers. Alexander improved his knowledge of Arabic, while Kirolos practised his English. True hospitality goes both ways, Alexander found out. Hospitality enables mutual curiosity, exploration, learning each other’s language, life stories, customs and beliefs. Hospitality is all about giving and receiving, for the host as well as the guest.
Hospitality starts with appreciation
Kirolos turned out to be a master of true hospitality. He made time. Being proud of his city, he took his guest to places where tourists rarely go. “Kirolos sensed what would inspire me and so he made the best of it for both of us,” says Alexander.
Alexander passes on what he learned from Kirolos to his guests in Bruges, where he lives. They get his attention, time and curiosity. “Hospitality is a step towards peace”, says Alexander. “Because hospitality starts by welcoming others just as they are.”
Alexander pauses, musing.
“Maybe the source of true hospitality lies very close to us,” he ventures, before concluding more affirmatively: “true hospitality probably just starts with the willingness to welcome yourself, just as you are.”