Picking up everything and moving across the globe for five weeks is no easy task. A new city in a foreign country can be terrifying in many ways: culturally, linguistically, even directionally.
And while exploring city life is an integral part of traveling, I’ve found another aspect of my study abroad trip to be equally as rewarding –– staying in the homes of locals, and experiencing their hospitable and selfless nature firsthand.
After a nearly 11-hour bus ride across Hungary and through Romania, our group arrived at the homes of three Transylvanian women in a sleepy suburb of the formerly Hungarian region. Eight of us were ushered into the kitchen straight off of the bus by our smiling host Ilyka –– a small, blonde, grandma-like woman who radiated warmth.
Without a word in English, the woman we’d just met seconds ago shuffled back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, laying out large tureens of steaming red soup on the table. She continued to serve us with a loaf of fresh bread, a ceramic dish of creamy butter and, of course, glasses of her very own homemade palinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy.
“Jó étvágyat kívánunk,” she finally said, standing at the head of the table and surveying her work with a humble smile. Bon appetit.
As we dove into the first course of the meal, Ilyka resumed her dance between the kitchen and the table, refilling the basket of bread, the dishes of stew and the glasses of palinka interchangeably. We were certainly hungry after our long day of travel, and with every second and even third helping of soup, Ilyka’s happiness became all the more visible. She never joined us at the table, however, preferring to witness our satisfaction from the sidelines.
After maybe a bit too much soup, Ilyka quickly removed our bowls from the table and set out the main course: breaded, crispy chicken paired with soft potatoes and a cold, cabbage salad topped with paprika. We could only guess how many hours she had spent in the kitchen preparing such a feast for us.
Her service went on the same way it had during the first course, and I was amazed at her endless hospitality. Here was a woman who we’d literally just met who had welcomed us in off the street and was now treating us like members of her family.
We knew maybe three phrases in her language, one of them being “köszönöm,” or “thank you,” which we used as often as we could, peppering our conversation with the word even more than the Hungarians spice their food with the beloved paprika. With each expression of gratitude, Ilyka grinned, hurrying to set even more food in front of us.
While good, old-fashioned Southern hospitality is certainly popular in Texas, Ilyka’s friendliness and giving nature went above and beyond any hospitality we’d ever seen back home. We were not just guests: we had been adopted by this bright-eyed Hungarian grandmother. In mere moments, we had become part of her family, despite not sharing any common blood, or even much of the same language.
While hospitality is certainly a thread running through Europe, this welcoming spirit can differ from country to country, and even from region to region.
My mother was born in Memmingen, Germany on July 7, 1968 –– a few short weeks after her father, Karl Oskar Klenk, was killed in a plane crash during a training exercise over the German Alps in Bavaria. This summer marked the 50-year anniversary of his death. My parents and siblings traveled from Phoenix, Arizona, across the world to attend my grandfather’s commemoration, and we were welcomed by our many relatives, specifically my great aunt Ursula (my grandfather’s sister) and her husband Hermann.
My first morning in Germany began with a traditional European breakfast, complete with its own German twist. Platters of sausage, cold cuts and cheese sat beside dishes of butter, marmalade, honey and jam. Each place setting was complete with a soft-boiled egg, and a basket of bröchten (bread rolls) and pretzels made its way back and forth across the table every few moments. An never-ending supply of coffee, juice, milk, tea and even hot chocolate flowed from the kitchen, and a mixture of German and English words punctuated every bite of breakfast.
Unlike Ilyka’s almost restaurant-like service, Hermann and Ursula joined us at the table after making sure everyone else was settled. Their attention to their guests, however, was no less prominent and the atmosphere no less familial. Seconds after my mother finished her second mug of rich, German coffee, my great uncle leapt to his feet to pour her another cup, as well as to slip my nine-year-old sister a small piece of chocolate with a wink.
And while at Ilyka’s, our group felt as though they’d been newly claimed as members of the small, Transylvanian woman’s family, I had a somewhat different sensation in Stuttgart. I’d known these relatives for almost my entire life, and yet, sitting around their table on a sleepy morning in Germany, it felt like coming home … for the first time in a long time.
My mother raised me and my three siblings with a “gemütlich” mindset. Gemütlich is a German word that doesn’t have an exact English translation, but essentially encompasses a welcoming, cozy atmosphere or feeling. Ursula and Hermann’s home in Stuttgart, as well as Ilyka’s in Transylvania both embodied this idea in their respective ways.
Although European hospitality differs from place to place, the same accommodating, friendly spirit is present in almost all interactions I’ve had during my time here, especially in these two circumstances. An invitation into someone’s home is not just that –– it’s an invitation into their family, which you may or not have always been a part of.