Distinguished Visitors

By David H. Albert

I learned almost a year in advance that we would be having very distinguished visitors coming to stay with us. No one seemed to know for how long, except to say that we should prepare for a long visit, as they were being sent to learn absolutely everything they could about their host community and country, and they came with very little preparation.

People who recently had similar visitors said we should treat them as if they were truly honored guests, even though no one seems to know exactly from whence they come. Everyone agrees they don’t speak the same language and know almost nothing about our culture, but they are very malleable and flexible, often, but not always, easy to get along with (in fact, they can be very demanding, I was also told), and, above all, very fast learners. So quick we’d probably have to struggle to keep up. Luckily, they weren’t all expected to arrive at the same time.

And so we prepared our house for the arrival of our visitors as best we knew how. We wanted them to feel comfortable, safe, and secure, as if this were their own home. And once we readied the space, we began to think about what we would want their sojourn to be like.

We’ll want them to have the opportunity to explore. We’ll try to introduce them to the best that we have to offer — the wonders of our natural environment and a community that will welcome them with open arms. We will share with them what we think to be important — our religion, our culture, our music, our creative arts — but we’ll make sure to introduce them to the religions, arts, and culture of our neighbors, too. We might even get to take them to all those places in our community and maybe even in the whole country that we’d always wanted to visit ourselves, but have put off in the crush of our day-to-day lives.

We’ll help them with languages — speaking, our forms of reading and writing, our sometimes strange ways of doing mathematics, our language of music — so they can open doors to our houses of wisdom themselves. We’ll make a special effort to introduce them to people different from ourselves, so they can experience the rich kaleidoscope that makes where we are a great place to live.

We’ll feed them nourishing food. Not fancy every night — that’s not the way we eat—but simple, nutritious fare, though we’d make sure they’d get to experience our festive foods as well. We expect they’ll like some of it, and probably some items they’ll move to the edge of the plate, at least for a time until they get used to them. And maybe, for some of our foods, they may never develop a taste. Palates differ, and we’ll respect that. People say the often come without any previous experience with a knife and fork. I guess we’ll have to remedy that as we go.

We’ll respect their needs for privacy, for time alone and in nature, and give them enough space to express and pursue their own interests and desires. These may differ from our own, and indeed it would be surprising if they didn’t, given that they come from another place and another time. They may even develop their own tastes in clothing and hairstyles, we’ve been informed, and their own musical subculture, blending what we have to offer with their own native sense of style. We’ll try to learn to relax around them. I expect this will be difficult for awhile, but we’ll learn, too — I’m sure we’ll have as much to learn from them as they do from us.

We’ll try to alert them to dangers they may encounter. I do not know if they are aware of our traffic habits, or the swift-moving tide in the inlet, or even how our gas stove works. They’ll get comfortable soon enough but, as the maxim reads, “Safety First.”

They might want to spend time with other visitors in our community, maybe just to compare notes and share common thoughts and feelings. We’ll try to make sure they have opportunities to do so, though we’ll be sure to check in with the other hosts first. We’ve also been told that our visitors may like to try out our sports with each other and, if we choose, they might even allow us to join in.

Of course, they’ll have to learn something about our community’s rules. We’ve developed them over time, and they have stood us in pretty good stead, though sometimes even we forget why we have them. Having to keep our visitors informed will be a good reminder. And since they will be living under the same rules as we do, as soon as they are fully familiar with our rules and traditions, we’ll invite them to join us in improving upon them.

We’ll expect that our visitors will change over time. Whenever I’ve spent time in a foreign land, even for short periods, I’ve come back a changed person. How much more would I have been transformed if my stay had been a prolonged one!

I guess I’m not too concerned about how many facts or concepts they take away with them. I really don’t care much if they remember the state capital of Missouri, or who the vice president was when they first arrived. If these enrich their visit and help them in the future, so much the better. But what I really hope they’ll take with them is our recognition that our community and our nation, and with them our individual and collective happiness, are built upon the responsible exercise of freedom. This is really our greatest secret. It’s a freedom we and they were born with, and I hope they will be able to take it along with them, unfettered by prejudice, their own or that of others, unhampered to the highest degree possible by others’ expectations, or their own fears and self-doubts, uninhibited by dependencies they do not choose freely for themselves.

I know that I will grow to love my visitors, and expect that they will grow to love me. We will have shared so much together! Someday, of course, and I hope not too soon, they’ll leave and continue on their respective journeys. I hope they’ll drop us a card now and then, and call occasionally, and maybe we’ll even be able to get together from time to time, and that we will be good friends. I hope they’ll someday look back at our time together and, when faced with the prospect of distinguished visitors themselves, be able to say, “That’s where I learned how to treat an honored guest.”

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