After a delicious dinner of schnitzel, blood sausage and more potatoes than in all of Ireland, I walked home with Katrin, Phillina – who has an apartment just downstairs – and Candy.  We had a great time at dinner and exchanged stories of our own cultural exchange experiences in: Brazil, Chile, France, Argentina, Taiwan, Wisconsin and beyond.  We talked about working at an exchange organization and Katrin mentioned several specific stories of students who came to Austria insecure, unsure and scared and left as full-fledged adults with confidence and a readiness to lead the world to a better place.

This is why organizations like ours exist.  Not all exchange programs work out perfectly but the potential for these students that participate in them is, well, extraordinary.   And most of the students who decide to study abroad have no idea how incredible they are until they’re pushed outside of their comfort zone.

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But enough about that.

When we got home, Katrin gave me the best compliment a guest can ever receive: “It’s so good to have you here.  Thank you.”

Um, excuse me but, thank me??  She not only is hosting me in her guest room, she invited me to dinner and her husband will show me around Vienna tomorrow after the brunch with Sara and her host family that Katrin arranged.  And she’s thanking me?

When you travel, you’ll encounter a surprising number of people who genuinely want you to be there guest.  It’s humbling and special when you find it and you wonder why the rest of the world isn’t like them.  In fact, you start wondering why you’re not more like them.  Katrin also hinted that she has many people stay in her guest room but that not all are as, perhaps, enthusiastic as I am.

Which got me wondering: if you’re someone’s guest, how can you not be genuinely interested in who your host is and where they’ve come from?  How can you not be gracious in turn and try your best to repay your host with everything you’ve got?  I realized when she said that, that many people don’t appreciate being a guest.  In Georgia, guests are considered a blessing from God, but I’m sure there are guests that make the Georgians question that belief.

It’s troubling to think that travelers like us wouldn’t have the grace to give back to their host.  Usually it’s as simple as asking questions and trying to learn about the culture.  It’s not a difficult thing to do but it often doesn’t occur.  If you travel, know how to be a good guest.  Buy little trinkets at the market that show you appreciate your host.  And if you don’t have any money to spend, just spend your time with them.  Be interested in who these people are and what their takes are on local politics, traditional food and culture.  When you’re a guest, you have carte blanche to ask questions that may otherwise be taboo like immigration in their country or how they feel about the United States (always a tough question).  Be prepared for anything, but ask the questions because it shows you care.  People host travelers to share their lives with you. If you don’t embrace their openness, you’re not only being rude, you’re missing out on substantial stories and life lessons that will surprise and inspire you.

When you travel, be a good guest.  Be a good guest because, if for no other reason, you’ll get so much more out of it.  Trust me.  I’ve been hosted by the best of them and I will remember my dinners with them, our walks around the city, our discussions over coffee more than I’ll remember a museum or a monument.  Being a good guest is what traveling’s all about.  Get out there and learn something from the world.

anna coffee