Stranger on a Tram

This is a story about the precious gift we called hospitality, based on an unusual experience my wife and I recently had in Sweden. Hospitality is defined in the dictionary as "The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers". I encourage you to read on if you care about this topic.

While it was snowing outside, I was chilling out after a hectic week of back to back seminars. It was my last day in Gothenburg and Ann was dutifully accompanying me on a tram in search of interesting guitar shops. We were both rugged up from head to toe and I was clumsily holding a yellow Post-It Note with the address of our next destination. I thought it best to check if we were on the right track and approached a young guy with a guitar strapped to his back. I gingerly held out the note. He looked at me, then the note, and said in careful English "Yes you are going in the right direction". He then added "I will take you there."

The songwriter from the cafe of love

Sure enough he got off the tram with us, making a point to look after Ann who was being extra cautious because of the icy conditions. As he led us through the quiet, snow covered street our conversation became a source of warmth as we got to know him and the three of us shared stories, jokes and perspectives on life.

Hans turned out to be a songwriter on his way to perform at a special cafe. We were fascinated to hear it served low priced, nourishing food with free live music, and had additional art and musical facilities where people could express themselves. He also told us he had recently been through turbulent personal times which almost left him homeless, but he had been cared for by the community workers who ran the cafe.

We had now reached the guitar shop. Hans and I plucked our way around the store, enthusiastically comparing guitars and talking technicalities with the staff. (Ann politely feigned interest). He then announced "Come, now we eat." Ann and I glanced at each other. He seemed like a genuinely good person, so soon we were again walking through the falling snow with our mysterious host. We learned that, as well as performing and helping at the cafe, Hans also looked after elderly people in the evenings. He said the thing they most appreciated was him just being with them and occasionally playing them his songs.

A magical vibe

Before long we arrived at an unassuming yellow wooden building set back from the road. A small painted sign in Swedish translated something like "Activity House". As we entered the foyer Hans took our coats and hung them carefully on the wall rack. He then led us through another door into the cafe.

The warmth of the cafe was more than just physical. While it was no Starbucks in its decor, it radiated a friendly, relaxed and upbeat atmosphere - a vibe that most cafes strive for, but few achieve. Office workers, volunteer staff, arty types and several people who looked like they'd seen better days sat together around an assortment of wooden tables and chairs. Several people, clearly delighted to see Hans, came over to meet us. One of the artists showed us his paintings which were proudly hanging around the walls.

We queued cafeteria style and were served our lunch by a slightly awkward teenager wearing a white server's hat. Hans then performed some of his own songs. He had a beautiful voice. There was no stage. He just played from the table where we sat. I was then graciously invited to join him in a jam and the young fellow that had served us lunch, shyly brought over an African drum and joined in. We had a ball and our young food server-cum-drummer boy thanked me with a huge grin and high fives.

The true meaning of hospitality

Through my travels I get to experience the hospitality industry at all its levels. For instance as I write this I am flying First Class (lucky upgrade), but the service is not a patch on the love, humility, natural creativity and fun I experienced in that delightful cafe. The unfortunate truth is, what is passed off as hospitality is often a veneer of phoney pleasantness, sometimes delivered with mindless resentment. It is ironic that the more affluent we become as a society, the further we seem to move away from this honest service from the heart that leaves you with that special feeling.

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