Hello, Stranger by Will Buckingham review – how we find connection in a disconnected world
F or many of us – particularly those of us fortunate enough to not lose family members – one of the deeper losses we have suffered during the pandemic has been being cut off from people who we were not close to. I long for the sociable buzz of academic conferences, for the chats in coffee breaks with people I see once in a blue moon.
In Hello, Stranger Will Buckingham, a peripatetic academic and author, offers an elegant and often moving exploration of what it means to connect with strangers. His starting point is one of grief. The death of his own wife, Elee, from cancer, haunts his book. While he needed the comfort of friends in the aftermath, he recounts: “I was surprised by the extent to which I also needed strangers – people who knew nothing of Elee, who knew nothing of the particularities of my grief.”
It has been sobering to realise how much we gain from the proximity of people whom we do not love but from whose presence we still draw comfort and stimulation
Even before his wife’s death, much of Buckingham’s life had been spent among strangers. Growing up, his father’s vicarage was something of an open house to congregants and assorted waifs and strays. As an adult he has travelled widely and spent extended periods working, exploring and learning in Indonesia, China, Myanmar and elsewhere. Indeed, even after his wife’s diagnosis he still went off to teach in Chengdu, returning only when it became clear the illness had entered its terminal phase.
Hello, Stranger is rooted in a long tradition of thinking about what it means to live in a world in which we are surrounded by strangers, yet also need the pleasures and comforts of home. Buckingham’s anthropological experiences as a sojourner inform this book, bolstered by his familiarity with ancient histories, literatures and mythologies. One constant presence in the book is Homer’s Odyssey, and Odysseus’s travails in returning home – and his often fraught dependence on strangers for hospitality along the way – are, in a sense, all our travails.
While Buckingham does not ignore traditions of xenophobia and suspicion, he also emphasises the balancing tradition of “philoxenia”; a Greek New Testament word that connotes curiosity towards, and the desire to connect with, those who are not like us.
Philoxenia is certainly worth celebrating. Humans have a rich history of hosting, welcoming and reaching out to those who are not close kin. Buckingham has personally experienced the giddy pleasures of having food pressed into his hands and being invited to stay in homes everywhere from Bulgaria to Pakistan. He has also reciprocated. In the early years of his marriage, bored with the quietness of their life in Birmingham, Buckingham and his wife opened up their flat to the world via the Couchsurfing app.
An elegant and moving exploration of what it means to connect with strangers turns into an elegy for a much-missed way of life
“And as they crossed the threshold of our home, our guests came bearing strange and wonderful gifts. Bottles of bitter Unicum, the potent medicinal alcoholic drink from Hungary. Hunks of homemade Parmesan cheese from a family farm in Italy. Household ornaments. Once, we hosted a Syrian pancake chef. He set up his hotplate in our kitchen and prepared a feast of crepes and galettes.”
If all this seems a bit too gregarious (it certainly does to me), that doesn’t mean that Hello, Stranger advocates maximum sociability, all the time. Indeed, Buckingham confesses that during a stay in an Indonesian village where life was lived communally and publicly, he sometimes yearned for the peace and solitude of a hotel. He also struggled to adapt to the overwhelming hospitality he encountered in Pakistan, and to learn how to be a “good guest”.