Yesterday, having got to a knotty bit in the manuscript of my Hello Stranger book, I went out to a café here in Thessaloniki. I took my laptop with me. For most of the morning, and part of the afternoon, I had been sitting at my desk, struggling to find out what I wanted to say, and getting nowhere. By two o’clock in the afternoon, it was clear that I badly needed to get out of the house. Sometimes, when I get stuck, a change in environment helps dislodge things.
The café was a literary kind of establishment. The walls were lined with books. The owner’s mother was a novelist and a playwright, and her books were on sale in a cabinet by the counter. It felt like it would be a good place to write. So I sat down and ordered a cappuccino. The drink arrived, as is usual here in Greece, with a big flask of water, and some little extra snacks: some pieces of croissant dusted in icing sugar.
I set to work on the book, the coffee and the croissant. And either because of the change of scene, or because of the welcome boost from the caffeine and the sugar, the knots in the manuscript started to unravel. Most of what you do as a writer is solving problems. And solving problems feels good. I deleted some stuff, I rearranged other stuff, I subtracted words, I added words, and things started to take shape again.
After about an hour, the owner came over for a chat. She asked why I was in Greece. I told her that I was writing a book. “What about?” she asked. “Hospitality,” I replied. She sighed. “Ah! Hospitality! Well, Greece in the right place.”
The topic of hospitality has a particular resonance here in Greece. In Myanmar, where I drafted the earlier parts of the book, I struggled to explain to friends that I was not exclusively interested in the hospitality industry, that my book was not a primer for the hotel trade. All of this made the book curiously hard to write in Myanmar. A book about hospitality seemed like a weird, faintly quixotic project.
But here in Greece, with its long tradition of thinking about philoxenia (φιλοξενία) – the friendship extended to strangers – the book seems to be taking shape more naturally. And whilst only some of the content is explicitly about Greece (it’s a wide-ranging book, with stories from all over the world) having transplanted the seedling book to Greek soil, it is beginning to grow and flourish.
As I was about to finish up on what turned out to be a good day’s work, the owner’s mother came over. She was in a hurry and she had somewhere to be. But she wanted to apologise for the croissant. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘You have come on the wrong day. Normally we’d have home-made cake to give customers. But I just didn’t have the time to make any last night. Come back again, and there will be cake.’
Then she was gone out of the door. I packed up my bags to leave. And when I left the cafe, it was with that well-being that comes from connecting unexpectedly with strangers, and from the hope of cake to come.