Bob Engel | Countersteering: Hospitality


I'm currently listening to a college professor tell me about Homer's epic poem, "The Odyssey." My lecturer is cogent, organized, quite conceptual, and very clear. I'm enjoying it. I'm listening to her partly to reduce the rate of brain cell loss, but also out of pure interest. Curiosity can be a very good thing. It's only taken me 50 years to understand the glimmerings of my own. But when a 20-year-old college kid brought a big dose of it along, I knew the "teaching" would be a joy — just get out of the way and offer mild reorientation when necessary.

Many years ago, I saw a Hollywood production of "The Odyssey." It was full of muscular, charismatic "Greeks," with one adventure after another flying off the screen. It left me overexcited and panting. Then I saw it again, more diffusely this time, as reflected in the O Brother, Where Art Thou, by the Coen Brothers. Still plenty of adventures, but this time in the American south. So here I am, 15 years later, having decided to pursue the book a bit more formally. After all, it has survived for thousands of years, repeatedly appears in our musings, and metaphorically describes much of what we do. Aren't we all trying to get "home" in some sense?

According to my professor, a key concept that helps unlock this complicated story, at least in the first several sections, is the notion of Xenia. If you were a Greek on the move, say, on your way back from some glorious conquest, your world didn't have motels and restaurants, so how did you travel? Well, you looked up on the hill, saw a house about like yours, went and "knocked" on the door, and spent the night. You got fed, too. There was no payment, just the societal expectation that you would return the favor when someone showed up at your door. It was a system that depended on reciprocity. Its violation was a significant transgression.

Imagine airbnb without the cost. You could get a call almost any time. You could also make that call. A more spontaneous, and historically correct approach would be to just show up. In Greece, you chose a house about like yours because that indicated similar means and, perhaps, similar life styles.

I'm happy to tell you that this system is alive and well in much of the motorcycle community. It's perhaps best developed among BMW riders. Just another example of Bavarian snobbishness? Maybe, but there is a large, organized group of BMW owners that provide something like Xenia for one another. The important details are collected in a small book called BMW owners Anonymous (Emergency help system). It goes like this.

If you are a member, you get the little book; it contains thousands of telephone numbers organized by state and city (other countries, too). So if I, a member, were riding near Missoula, Montana, and had a problem, I could call any of 13 numbers and probably receive a variety of kinds of help. I could get a space to work on the bike and tools to do so. Since working on a motorcycle is NOT my forte, I might be able to get one of these people to trailer the bike to a dealership, provide me with a place to crash, or just visit for a while. The kinds of services offered vary from person to person, but some offer ten or more options and special interests. In Missoula, one person will travel to help and another offers storage. There are three such numbers in Brattleboro (eight more nearby).

I am certain that any motorcyclist who has a problem and sees one in a driveway might well get help, too. That's the way it is with motorcyclists: we're all in it together. But the Anonymous Group offers something that harkens back to the time of Homer.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat


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