Last Saturday night I watched the film Wild with my friend Andy. If you haven’t seen it, Reese Witherspoon escapes a downward spiral of grief and self-destruction by hiking across America. Despite having no experience of the outdoors, Witherspoon’s character finds salvation in nature. It is an uplifting film, where her every meeting with strangers on the trail has a positive outcome: it turns out that most people are friendly, hospitable and generous. At the end of the film I asked Andy if he had enjoyed it. He said that he would have enjoyed it more if he had known that it was a feel-good film: because he expected every encounter to end in murder, rape or theft he spent the whole film on the edge of his seat. Maybe he has lived in London for too long – in the big, bad city the kindness of strangers is often met with mistrust.
It was something I was reminded of recently when on holiday in Crete. Myself and 12 friends from my swimming club were in the south east of the island for a week of swimming (and lying on the beach). Earlier in the summer I had visited the island on a recce, so I had some decent swims planned, including a 10km crossing to an island. Somehow, through a process of misunderstanding and too much local firewater, my Greek friends came to the conclusion that I was bringing out a team of young, male Olympic swimmers. This was all a bit of a joke, until I learned that my friends Nikos and Dora had arranged a gala dinner to welcome the visiting international swim team. And yet, when we arrived at the five-star hotel where a banquet had been prepared in our honour, none of the local dignitaries present batted an eyelid at the bunch of middle-aged swimmers who turned up instead of the expected Olympians. The concept of xenía, the Cretan code of hospitality, is still central to culture on the island. But to world-weary Londoners, the initial reaction was: Why are they putting on such a lavish dinner for us? What’s the catch? There wasn’t one, and we sat down to bask in the glory of our undoubted Olympian swimming abilities.
During the week, whenever I was asked about our day’s swimming, I would add on a few km and forget to mention the long lunch in the taverna. And so it came to the final day of the holiday. My morning was spent fielding phone calls from Nikos: “The mayor wants to meet the swimmers… a ceremony has been arranged at the port in your honour… the mayor would like to present you with special books… the mayor would like you to perform a swimming display in the port…” Luckily we were able to avoid embarrassment by inviting Nikos and the mayor to dinner instead, thereby preserving the legend of our swimming prowess and indulging in our own bit of xenía.
But if we are talking about hospitality and the kindness of strangers, then surely open water swimmers have their own brand of xenía. At the weekend I was at the Macmillan Lido Challenge at Tooting Bec Lido in south London, where the water temperature was 12 degrees Celsius – a temperature not to be messed with when the distances are 2km and 5km. My personal challenge was to swim the 2km event in skins (I know that to many of you 12 degrees is not particularly cold to be swimming 2km in, but I am a strip of wind and I had just spent the previous week in Crete where the sea was like a bath). I am happy to report that I completed the 2km with minimum brain freeze and no loss of feeling in any of my extremities. Being an experienced winter swimmer I knew that it was important to get dressed quickly and warm up gently – lots of jumpers and a hot chocolate rather than standing under a hot shower and risking collapse. But many swimmers taking part in the event did not know about the dangers of after-drop. Step forward an army of Tooting Bec Lido’s finest lifeguards and winter swimmers, who shepherded participants away from the showers and instead bundled them into warm clothes and thrust hot drinks into their hands. Their selfless offers of flasks and good advice ensured that those swimmers who had gone beyond their limits to raise money for cancer research were able to warm up safely and go home with a great sense of achievement. It is a generosity of spirit that I have seen at open water and winter swimming events around the world. Xenía is alive and well not only in south London but in the open water swimming community across the globe