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Showered with kisses, adorned with clothing, fed like a king — I was like the lost son from the Gospel of Luke. I did nothing to earn the love of my rel­a­tives; I just called to say I was coming to visit their small village in a couple of days. They defined for me the meaning of true love and genuine hos­pi­tality.

The people of Cotofeni, Romania, are the def­i­n­ition of humility. By American stan­dards, they live in poverty, but by their stan­dards, they have more than they need, and they want to share it with everyone. Nothing is store-bought, and every­thing is the fruit of their labors. It is their pride and joy to have guests with whom to share their livelihood. 

A few days before Christmas, I was staying in a major city in the northern part of Romania when I decided to make the five-hour train ride south to see my family. It wasn’t the first time I met them, but I had grown in both per­ception and stature since my last visit. 

As the train pulled into the station, about a 45-minute drive from their village, I saw my uncles Alin and Marian waiting on the platform. If meeting me as the train doors opened wasn’t enough of a hos­pitable greeting, before I had my arms through my coat and my scarf around my neck, Marian was on the train grabbing my last suitcase. I stepped off the train empty-handed to see their backs walking away from me and their arms wide with bags under­neath. I caught up to them on our way to their car and offered to carry my own bags, only to be dis­missed with a smile that said: “Don’t be ridiculous.” 

I arrived at the gates of their home to be greeted by everyone from the grand­mother to the 8‑month-old baby in her arms. Everyone was kissed. No one was left unhugged. 

I was escorted to the main room which was full of the same smiling faces. Every inch of the table was covered with food, and every hand held a beer (the only item that came from the store). We ate, we drank, and we laughed like I never left all those years ago. 

Com­mu­ni­cating with them is an enjoyable chal­lenge with a deeply pow­erful message. 

Between my broken Romanian, their few English phrases, and a lot of hand move­ments, we under­stood one another like we were in each other’s minds. 

We com­mu­ni­cated on a deeply human level: We spoke the lan­guage of love because their genuine kindness needed no trans­lation, and it called for emu­lation. 

We moved outside where the air was brisk, the beer was fresh, and the music was loud. The best pig was killed, pre­pared, and enjoyed. 

I was wearing my heavy ski jacket that I had only worn once before because it was never cold enough to justify its excessive weight. Marian’s wife was con­cerned I’d still be cold in tem­per­a­tures a little above freezing, so she draped me in a jacket of their own while Marian crowned me with his own beanie in the same effort to assure I was well cared for and com­fortable. Anytime I was seen throughout the next couple of days without the extra coat and hat, I was quickly reminded that I was improperly dressed. 

Cel­e­brating with family is nothing new, espe­cially growing up in an ethnic house. From birthdays to hol­idays to every­thing in between, being with family to cel­e­brate is routine, but I’ve never been cel­e­brated simply for the sake of showing up. I’ve never been given so much, so freely. I’ve never been treated like a lost son returning home. 

The next day we drove down the gravel road in Marian’s manual car which assured every pebble and shift of the gear was felt in the back of the seat. He gave us a tour of the village, including where he worked at the water tower and where my great-grand­father grew up. 

Marian was hes­itant to drive through the village with us in the car because Amer­icans stick out like a sore thumb, and news travels fast in a village where you can walk from one end to the other in under an hour. He explained to me that having guests gives him a sense of pride and is a sign of pros­perity, so parading them through the village could be seen as showing off and would make everyone else jealous. 

So, much to Marian’s disdain, when we got out to look at my great-grandfather’s now-aban­doned childhood home, the whole street came out to see us. 

“Oh, Marian always has the guests,” they said as he rolled his eyes at me and laughed. 

Driving back up the dirt road, another res­ident who wasn’t fast enough walking up the street sig­naled for Marian to stop the car and roll down the window. 

“Don’t be upset, Marian,” the neighbor said. “I just want to say hello to your guests and wish them a happy new year.” 

The older gen­tleman walked to every car window, leaning in to give each of us the tra­di­tional greeting of a kiss on both cheeks, and he even kissed my hand. He then offered an indi­vidual greeting of health and hap­piness in the new year. 

The cel­e­bration didn’t stop until Alin and Marian had me back on the train two days later and we waved goodbye, only sep­a­rated by a foggy train window. 

I didn’t speak the same lan­guage as anyone in the village, but I knew I was family because of the way they treated me. We didn’t share the same culture, but I knew I was welcome because their hos­pi­tality was even reflected in the actions of their neighbors. 

Marian told me to come back whenever I want and that I didn’t even need to call ahead of time. In my broken tongue, I tried to clarify: “So I can just knock on the door and you’ll be ready for me?” I asked with a smirk. 

“No,” he replied, shaking his head and wagging his finger. 

“The door is always open,” he told me, mostly with his hands. “Just walk in.”