Reviving Homer’s hospitality
Konstantinos Tsoumanis alternates occupations with the keenness of a juggler: he is a researcher, a traveler, an author, a collector, a Corfiot, and above all, in love with life. Is it possible to fit all these cards up in one single sleeve?
As academic professor in the field of tourism economy, Dr. Tsoumanis manages policies at the Regional Tourism Organization of the Ionian Islands, while publishing research papers on tourism development of Corfu. For several years, he studied travel notes of people who visited the island from the Middle Ages to our days; he collected their most relevant descriptions in a captivating book entitled “Corfu through the eyes of its travelers”.
Pilgrims, diplomats, historians, and poets made perceptive remarks on the island and its people. Together with my guest, we discussed the character traits that resisted the test of time and became part of the Corfiot DNA: their playful spirit, their taste for spectacular celebrations, and, of course, their timeless devotion to music.
Dr. Tsoumanis combines the analytical mind of a researcher with the curious spirit of a treasure-hunter. During his travels, he has set up a collection of travel publications and memorabilia worthy of filling a museum display. He is now preparing his second book, a two-volume study on the evolution of tourism in Corfu from 1820 to the post-Covid era, while also drawing the lines of a third publication.
“And the trip goes on, as long as there are limits that the man wants to exceed” he writes in his book. I wondered: between studying and writing, traveling and collecting, what are the limits of his journey that he is determined to exceed? “My dream,” he says, “is to be able to see Corfu become the Mecca of hospitality”. He praises Homer’s sense of hospitality, the one that Ulysses and his shipwrecked sailors were generously offered in Phaeacia, the mythical name of Corfu. There, on the shores of Paleokastritsa, they were treated like kings with heartfelt care and attention that made them feel like home. “I dedicate all my efforts into helping entrepreneurs carry on the legacy of their Phaeacian ancestors,” he added with eyes that sparkled.
I wish there was a magic way for all visitors to have a tour guide like Konstantinos Tsoumanis. It’s not just the stories one can learn from him; it’s his self-drive and bracing panache; and the motivation -coming from someone who enjoys life to the fullest- to keep searching for the true meaning of life and going after it.
Citimarks: Mr. Tsoumanis, you have long experience in the tourism industry in Europe. What is the most common mistake of the tourist entrepreneurs when providing their services to the travelers?
Konstantinos Tsoumanis: At destinations that receive tourists massively, businesses are not eager to adapt their offer to the needs of their clients. It is the traveler who, oftentimes, has to make concessions, because the service is quite restrained. Take the touristic restaurants for example: their menus are more or less standardized, using medium-quality ingredients for their food and putting zero creativity to stand out from competition. The same stands for big resorts offering “all-inclusive” services: with tour operators ensuring a constant flow of visitors for them, they don’t bother going the extra mile to win over their guests. Mass tourism works against tourists.
What is the essence of “Homer’s hospitality” your books often refer to?
When Ulysses, the Homeric hero of the Odyssey, landed on the coast of Phaeacia (note: the name of ancient Corfu), the islanders received him like a king, without knowing he already was king, the king of Ithaca island. Phaeacians made Ulysses feel so much at home that he decided to delay his grueling return even further and share the stories of his adventures with the locals. Today, small tourist businesses can do the same thing: they are better placed to provide a more personalized experience and leave a special mark in their services.
Do you have an example of a place where you have been received like a king?
Zagorochoria (note: a group of picturesque mountainous villages in the northwest of Greece) is a good example of a more human, more personal service. There, most businesses are small; what their owners lack in terms of infrastructure, or professional know-how, they make up for with their generous hearts. Every time I visit, I am being treated like family. They take personal care in choosing local products, and always reserve a kind smile for their guests. Their motivation and attentiveness are moving. This is the essence of Homer’s hospitality: receive guests with all your heart. I dedicate all my efforts into helping entrepreneurs carry on the legacy of their Phaeacian ancestors.
Your book “Corfu through the eyes of its travelers” collects travel notes dating from the Middle Ages through the 20th century. The reader can explore stories and impressions of travelers coming from different backgrounds and cultures: Italian pilgrims, French writers, English diplomats, Swiss writers. What brought all those people to Corfu?
In Corfu, at a time when no travel guides existed, the visitor’s manual was the Homeric Odyssey. Holding a copy in their hands, they were searching for the places in which the most emblematic episodes of the epic took place. The beach of Paleokastritsa may not have gained so much fame, if historians had not suggested that this might be the place where Ulysses and his washed-up sailors were rescued by Nausicaa, daughter of the island’s king. This desire to revive inspiring myths keeps bringing travelers to the island even in our days.
Other travelers got to discover Corfu, without really having planned so: they were on their way to visit pilgrim destinations, such as Jerusalem or Cappadocia, and their boat was making a casual 3 or 4-day stopover. The sojourn of Sissi, Empress of Austria, in Corfu, followed by the construction of a palace to serve as her summer residence in 1899, contributed to the transformation of the island into a pole of attraction for royals and socialite writers.
"This is the essence of Homer’s hospitality: receive guests with all your heart. I dedicate all my efforts into helping entrepreneurs carry on the legacy of their Phaeacian ancestors."
Many writers have observed the lifestyles, customs and mentality of the locals. What are their most recurrent remarks about Corfiot culture?
Indeed, travel literature can teach us things about a place in ways a school book cannot. By documenting their experiences of the place and the people they encounter, visitors have contributed to the writing of its history. Coming from different countries and backgrounds, they are very well placed to put their finger on aspects of local culture that may not be so evident to the locals themselves.
In Corfu, the first thing travelers are almost unanimously struck by, is the fact that life and its locals are much closer to the West than they are to the East. In stark contrast with their fellow Greeks from the rest of the country, Corfiots have zero Oriental influences in the way they are dressed, speak or behave. What visitors were observing, instead, was a centuries-long, multicultural mosaic of people in a constant motion: Venetians, French, English, Russians, Maltese, Jewish, Albanians and Turks, among others.
In 1879, French journalist Joseph Reinach suggested that Corfiots stand out for their kindness: “they are friendly, hospitable like their ancestors, the Phaeacians [...] and passionate like the Neapolitans” he wrote. Which traits draw the character of the contemporary Corfiot?
The behavior of Corfiots is characterized by a certain delicacy and tact. Their subtle approach and polite manners draw back to the influence of the Venetians who ruled the island for over four centuries. Sociable and extroverted, the Corfiot demonstrates an open spirit. Another defining trait is their attraction to the small pleasures of life. This is manifested in their taste for good food and for spectacular celebrations; also, in their playful mood, and, of course, in their devotion to music.
The island has a tradition in organizing music concerts, theatrical shows, all sorts of ceremonies and parades to celebrate national holidays and local festivities. Music continues to play a cardinal role in our everyday life. In Corfu, there is no social gathering around a Sunday table that doesn’t include guitars and singalongs. Kids are zealously sent to music school and choruses; and public celebrations are constantly accompanied by one of the 17 philharmonic bands of the island. Music education is not considered a privilege; it is a social good provided for free to every boy or girl, poor or rich. It is very moving watching grandparents play in the same band next to their children and grandchildren.
The more I get to know the locals, the more I feel that this lighthearted, playful spirit is fundamental in the Corfiot DNA.
It sure is. On a daily basis, they find all sorts of occasions to express their verve and sense of fun. Teasing is the most typical example. They love to mock their friends, neighbors or anyone they feel close with. Take a walk on the streets of the town: sooner or later, you will bump into some group of people bursting in laughs from teasing one another. Go to the market and you will surely find some carrier or merchant singing “la donna è mobile” or some other popular tune, while loading merchandise or opening his shop. For others, this cheerful spirit may be simply expressed by offering a smile to a complete stranger.
If Corfu was a song, what song would that be?
The aria of Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The playfulness of the barber’s character and the joyful vibe of the melody reminds me of the Corfiot spirit.
If Corfu was a film?
I would say Sissi - The Young Empress starring Romy Schneider. This movie series recounts the life of the 19th-century Austrian empress Elisabeth -nicknamed Sissi. Faced with a possibly fatal tuberculosis, the Empress traveled to Corfu whose warm climate could help her recover. Her walks in some of the most idyllic settings captivated the audience, reminding that Corfu has been one of the favorite leisure destinations of the European royalty.
If it was a Corfiot dish?
That would be the Soffritto. It is a recipe that was imported from Venice and was soon integrated into the local cuisine. Soffritto is made of a beef cut in thin slices and served with a light sauce of parsley, garlic, and white wine. This delicious dish with its delicate flavour brings to mind the delicacy and politeness of the islanders.
If you could travel in time for one day, which century of the Corfiot history would you go back to and what would you like to discover?
I would go back to the 15th century, when Venetians constructed defensive walls around the old fortress and Vidos -the islet opposite the port of Corfu- to protect the island from pirate invasions. Their know-how as maritime super powers led to a number of defense constructions which were impressive, both in terms of effectiveness and scale. Historians even talk about a network of underground galleries connecting the old fortress to the center of the town. I would have been thrilled to be able to attend the design process and execution of those works.
Which historical figure from the past would you like to meet?
I admire the philhellene work of a British politician, Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford. In 1824, while the island was under British administration, North put in tremendous efforts to establish the first university in modern Greece: the Ionian Academy hosted faculties of Arts, Law and Medicine. At a time when the island was not yet part of Greece, the Academy played a key role in the bloom of Greek studies, and created the first generation of students that came to Corfu from across the country. (Note: a statue dedicated to Lord Guilford is located in “Boschetto”, at the edge of Spianada, in Corfu town.)
What is your favorite Corfiot word?
It’s the word "gnoràntes". It derives from the Italian ignorante, an adjective referring to an ignorant person. In the local dialect, “gnoràntes” describes a person who lacks knowledge over a topic, and yet, acts as if he knows everything about it. The Corfiots make a frequent use of this pejorative term to mock those fake experts.