December 3, 2018

Alone But Not Alone

They were cold, tired, and hungry. They needed a miracle.

Alexi Decker

It’s 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon and I am drowning. I can taste yesterday’s mascara dripping down my face with an urgency that feels dangerously close to tears. The skies are an angry gray; the cobblestone streets at my feet fill and overfill with water.

Next to me, Shayla’s hair has lost its flat-iron sheen in the humidity, and I know she will expect me to ask in nonexistent Italian if a restaurant is open. My shoes slip on pavement that’s seen hundreds of years of use, and my footprints make no marks, only a momentary splash in the puddles.

My glasses are useless, and as I lug my backpack I wonder if this is how Joseph felt, carrying a wife who carried God and trying to find a place to rest.

Once Upon a Lifetime

The day didn’t start out like this. On our first break from studying in France, Shayla and I decided to spend a week touring Italy. After several days in the Florence area, Shayla’s love for archaeology won out, and we took a day trip to the mountaintop town Volterra, home to several Roman ruins. We wandered and saw the sights under cloudy skies before deciding that it would be time to eat, as we (foolishly) hadn’t earlier.

It begins to rain harder, considerably so, than the light sprinkles that had graced the morning. My feet ache from the extra pounds strapped to my back and the stress of trying to find a place for myself and my friend. Nearly everything had closed.

Not only that, but provided we ever found a place to eat, this would be my last meal in Italy, maybe ever.

Rain sends fingers of cold down the back of my neck. Although by the second week of the Great Europe Tour I had grown used to feeling lost and unsure, I am hard pressed to think of a time I have felt more so: I know there is a long train trip back to Florence this evening, and I know I’ll need food before then. I also know that Shayla’s mood is dangerously low, because of the fact that the ruins were closed (thanks, rain), not to mention low blood sugar. So it’s up to me to get us through this.

The light begins to fade, slipping behind the mountain we cling to. Tuscan suns fall quickly in autumn, and I don’t know what this town becomes after dark. Its daytime incarnation is welcoming enough; but even the sweetest towns turn grotesque after dark, with shadowy places for lurking figures and burned through cigarettes. Neither of us speaks the language, and we’re both college girls with hands too weak to wreak violence and backpacks too heavy to run.

Hope Deferred

I see a sign with an arrow up ahead: Ristorante. Please, Lord. We need this.

We turn two corners and come close enough to see the oh-so-promising lights inside before we read the notice that says chiuso. Closed.

“It’s closed,” I say. Proof of Shayla’s exhaustion is that she provides no sarcastic comment at the obvious statement. “We’ll find somewhere else.”

So we keep walking downhill through cold and drizzly streets in ever-fading sunlight.

We finally hit a street with a hotel light on. I figure the receptionist might have an idea of someplace to eat. We walk out of the cold, and a gust of warm wind hits me. Maybe we could just stay here for the next two hours. Nothing’s open anyway.

I walk to the woman at the desk and say in English that sounds too American: “Do you know of any restaurants that are open?”

She starts to shake her head, clearly noting the hour and the rainfall, but sees the drowned-rat look we’re sporting and thinks again. “There might be one place,” she says, and her voice is warm in the low lamplight. There’s a storm outside and I think that maybe the innkeeper sounded like this when he offered God a room.

Five minutes and a hand-drawn map later, we’re outside again, this time with purpose and the possibility of a warm meal.

It’s even darker now, and I can’t read the names of the streets on the map she’s given me. “I think it’s this way,” I say over the sound of raindrops, even though I’m not remotely sure. We go down one street, then another. Nothing. I can’t possibly be going the right way. One last turn, and I see a restaurant with a light on.

There’s a menu on the street, but I don’t see it. I don’t see the name of the restaurant above the entrance; I don’t see the accommodations or the lack of people inside. I see only the open door. “Wanna check here?”

Shayla shrugs. OK, Lord, she’s reached the point of not caring; and honestly, I’ll be there too if this doesn’t work out.

We walk forward and stand, unsure, in the doorway. There’s a man, mostly bald, behind a bar cleaning glasses. The restaurant is empty except for a family with small children seated at a table. There’s no food or remnants of it, so I assume that they are the family that owns this restaurant on a back alley in a tiny town on the top of a mountain in Tuscany.

Without preamble I walk to the bar and ask, “Do you sell pasta here?” in a voice that is infinitely more pathetic than I want it to be.

There’s a pause, pregnant with the possibility that we’ll be out on the street again; that he’ll say, “We’re closed, I’m sorry,” and that’ll be it: rain, wind, and storm for the next two hours until the bus leaves. I wait for the negative.

Then, in accented English that sounds like sunshine or angel choirs or tomatoes being slow roasted in an oven, he says, “Of course! You are welcome! Please, come sit down!”

Something warm sparks in my chest and fizzles all the way to my toes. Thank You, God.

He shows us to a table, and we sit down, dropping our backpacks like the weight of the world. One of the women at the other table sets up place mats for us. Our host brings menus, asks where we’re from. After conversing with us briefly in broken French (it may be better than mine; I can’t tell from the few phrases he speaks), we order. Our pasta arrives piping hot, and I have to stop myself from scarfing down the generous portion.

“That was miserable,” Shayla says.

“It’ll make a great story,” I tell her, and she laughs, clear as a bell and radiant as the lamps that burn around us.

I think: If this is my last supper, it is everything I ever wanted.

This Is No Accident

An hour later we’ve both finished our food, and our host offers dessert: lemon biscotti with almonds. I think it must be the Tuscan equivalent of washing our feet: the sweet, bright flavor feels just as refreshing as a foot wash in the desert.

Then at one point the man says, “Julia told me you were coming,” and the dots connect. We found the right restaurant. The woman at the hotel called him to make sure he knew we were coming; to make sure the restaurant would be open to us.

It was open because we needed it to be, because a woman called a friend who was willing to reopen a restaurant in the middle of his time off for two starving, drowning, foreign students. It was no accident that the door was open when the restaurant wasn’t. He opened the door for us.

And it certainly wasn’t an accident that we found the restaurant in the first place.

We stayed for the next hour and a half, until we absolutely had to leave to catch the bus. I paid the bill and decided that 31 euros for both of us is some kind of theft on our part. What price can you put on hospitality? How can you pay for reassurance, for heat, and for an hour and a half out of the rain? How can you pay for an answer to prayer?

I didn’t know how to show my gratitude. They don’t tip in Europe, and besides, I have no cash to leave. I can only state my thanks in the only Italian I know—“grazie”—and pray they understand how much this meant.

They say travelers might be angels in disguise, but I say it’s the other way around. The real angels are not the travelers;
they are the people who say “Come in, it’s warm, you are welcome” in accented English that sounds like music.

My last supper in Italy.

Even as I walked away from the restaurant and back into the cold and the rain, I felt warm.

Alexi Decker is a teacher’s assistant in the English Department at Andrews University.