Last spring we met up with my husband’s parents and sister in citrusy Sorrento. We scheduled seven glorious days of quality time along the Amalfi coast. On our first evening we decided to venture into the hills for dinner. Our host enthusiastically suggested a restaurant and we were curious. It was a bit of a treacherous climb, the family shimmying up the street in single file while tiny cars zoomed past at arms length. When we arrived, we noticed the place was nearly empty. Awesome. Every tourist’s dream.
The restaurant sat well off the road. The room was palatial with high rafters and large picture windows. Bottles of vibrant green olive oil and inky basalmic vinegar stood side by side on long tables dressed in white. I’m horrible at guessing numbers but I imagine the space could have hosted at least two hundred people during peak season. That night, however, only one table was occupied.
A gentleman rose from the table and approached us as we awkwardly stumbled in. He spoke English but communication was challenging. He explained that the restaurant was formally closed. That’s when I realized that we had walked in on the staff’s dinner. My spirit shurnk and I wanted to crawl out the door. We were imposing on a ritual, the necessary calm before the storm of dinner service.
The man had every right to turn us away. They didn’t need our business – the place was clearing turning a generous profit. The staff deserved to eat in peace. The door should have been locked. We couldn’t speak much Italian. We were not playing by the restaurant rule book. He would have been completely justified if he asked us to leave.
But instead of escorting us out into the night, he led us to a large table. He politely explained that his staff would be eating for twenty minutes or so but he was happy to bring us drinks and focaccia to keep the peace. An empathetic woman, all kind eyes and lively hair, likely a mother herself, swiftly delivered a high chair. Together they tended to our immediate needs before returning to their seats. The minute their plates were clean, they hopped up to take our order. Most of the awkwardness dissolved but I still felt mildly self-concious, unworthy of their compassionate attention.
That night as I lay in bed I pondered our experience. I couldn’t sleep until I scribbled a few thoughts in my journal. If the tables were turned, could I have been as loving as that gentleman and his staff? I felt convicted.
What is my response when people, specifically people I do not already know and love, disrupt our routine? When men and women arrive in the dark feeling weary from their journeys, do I leap out of my seat to meet their needs? Do I embrace interruptions as opportunities to love or do I point to the playbook of social niceties and insist people play by the rules? I get that etiquette matters and there are social norms that grease the wheels but the biblical hospitality I am called to as a Christian requires more than a warm meal on my terms. The man at the restaurant was a mash-up between the innkeeper in Bethlehem and the good Samaritan passing through. His kindness illuminated places in my heart that needed attention. I still have a lot to learn about self-sacrifice and hospitality. Like everyone, I am a work in progress.
So to the generous soul who treated us as family, thank you. Your food didn’t floor me but it was still one of my favourite meals in Italy. The unwarranted kindness you offered caused me to reevaluate my definition of hospitality and, Lord willing, I’ll have decades to practice.
Next time we show up at your door we will leave the kids at home and dine like real Italian adults, lavishly pouring wine and savouring plate after plate into the night. No plain pasta with butter and cheese. And next time we promise not to interrupt your dinner. Ciao.