Unfortunately it was too early for me to get into my hotel room, but the man at the front desk gave me a map, circled the hotel, circled another spot, and directed me to what he promised would be a fabulous lunch at a little place called Mario's. But I had to hurry, he said, because they were always busy and the place closed promptly at the end of their lunchtime service. Off I went, map in hand.
Within minutes, I was lost. I couldn't find the street signs very easily. It took me several minutes to realize that they were attached to the buildings not on poles. I couldn't tell which direction I was going on any given street. I stopped a few times to try to orient myself at one intersection after another. To no avail.
So I stopped a woman and asked her how to get to Mario's. Actually, I pointed to the circle on the map and shrugged my shoulders. She told me. In Italian. In very fast Italian. And she gestured with her right hand. I set off with renewed energy and hope. Both of which faded rather quickly when I arrived at where I thought she had sent me, but saw no busy restaurant and no sign of Mario's.
So I stopped someone else. Repeated the same exchange of asking with my hands and being answered with her hands - only this time, at the end of the arch of her finger-pointing was Mario's. Or rather a crowd milling outside of Mario's. A crowd of people chattering away in Italian, frequently checking their watches. Uh-oh. This place might close before I could even get it. It had taken too long for me to get there to turn away without trying.
So I stood back for a moment and watched as a few people in front of me gave their names to a man with a clipboard. I did the same. Or rather I tried. Again, the Italian-English language barrier proved nearly insurmountable. But he wrote something down, something that I hoped would remind him of me when the time came.
The time came. He pointed at me and motioned for me to follow him and three other people entering at the same time. I followed. The restaurant was tiny and packed. I saw one empty table with four chairs. What the heck? Are we all going to sit together? No way. I don't know these people. I don't speak Italian. This is not going to work. Immediately, I began to panic and pray at the same time. "Lord, really? This is what my first sit down meal in Italy is going to be? Me sitting with three strangers, hoping they don't interpret my silence as rudeness. Gee, thanks, Lord. Thanks a lot."
Behind the menu, I looked around at other people's tables, thinking that perhaps the best thing for me to do would be to point at someone else's plate and place my order that way. It all looked good. It all smelled good. And I was hungry. So I could only imagine how delicious it would be once it hit my palate.
I lowered my menu and sheepishly made eye contact with the other three people at the table. The two men and the one woman sat staring at their menus. Then one man turned to the woman and asked her what she thought she was going to order. They bantered back and forth about things they had already had and what they wanted to try. The other gentleman chimed in with some suggestions of his own, being that he had been in the city for a few months and had eaten there a few times.
How do I know all this? Because they were speaking in English! I wanted to jump up and go kiss that maitre'd on the mouth. He had fished the four English speakers out of the crowd outside and put us together. I nearly broke down and wept. In fact, think I did get tears in my eyes. Together we decided what to order and while waiting for our food, we got to know each other a little bit.
The man who was there by himself had spent the previous five or six months on sabbatical from his parish in England where he was an Anglican minister. He spoke of missing his wife and children but also about how much he had loved his time there in Florence. He was heading for home just a few days later.
The couple was from California. They were both college professors. The woman was teaching in Florence for the year and that man was in Budapest, or someplace else equally interesting. He was there visiting her for a few days. Turns out they knew one of my college professors, a political scientist who had moved from Williamstown, Massachusetts, out to one of the UC schools, Santa Clara, I think it was. They informed me that she had had a son and was doing quite well.
They asked for my story. I told them that I like to travel alone and do so quite frequently. I told them that that was my first time in Italy and that I had come to Florence for a few days not only to do the tourist thing but also to visit a woman I had gone to college with who was an art history professor there with the Syracuse University program. The woman asked who my friend was. I told her. She informed me that she had had dinner with my friend just a few days before! They were colleagues in the same program.
Unbelievable! Except that it was happening. To me. Right there. In Mario's. In Florence. In Italy.
My prayer changed. No longer was it, "Lord, really? This is what my first sit down meal in Italy is going to be? Me sitting with three strangers, hoping they don't interpret my silence as rudeness. Gee, thanks, Lord. Thanks a lot."
Rather quickly, it was transformed into, "Lord, really? This is what my first sit down meal in Italy is going to be? Me sitting with three strangers, hoping they don't interpret my tears of joy for tears that indicate a nervous breakdown. Thank you, Lord. Thanks so very much."
When I rolled myself out of the restaurant an hour or so later, as I wound my way back to the hotel, all I could do was say, "thank you, thank you, thank you" over and over again, mostly internally, but sometimes out loud. Suddenly, I had a deep sense of peace about the entire trip. If God could orchestrate every detail so that I would take a flight from New York to Rome accompanied by a gaggle of nuns, take a train from Rome to Florence, not be able to get into my hotel room, be given a recommendation and a map to a restaurant I'd never heard of, get lost twice on the way, arrive at said restaurant at exactly the right time, and be put at that table with those three people on that Friday afternoon ten years ago, then I could trust that all of the rest of the journey would be just fine.
It was more than fine. It was one of the best trips I have ever taken in my life.
PS. I'd post pictures of that inaugural journey but the ones I took on that trip aren't digital. And, no, I'm not about to pull them out of the albums and scan them. I'm far too un-technology savvy for that.
PSS. Lest I sound too Pollyanna-ish in the final lines of this post, not that I have a problem with being called Pollyanna-ish as I have been called much worse, let me be quick to add that not every scene of my life has been as well coordinated or as happily concluded as lunch was that day at Mario's. I've sat in emergency rooms with sick loved ones. I've leaned over caskets holding the bodies of people I still loved. I've known the fear of job loss in a tight economy. I've wondered how our bills would be paid on time. I've felt the agony of watching a child writhe in pain and suffer through a rather serious illness. Life has not been an easy journey for me. Nor for anyone. I know that.
But this is something else I know: every time I allow myself to bask in the loving presence, provision, and protection of God and also when I allow myself to scream, cry, doubt, and question God's love for me and everyone else in the world, even then, I am reminded that if God is God, if God is Almighty and All-knowing and an ever-present help in time of trouble, then neither my ability to find a reason for gratitude and subsequently tell a cleverly crafted story nor my persistent complaining and my frequent bad choices - none of what I do or don't do has any effect on who God is or what God is capable of doing. For that, I am eternally grateful.