Hunger had set in after a long day of Christmas fun. So, we went looking for grub. We stopped at a newer place in our town which served authentic Italian-style pizza. This was my second time at this restaurant and Amy’s first.
I was excited to take her there. The music playing over the speakers was Italian. The guy working behind the counter was Italian…so I thought. We’d had a conversation before when I visited the first time, and like a teenage girl, I mentioned to him that we were moving to Italy, like he cared. He said I would love it, and I asked if he could speak Italian and he said Yes.
When I reminded him of our meaningful 3-second conversation during my first visit, he looked at me without expression. I asked him, “Are you from Italy?” Rather sharply, he said, “No. I’m from ALBANIA,” and walked away. He made the word Albania sound like an upper cut to my pride. He might as well have added the word “idiot”.
I felt like an idiot. First, because as a person preparing to do missions in Italy, I wasn’t able to recognize the difference between an Italian accent and an Albanian accent. Second, because I felt I’d lost face with Amy for building up this whole boy-meets-Italian-at-local-pizzeria experience. Third, because as we talked about it, neither of us knew exactly where Albania even was. Fourth, because this guy seemed pretty cold in his response, which contradicted what I’d read about the warmth of the Italian people generally. That’s four reasons for feeling like an idiot.
The children were, of course, oblivious. Story, wearing her Santa hat, was singing along with the Italian music. The three of them were still hopped up on hot chocolate, Christmas cookies they’d just decorated and eaten, and gelato. Everything was fun for them. I was dying next to Amy, out of disappointment. Wilting from my growing inadequacy as a man who thought he could strike up a conversation anywhere, most importantly Italy, and build a friendship which eventually might turn into a discipleship opportunity.
We ate our meal and I was quiet. Then, an older gentleman with white hair came to clean our table. I assumed he was probably the father of the Albanian man. I thanked him for being so nice to clear our table. Turning his face to me, he smiled and said something in another language too quickly for me to even hear. Amy immediately recognized the word “Italiano” and brightened up. I didn’t hear “Italiano”. She looked at me and said, “He speaks Italian!” I was thrilled again. But then, my brain locked up on me. I thought quickly of something I’d tell him I’d learned from Duolingo. But, by the time my lips had begun to form a word he walked away.
I couldn’t even think of “Grazie,” which means Thank you in Italian. My connecting moment had come and gone. And, little did I know, but by this time Amy was feeling insecure, too. We are a year and a half into this process. Money is being donated to a missions account with our names on it for the sake of Italian missions. We wanted people to think we were resident experts on Italy and all things Italian. And, we couldn’t say Grazie when it mattered.
This is how it’s going to be when we get there, I thought. I imagined our family of five sitting in a restaurant in Bologna, depressed because we couldn’t understand anyone. We talked about it most of the way home. We both felt a tinge of anxiety come to the surface. This was a new feeling for me. For the first time, I worried if I would be able to connect with people at all in Italy. And, I saw myself as a baby, frustrated that I couldn’t understand.
This was all happening in our hometown in Texas, where an authentic Italian-style pizzeria was not the norm. Where we drove home on the right side of the street. Where we could have this little moment of nervousness and shake it off. What would it be like when we were full-on living in Italy and immersed in this type of experience? Would we crack?
We were silent for a moment. Then, it came to me like an injection of hope. I said, “This is a good thing. It’s good that we feel this way — insecure — now. This is a challenge for us to continue preparing for that day when we leave.” I’ve made it sound a little more inspirational here, but this was the general thought that came to me. It was like God patting me on the shoulder and saying, “Grow from this.”
Actually, it was perfect. God in His divine foreknowledge knew we would leave that restaurant feeling like poor choices for missionaries to Italy. So, he set us up. He created this whole experience just for us. I don’t know exactly how it all works out on the grand scale. I don’t want to operate for a minute under the belief that the whole world revolves around me. But, God is amazing. With all the billions of people on a journey to some later destination at the same time as us, He created this little scenario to tell just the two of us something.
Maybe he was saying, “I’m glad I’ve made you think about this in a new way. You’re not ‘God’s Gift to Italy’. Italy is my gift to you. It’s where I’m going to teach you to follow me like a baby. You may feel scared and frustrated. You may both feel insecure at times. But, I’m here.”
It’s actually a relief that Amy felt embarrassed along with me. It may sound selfish, but I wouldn’t want to feel that embarrassment with anyone else. It brings me closer to her. Sharing those thoughts and feelings, that vulnerability, is going to strengthen the bond God is forming in us. I am not going to lie — I look forward to the day when she and I are confident enough in the Italian language and mannerisms to hold our own. But, this stumbling time of learning, as hard as it is, will be sweet.