Vernazza (The Difficult Gift of Grace)

On Thursday night, EA and I hopped a train for a quick trip from Monterosso to Vernazza. EA’s friend Ashley had recommended a restaurant that was in a castle overlooking the sea. Having not ever eaten in castles overlooking the sea, we thought we’d check it out.

It turns out that there are several restaurants in that area. We came to the first and waited for a table. None of the staff acknowledged us. After about three minutes, we tried to get ahold of a waiter to no avail. A line began to grow behind us. A waiter saw us and this ever-growing throng yet did nothing. After waiting for about 10 minutes, I finally got a hold of that waiter and asked about a table. He cooly looked at me and said, “No. We’re booked up.”

That information would have been fantastic as we and a dozen other people waited for a table. Did he just think that we had come up into this restaurant to watch other people eat? One of my few quibbles with Italy is about half the places that we have been to have fairly crappy customer service.

We left and went down a narrow alleyway where we saw a sign with an arrow pointing up that read El Castello. Like I have said, we do not know much Italian, but we were able to figure out the translation of that one pretty quickly. We went up and found a restaurant perched atop the castle with a gorgeous view and the sun setting over the mountains. Even better, there were several tables available. I admit that in my head, I said “Haha! We win, snooty waiter down below!”

EA and I ate our meal, enjoyed the view, and asked for our check so that we could catch the next train back to Monterosso. When we got the check, I pulled out my credit card and the waiter said, “No card.” This was the only restaurant that we ate at in Italy that didn’t take a card. No big deal, I thought. Then I looked at our cash. We were short. Okay, so it’s a slightly bigger deal.

I scurried down the steep stairs that led to the restaurant and went searching Vernazza for an ATM. I was frustrated. We were going to miss our train. After trudging all the way up the main street and halfway back, I spotted a bank with an ATM. Better yet, the ATM had an option for English. We were going to be good.

Except we weren’t. This was the only ATM that I encountered in Italy that kept canceling my transactions. I had run out of options. We were €37 in debt to this restaurant and we were supposed to leave the area the next morning.

Frustrated, despondent, and feeling powerless, I trudged back up the stone steps and tried to explain the situation with the ATM to a woman whose family ran the restaurant. I honestly wasn’t sure what would happen. Would she make us wash dishes? Could she have us arrested? Toss us over the castle wall to the rocky shore below?

Yet she didn’t get angry. She listened. She tried to figure out if she knew anyone in Monterosso with whom we could leave the money. After not coming up with any practical ideas, she smiled.

“Tell you what,” she said in broken English, “send me money when you get back home.”

I stammered a bit. “But…are you sure?”

This total stranger gave me a reassuring smile. “Yes! People send me money all the time! I trust you. Go! Have a good trip!”

I am not going to lie. I didn’t like it. I groused as we waited for the train. I spent a hour or so trying to figure out how to get the money to her the next morning. I didn’t like owing this woman for that long. I wanted to make things right, but every idea that I had hit a wall. I couldn’t make things right.

Why is grace such a difficult thing for us to accept? Is it because we don’t want to be in someone’s debt? We want to be free from feeling like we owe someone something. Because even though grace is freely given, it does beg some sort of response. Otherwise, the grace really hasn’t touched the recipient. She or he does not feel gratitude. So grace is a beautiful gift, but it does ask something from us. And for whatever reason—most likely pride—we don’t like that hanging over our head.

Now in the case of El Castello, grace asks that we still pay back the €37, which we are (it is a little more complicated than I thought it would be). With Christian grace, it asks for something more. Something lifelong. It asks that we let the grace into our lives and that it transforms us. Thankfully, that grace is there for those spaces where our transformation is slow. Yet it still asks that we let God’s grace renovate our soul into something that is loving, merciful, and gracious to others. 

It’s like if someone gave you a dog as a gift. I hate that I’m comparing grace to a dog; at least it’s not a cat. You don’t have to do anything to earn that pet, but you have to work to keep that pet alive. You have to feed it, housetrain it, walk it. To not cultivate that gift would be an insult to the one who gave it to you and also would bring harm to a very beautiful thing.

When we are given grace, we ought to honor that grace. If we do not, then it insults the person that gave us grace and it makes a mockery out of a beautiful and, in some cases, life changing gift.

None of this occurred to me on the bench of that train station. EA simply said to me that we had been given a gift and that everything was going to be okay. I should just accept it. It took me some time, but she was right. The illustration isn’t perfect because we will technically pay back that gracious Italian woman. Other graces—the most beautiful kinds—you cannot pay back. All you can do is accept the gift and do your best to honor it.

Siena (A Happy Accident)

Running in Monterosso al Mare (Going Nowhere Fast-ish)