Ten years ago to the day I stepped on Italian soil for the very first time. How I got there is a delightful story of God’s kindness and provision.
When I was four, a family member went abroad and brought back for me a small white purse from Florence, with the characteristic fleur-de-lis in gold all over it. I was enchanted. You see, I’d stand on our eleventh floor balcony, peering at distant mountains through the railings, wondering who lived beyond the confines of what I considered ‘my world’. What did they eat or wear? Did they speak Afrikaans or English? I looked at my Florentine gift and my little girl’s heart was awash with glorious notions of finding the beautiful people who’d made my exquisite purse. The seed was sown.
By the time I reached my late 20s, my world was a decidedly less romantic place. I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 28 and the questions that now filled my mind were not ones of finding and exploring new worlds, but rather how to stay alive in the world I presently found myself in. I was afraid – no – terrified. I couldn’t cope with much, I was too sick. However, my half day job presented me opportunity to rest a great deal, and it was during those endless periods of rest, alone with my finite being and mortality eyeballing me, that I bought a map of Italy, put it up on my wall and started praying for its people. I enrolled for an Italian correspondence course. I sunk my heart and soul into it and made a promise to myself, that should I conquer this cancer, I would go to Italy and see what it was that I was praying for.
Four years later, with a clean bill of health, I sold everything I had and went. Bolstered with bravado, I told God I’d happily die there, wanted to serve and love and bless the Italian church… but how to find them? Before I left, I checked an Italian website for a list of churches in the city I was headed for. There were four.
I knew real favour as I travelled to Parma, where I was to live for a year. I missed my connecting flight from Amsterdam to Milan, and to my utter delight got bumped up to business class for the next available flight with Alitalia. I flew into Italy like royalty! I’ll also never forget the first moment I saw the snow-covered Alps, and the Italian coastline. Such adventure! Who would I meet?
Adventure it was! I was met at Parma train station by Vincenzo, the school director. He greeted me with the typical kiss-on-both-cheeks, almost causing me to punch him for invading my personal space – the first of many cross-cultural lessons I had to master. A few days later, as I moved into my room on Via Cassio Parmense in the home of Adriana, the culture shock hit with full force. It didn’t feel like home, it didn’t smell like home, Adriana spoke no English (my Italian was terribly basic) and no-one could understand why, if I was from South Africa, was I white? I felt so completely adrift. I felt like a baby, learning to tie my laces from the beginning again – how to catch a bus, buy food, negotiate social niceties, cross the road without being flattened by diabolical drivers and church…. What to do about church?
I showed Adriana my list, and with my minimal linguistic abilities managed voglio andare alla chiesa (I want to go to church). I got an enthusiastic si si si, she knew where one of those churches was, and what I understood to be ‘I’ll go with you’. All set! Roll on Sunday morning, and Adriana and I are hurtling along in her little car to, well, wherever, and the hurtling abruptly comes to a stop in front of a building. Some whatever-whatever-whatever ensues in Italian, I get out the car – and off she speeds! It dawns on me she’s not coming back and that I’ve completely misunderstood her.
It was at that very point I questioned my sanity in coming halfway across the world to do… what exactly, Lord? Alone, in an unfamiliar part of town, with quivering knees, I turned and pressed the buzzer for the Chiesa Evangelica and in a few minutes, my entire life changed and the adventure became a flesh-and-blood miracle.
The door swung open and there was the kindest man who I later learned was Franko – and I didn’t understand a single, solitary word coming from his mouth, but something in his face said ‘Jesus’ to me. As he led me inside, I could make out from some of the gesticulating he’d bring someone who could speak inglese. I sat down and he dashed off.
And I thought, ‘Lord, what madness have I committed?’
A lady eventually approached me and introduced herself – in English, God be praised!! – as Rosanna. She and her husband, Robert, were from – oh, how God can pull off such grand miracles! – Johannesburg! I had managed to stumble across the only South African Christians in the whole of Parma. I knew I was home! Robert and Rosanna proved to be the most invaluable bridge of understanding into Italian culture, and great comfort once homesickness hurled its full weight against me in the ensuing months.
But the holiest moment for me was meeting the people I had prayed for – Simona, Marco, Francesco, Alessia, Armando, Lucia, Mariatheresa, Giorgio, Giuliana. Finally – names, faces, hands, hearts of the people I’d been carrying before the Throne. I fell in love with all of them from the very start.
In the year I lived there, these precious people, and a few more – Ilaria, Michael, Damaris, Elena – became my family. As I struggled with my health and tried to negotiate Italian life and culture, they lovingly cared for me, carried me, but above all, included me in everything they did, as if I was one of their very own. They fussed and fed and took me places. They explained culture and customs and history and humour. They taught me what it meant to belong, how to cook a good risotto (I watched Simona closely) and to be more mindful of my own cultural prejudices. They probed and questioned, and I was given the grace to reconstruct some of my faulty ideas about God and His world. I played the piano for their meetings, but they did far, far more for me.
In their care, my tightly held heart started to flourish and feel a lightness I have never been able to replicate elsewhere. People would actually talk to ME, call me up, invite me everywhere! So different from the reserved, slightly emotionally detached environment I had sprung from. They were all-up-in-my-face practically constantly and I was totally delighted with it.
Italy filled my need for beauty. The art and architecture provided a steady stream of visual stimulus for me. I knew that a year was barely enough to skim the surface, but attempts to lengthen my visa or secure more permanent means of staying were fruitless. My dream of serving the Italian church came to a heart-ripping end, and I had to return to Cape Town, leave the embrace of my Italian family and go back to being… what? I didn’t know.
I didn’t pray or speak to God for nearly a year after my return – a return filled with great pain and drama and problems. Eventually I resumed teaching and life. Outwardly I seemed fine, but inwardly, for almost eight years, I bled over my loss. I’d lost my Italian family, my dearest friends, a sense of purpose and meaning in life. What am I meant to do, who am I meant to serve? Why give me a passion and a dream, then close the door so hard my head reels?
I still don’t have a complete answer for that. And still no other call, or passion, fills my heart other than to stand should-to-shoulder with the Italian church, to see to it that she makes the finishing line. Even if I must do it from a distance. But I was graced with a partial understanding.
Another September, nine years later, I went home to Parma again for a month’s visit – for rest and recovery after my father’s death. And finally – finally! – got to see a glimpse of why my way back had been barred all those years ago. With great sadness I learned how the little fellowship I was part of had come undone and was ultimately destroyed. What I knew then no longer existed. My heart grieved for what was gone.
I prayed and prayed as I walked the streets, and this time round, I heard the music:
Va’ pensiero sull’ali dorate (fly, thought, on golden wings)
It’s a line from the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Verdi’s Nabucco, lamenting their longing for their homeland while refugees in Babylon. I got to sing the lines of this song the very day before I flew back to South Africa, tears spilling unashamedly down my cheeks, knowing I’d have to say goodbye again, and that I would always, ALWAYS long to return here – home.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
Carissimi Simona, Francesco, Alessia, Armando, Lucia, Giuliana, Ilaria, tutti voi
Non ci sono parole per descrivere quanto vi voglio bene e come mi mancate. Dieci anni fa mi avete dato la mano in amicizia e la vostra gentilezza ha toccato il mio cuore. Sono stata cambiata per sempre dall’incontrarvi. La mia preghiera è per voi di conoscere la profondità dell’amore di Dio, la pienezza di Gesù Cristo e di correre fino alla fine questa gara di fede con grande successo. Prego di vedere i vostri rapporti ripristinati, i vostri familiari salvati, i vostri cuori guariti. Che siate dotati di tutto il necessario per risplendere in Italia.
Mi avete dato tanto – mi avete dato voi stessi. Vi sarò per sempre grata.
Dio vi benedica sempre, vi voglio bene
Con grande affetto