Come together. Right now. Over me...
COME TOGETHER. RIGHT NOW. OVER ME...
The tradition of the Sunday feast accomplishes more than feeding us...it nurtures us!
It was several years ago now, well before the pandemic, that Diana and I had a most amazing and heart-warming experience...one that I think merits re-telling. I am in the process of writing my third book of short stories and the experience of which I am about to tell you was the impetus for that book. It will be a wonderful book of heart-warming stories from cultures all around the world about gathering for Sunday dinner .
Diana and I were doing something on a Sunday afternoon that we neither could, nor ever would, do today. We were in the city center of Bologna, for no particular reason other than to wander the ancient streets, have a gelato and take in a little history.
It was something that we used to do quite often. But the pandemic, and the strangling government mandates that came about as a result, put an end to our days out in the city. Besides that, the uncontrolled, unfettered immigration that Italy has permitted over the past five years has made the streets of our larger cities much more dangerous than they’ve ever been. But I won’t go down that rabbit hole in today’s blog. I want to focus instead on the amazing experience that Diana and I had...
Bologna is a timeless treasure and one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been in. When we walk the streets of the Quadrilatero...the oldest section of the city, I get feelings that are a bit hard to describe. I have the sensation that the spirits of those who walked these very alleyways and narrow streets centuries before are surrounding me...walking with me. Although I know better, I swear there are moments when I even catch glimpses of them.
I told Diana about it, fearing she would think I was crazy. But when she told me she has been experiencing the very same feelings her entire life, having been born in Bologna...well, I didn’t think it was so crazy after all.
We had stopped into the incredibly beautiful cathedral of La Chiesa di San Francesco for a few moments. I honestly believe it is the quietest place in all the world. We sit in the cool, dim silence of that marvelous cathedral and just be. I hope that makes sense.
That is where we ran into a tall, somewhat mysterious-looking man by the name of Dimitri. We were on our way out and just as we stepped through the huge, hand-carved wooden doors, out into the piazza, he was standing a few meters away.
“Scusa!” he said while walking straight toward us. “Hai un momento?”
He was asking if he might have a moment of our time. For what we did not know, but he obviously wanted something. And in this day and age, a stranger approaching you on the streets of Bologna usually means he is asking for money.
Once was a time when an innocent and well-deserving man or woman would be standing on almost every street corner hoping someone will drop a few coins into their cups. But today things are different. Today the city is teeming with much bolder, much more aggressive, even dangerous sorts.
Our first instinct, naturally, would have been to withdraw...to shield ourselves from this man. But there was something different about him. Something that convinced me to let my guard down.
He did not look like a beggar, as stereotypically condescending as that might sound. And when he shook my hand, I immediately lost any fear or trepidation I had. I actually became rather curious as to why he was approaching us. There were dozens of other people in the piazza but for some reason he’d chosen us.
“Ospito una cena ogni Domenica nella mia casa vicino a San Giorgio di Piano,” he said. “Estendo un invito a entrambi.”
Then he waited for our response.
Diana and I looked at each other. Neither of us knew what to say. It was a very odd invitation that he was extending to us. He wanted us to come to a Sunday dinner at his home north of the city. We were perfect strangers, and the invitation just did not make sense to us...
“Perche?” I responded. Then without thinking, I finished what I was saying in English...
“Why?” I asked. “Why would you choose us? You don’t know us. And we have no idea who you are.”
“Americano?” he asked. Obviously, my accent gave me away.
“Si,” I answered. “Yes. I am an American.”
“And your wife?” he asked curiously.
“No,” I said, answering for her. “She is Bolognese. But she's speaks English very well...since she was four years old.”
“Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “ I am Greek and I too have been speaking English for many years. It is rare for me to run into someone who speaks English, especially here in Centro. And do you know what? I prefer the American English. It is so much easier to speak and to understand. Don’t you think?”
His question was of course meant for Diana, but she ignored him. She was wary of this man and not warming up to him as quickly as I had. She did not answer him right away. But he brushed it aside and began telling us the reason why he would extend a dinner invitation to two perfect strangers...
“Perhaps I owe you an explanation for my invitation," he began. "Almost every weekend for the past ten years I have hosted a Sunday dinner party at my home in San Giorgio di Piano. It has been my aim to bring people together and I love including total strangers. I have quite a large home and I hold the dinner in what used to be the sculptor’s studio. The previous owner was an artist. I am usually able to attract twenty, maybe twenty-five people...twice that many when the weather is nice. As I said, the house is grand, and so we can overflow into the gardens.”
He paused for a few moments, trying to gauge our reaction to his invitation. I was intensely curious about such a gathering but not Diana. She is a cautious person and remained stoic. Non-committal...
“Every Sunday we prepare a feast,” he continued. “I was fortunate enough to inherit a bit of money when my father passed on. It is more than I will spend in my lifetime and so I like to share my good fortune with others...and yes, often time perfect strangers such as yourself.”
I looked at Diana, hoping to be able to judge what she was thinking. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was reluctant to say yes. And so, I was just about to thank Dimitri, apologizing for our decision not to come. But he kept talking...
“People from all corners of the world come to break bread together at my home,” he said. “To meet, to talk, to connect...and often they become friends. You will be among a group of people of all ages, several nationalities, races, professions. We gather at my home quite informally. There is no seating arrangements and so the opportunity for mingling couldn't be better. I love the randomness.”
I glanced at Diana one more time. This time she must have sensed my interest and she nodded her head...
“OK Jimmy,” she said. “If you want to go, we will go. It might be interesting to meet such people.”
“Meravigliosa!” Dimitri said with a huge, toothy smile. “May I ask your names? First name only...there is no need for formalities.”
We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, including our names, a little bit about our farm and that together, Diana and I wrote books.
“Very good!” Dimitri responded, still smiling. “You see, I love introducing people to other people. And I have been blessed with a good memory. Each week I make it a point to remember everyone's name on the guest list...where they're from and what they do. I do this so I can introduce everyone to each other, effortlessly. If I had my way, I would introduce everyone in the whole world to each other.”
He gave us directions to his home, written on the back of a business card that also had his phone number on it...
“If you change your mind, don’t worry,” he added as we were leaving the piazza. “I hope you won’t though. I feel you will enjoy yourself immensely. Ciao ragazzi!”
When we got home, of course my curious Diana went right to the internet to see if she could find out anything about our new host. What she found was quite interesting.
In the late '80s, as a much younger man, Dimitri Pelakinakis had written a series of guidebooks to nine Eastern European countries and Russia. But oddly, in those books there were no sights to see, no shops or museums to visit, no restaurants at which to eat.
Instead, each book contained about 1,000 short biographies of people he’d met along the way in his travels...people who were willing to welcome travelers, strangers if you will, into their cities and act as guides.
"Hundreds of friendships have evolved from these encounters," Dimitri later told Diana, "including more than a few marriages. Many children were conceived, and babies born, through people meeting, falling in love and marrying in this way."
“Isn’t that incredible Jimmy?” Diana said, turning from the computer to face me. “There are not many people in this world like Dimitri.”
The next Sunday afternoon rolled around and we left Terra d’Amore, heading north toward San Giorgio di Piano. The drive took about thirty minutes. The directions he’d given us were perfect and before we knew it, we were driving very slowly down a long, cypress tree-lined lane toward a grand villa that was more than two hundred years old. An occasional piece of statuary surprised us, lurking behind a few of the trees. Perhaps sculpted by the previous owner.
Along the lane in front of us rabbits hopped. In the fields to our left, we could see deer grazing...in broad daylight, something you don’t often see here.
“They must feel very safe,” I said to Diana. “I think today will be an interesting experience. I’m glad you agreed to do this.”
And it was. In the old sculptor’s studio, Dimitri had eight or ten long tables set up, each graced with white linen tablecloths, fine silver ware, crystal glasses.
Atop each table were wooden bowls of fruit, woven baskets of bread and ceramic jugs of wine...red and white. Bottles of sparkling water were interspersed between crystal glasses along the length of the table.
There were six huge windows on each of the side walls, all of which were slightly open. They were draped in even longer white gauze cloth curtains that gently danced and fluttered in the soft breeze that came through the opened windows.
At the far end of the room was the largest fireplace I’d ever seen. Split logs of oak and hickory burned, adding warmth to the room.
There was a collection of people from all over the world that day. Most of them spoke English, at least as a second language. I met and spoke with a French political cartoonist while Diana was engrossed in a chat with a beautiful painter from Denmark.
There was a truck driver from Arizona and his wife, believe it or not, visiting on vacation.
Dimitri later introduced me to a bookseller from San Francisco and a newspaper editor from Moscow.
There was a small group of students from the university, all involved in and heatedly debating the politics of Italy and the European Union.
Before we sat down to eat from a most eclectic dinner menu, put together by our host and his chef, Dimitri stood at the head of the table and made a toast...
“Like Tom Paine, one of America’s Founding father, once said, I am a world citizen,” he began. “All human history is our history. Our roots cover this earth. We are, each and every one of us, an individual. We come from different nations, different cultures. I have long believed that it is not necessary to understand others. At times, and I am sure you would agree, it is not only unnecessary, it is virtually impossible.
But one must be, at the very least, tolerant of others. Tolerance leads to respect and respect may very well end in friendship...even love. No one can ever really understand anyone else. But we can at least accept each other.
I believe we should all know each other. After all, our lives are connected in one way or another. That is why you are all here tonight...to become connected. OK, now...Come! Eat! Drink! Be merry!”
Classical music played softly while we ate. The food was absolutely incredible. The conversation was beyond stimulating. Being a part of such a diverse group of people, all gathered around the Sunday dinner table, was an experience I will not ever forget.
The high point of my afternoon came as I watched a small eight-year-old girl from Bosnia spending her entire afternoon playing with a six-year-old boy from Estonia as their parents looked on...completely surprised and so very pleased.
This is what I learned that day...
There is indeed hope for this broken world.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.
We must never forget how important coming together is and what better place to do that than around the Sunday dinner table. It is the perfect time and place to sit down and offer thanks...
Thanks to our children for making us laugh.
Thanks to our parents for supporting us.
Thanks to our Creator for the gift of life and for looking out for us.
How often do the greatest thoughts and ideas come to light during conversations with family or friends over a shared table?