“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.””
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
It is almost nine and mostly dark by the time we get back down to village.
It’s our second night staying in a house on the cliff 450 steps above Vernazza, one of the famous Cinque Terre of Italy’s northwestern coast. At home in Seattle, Erika and I are avid hikers, scaling the ridges and dipping down to the lakes of the North Cascade mountains that form the backbone of our region. She has come to Europe to visit me during BFA’s spring break, and we’re spending three days backpacking in the foreign warmth and grandeur of Italy.
We woke this morning with only a nebulous plan to “hike around a bit.” Twenty minutes away from Vernazza, our path ran together with other travelers. Two we’d met the night before, Australian mothers traveling together after their sons went off to university, and we heard them long before we saw them, their laughter and accents heralding their presence around the corner. Walking with them were a couple from Southern California, celebrating ten years of marriage with an Italian getaway.
The six of us fell in together, spent the rest of the day navigating steep, narrow paths through the countryside, between improbably soft seas and the bone-dry steps of terraced vineyards. We stopped for picnic lunch in one village, treating each other to the tastes of the region and dipping our feet into the still-cold Mediterranean before continuing on to the end of the road, the Riomaggiore I loved five years ago.
We drank in salty air, breathed out conversation, telling gradually the stories that had brought us here. Of children born, educated, learning, leaving. Of marriages that last and those that don’t. Of jobs and loves, found and lost. Of forest fires, Alpine backpacking and Australian politics, biking to Versailles and Vespa tours of Florence.
We’ve made separate dinner plans to suit the budgets and appetites of three different decades, so Erika and I take a table on the main street, savoring caprese, warm foccocia, and the proprietor’s favorite €10 wine. It’s only a few minutes before our hiking companions join us, finished with their suppers, ready to pull up chairs, order pizzas, and keep talking. Vernazza’s already quiet streets hush to a whisper as the conversation continues, long into the evening, leading us to family and future, God and the gifts of being alive and here, tonight.
As we linger in the warm Italian night, sharing life with people who were strangers a day ago, I’m remembering the inquiries of last spring, the concerned refrain that met me at every turn:
Are you moving to Europe… alone?
The shortest answer was always yes, but even then I knew there was more to it. From starting high school to working at Starbucks to spending a summer on a farm in Ramsau, I’ve done a great deal alone. Yet in all of those places, I’m only alone for a day or two. I go to class, learn some names, put on an apron, bake a cake and speak in broken Austrian German. Though many ways it is a time of solitude, being young and unattached by marriage or its precursors, the lonely spaces of airports and trains, passages between known and soon-to-know, are the only true islands. There’s a promise that follows me, wherever I go, a promise of God’s provision and affection, gifts that have always included the people He’s created. Though it’s not always the community I’d expected, I’ve never been disappointed.
In a few days, Erika and I will travel back to Germany, visiting friends acquired in the decades of a Torchbearer childhood. I’ll think more about the connectedness of the body of Christ, of the spirals that bind us together, the intimacy I enjoy with friends and family, even here on the edge of where I’d imagined life would go. I’ll stare out of train windows filled with spring green, thinking about seasons of the earth and seasons of life, of the dance of connection and loneliness common to all people. For now, though, Erika returns from the restaurant with more glasses, and I take a bite of pizza and listen, as yesterday’s strangers become today’s friends, somewhere along the Mediterranean.