The first time I met Raffaele, he was on a work exchange from Italy with IBM, in town for a few weeks and (I was sure) missing his wife and three girls. In my 20-something, half Italian mind, it was a natural assumption that he might like to come to dinner because in my family it was all about the food. Which was normal, especially for Italians, right?
This happened thirty years ago. I don’t remember what time of year it was, nor what I cooked that night. But I do remember one extraordinary thing Raffaele said.
Right about then we were needing a new kitchen floor. Things had gotten to the point where I had been to the flooring store and brought home several samples of high grade vinyl. I emphasize that this was not the really cheap stuff. Nor was it bad looking. I don’t have pictures of it. You’ll see why.
It seemed to me a reasonable point of conversation after dinner. Why not get Raffaele’s opinion on the flooring samples? It was something to talk about. These were the big, stiff pieces with patterns both classic and up-to-date. One by one I showed them to him. “What do you think, Raffaele? Which one is your favorite?”
He did not choose one. He did not choose any. He simply asked, “Why do Americans always want to put plastic on their floors?”
It had never occurred to me to put anything other than vinyl on a kitchen floor. Everyone’s kitchen floor was vinyl. Everyone’s I knew. I was taken aback by his question. Not offended, just taken aback. There are other options?
Well, of course there are other options. Unsurprisingly, vinyl did not win out over the others which I opened my mind to. The white ceramic tile with black grouting that we subsequently chose and installed ourselves turned out to be a far cry better. It stood up to the traffic in our busy house (four kids, then five, two dogs, lots of company), cleaned up easily and looked really nice.
I was ever afterwards always grateful that he had had the guts to ask the question. Someone else might not have tried to tell me I was on the wrong track, might not have risked offending me. But no matter — we got a much better floor. Raffaele made my little world a little bigger that evening. He stretched me, got me outside the box, encouraged something better. Looking back, I wonder if I even knew I was in a box – a vinyl box! Maybe I was open to his question because some little voice inside me said It’s okay, you can step out, stretching is good, there are other ways to accomplish this goal. And something better came. In the end, something way better.
This is not just about kitchen flooring. If a box you are in gets in the way (or might get in the way) of a better you or a better something you are working on – whether a project or a perspective or a relationship – maybe you should step out too. I know it’s safe (or safer) in the box. I know there are reasons to stay in it, sometimes very good reasons. You know it too. We are comfortable in the box. Stretching can hurt. Stretching can be super challenging. But we miss a lot if we stay in the box. The world is huge and amazing and full of endless possibilities. Combine an open mind (including the ability to admit you were on the wrong track), careful use of resources, thoughtful decisions and intelligent execution of the better choice, and you’ll get something you had never imagined could be so good. Besides, if you stay in the box it gets boring. And unboring is key, remember that.
Back then, we got something much better than a much better kitchen floor. We got the start of a lifelong friendship. Raffaele and Marisa and their girls later came for a year-long stint, and we had great times together. A few years after that we visited them in Italy. They took us to Milan, Venice and Lake Como. A few years later, we went again, and again. Talk about stretching! Different cultures are different — norms are different, food is different, habits are different. Ways of making a bed, what people eat for breakfast, how they serve a meal or decorate a house, what their mailboxes and their cars look like, what the street vendors sell, what kind of trees grow in their yard, how they react when the unexpected happens, how they prepare for the weather, when they rest, what they take along on an outing… So much to learn, so much to see, so much to enjoy.
Last week, Raffaele and Marisa came to visit me. They had never been to Virginia before, so they got stretched a little too. I remembered that they don’t eat meat and made them my Italian grandmother’s “Italian Ham Pie” with spinach instead of ham. And I made the best brownies in the world because I know they love brownies. Marisa thoughtfully brought me tortellini stuffed with prosciutto! This I have never seen for sale here. We caught up with all the latest about our children.
We walked downtown,
played with chickens,
and laughed and laughed some more.
During their short but wonderful-beyond-words visit, I thought about what I (and my family) might have missed if just two things had been different. What if I had not invited Raffaele to dinner in the first place all those years ago? (I might never have met him or his wonderful wife and daughters.) And what if I had decided to take offense at his question? (Our beautiful friendship might not have developed, might not exist.)
About this Italian ham pie and these brownies: you are sure (and you are right) that they are both very delicious. I will show you how to make everything, crust and all, if you promise to 1. invite someone over for dinner sometime soon, maybe someone new to your area, and 2. assume the best (about their words, behavior and intentions) unless you have very good reason not to.