There are stories we tell over and over because we never want to forget. This is one of them.
Eight years ago I wandered around the streets of Geneva, Switzerland in February. My coat was good for an Australian winter, but I froze in the northern hemisphere’s chilly days. I was only there for two weeks as part of a year when I traveled around the world. I started in September and worked my way through New Zealand, parts of the US, Canada, South Africa, Ethiopia and the UK. Each place was a surprise of sorts, purpose unfolding slowly. I enjoyed connecting deeply with friends and family, becoming part of their lives, and learning through my experiences.
But not in Geneva. I had been on the road for five months when my plane circled over the snow-topped Alps surrounding this tiny town. I landed there knowing no one and not knowing where to go or what to do. There is a romance that surrounds our talk of travel, something about the sheer possibilities and the unexpected that it can be. When I told people what I was doing, wistfulness swept across their face, I wish I could have done that, they said.
I didn’t see the adventure. I was tired of going from place to place and tired of making my life fit into a suitcase. Every thing boiled down to my choices, what to eat, how to spend my time, where to wash my clothes. Wearied by the steady stream of decisions, it was the comfort of my parents and sisters and friends that I looked for.
I longed for a sense of place in the middle of what was supposed to be the greatest adventure of my life.
The story is long and winding, but after 10 days or so, I went to a local church in the middle of the Old Town of Geneva. After the service a group of us young adults left with plans to have lunch at a restaurant. Instead of finding a place to eat, we ended up at the apartment of one of our new companions.
His was a minimal bachelor pad near the center of the city. There was a grey couch with (what looked like) an oblong, plastic white sculpture for a coffee table. He told us to make ourselves at home while he started cooking spaghetti bolognese in the kitchen.
What are the ingredients of an unforgettable gathering? I’m still not sure, but in that room we eased into each other’s lives, telling stories, laughing and listening. We were a mix of cultures: French, German, Korean-American, Indian-German, American and me. Some were working, others were interns and students. I can’t remember what we talked about, but it was effortless, relaxed, and the connections were mutual and light.
We set the tables with plates and wine glasses from IKEA, and for a grey day, light still filtered in through the balcony doors into the dining room. The steaming pasta and meat sauce on my plate was ordinary and piled on the dark-blue ceramic plates, no one would have put it on Instagram. But I stared at the plate of food, inhaled the smell of beef and tomatoes and chewed one slow mouthful at a time.
I ate deeply, grateful for my first home-cooked meal in almost two weeks. Tracy Chapman sang about fast cars in the background, and in those hours around the table, I could feel a grounding, a belonging, a most profound sense of love.
He tells me now that it was the first time he spontaneously invited a group of people to his home. I asked him tonight – because the stranger in Geneva who invited us for lunch became my husband one year and five months after that February – Why did you ask us to come over for lunch?
He shrugged and said, I have no idea, that’s what made it a spontaneous thing. I didn’t think about it.
You don’t know what you give someone when you invite them to sit at your table.
You don’t know what ache inside of them is filled by the food they eat from your plates.
You don’t know how the most unplanned gathering can lead to the softening of hearts, the soothing of disappointments and the opening of doorways unimagined.
We eat spaghetti bolognese often in our home, but I do the cooking most of the time now. This is my favorite recipe by far. Don’t skimp on the salt.