"In Italy the summer before Henry was born, on a trip with family friends, we ate raw green olives in Positano, looking out at the Mediterranean Sea, and we drank Bellinis made with thick, white peach puree. We ate paper-thin pizza with narrow ribbons of basil and fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta, impossibly rich and light at once.
On that trip I had the best meal of my life, on the island of Capri, at a restaurant called the Lemon Tree. Our family and dear friends sat at a round table, and the branches of the lemon trees over our heads hung so low and so thick they almost made a ceiling, a dense canopy, and hundreds of lanterns hung from their branches and made the whole dining area twinkle as they swayed.
Our table had a whole fish roasted with wheels of lemon and swaths of herbs, carved tableside, and handmade lobster ravioli, the fresh lobster meat so sweet it almost tasted like there was sugar in it. What moved me, though—and what the restaurant is famous for beyond the lemon tree canopy—were the antipasti and sweet buffets: two huge rough wooden tables piled with platters wedged in like puzzle pieces. One table held cheeses and pastas and grilled, marinated vegetables; the other, plates of every imaginable fruit, cake, and tart. At the center of that lovely table, a bowl of fat blackberries, almost as big as plums, and a bowl of whipped cream, decadent and simple at once.
I can still taste the tiny glass of limoncello the served at the end of the meal, and I can still recall the hint of coolness in the air as we drove back down the winding roads to the marina, feeling like the world was so beautiful I almost couldn’t stand it, so thankful for those trees and those lanterns and those huge round tables and that bowl of blackberries.” -Shauna Niequist, Bread & Wine
We had decided in late Fall that a return trip to the Amalfi Coast was how we wanted to officially celebrate our tiny girl’s first birthday, as well as 11 years of marriage. Our love of travel, Italy in particular, her love of lemons. It was the perfect pairing.
Though Josh and I are seasoned travelers, I admit I had been wrestling with a significant amount of fear about taking Everyn so far from home. What would we be exposing her to? What if something happened? What if, what if, what if… the thoughts plagued me. Most of them completely irrational. Trusting my husband’s leadership implicitly, I confessed to him in near tears one evening. I wanted to know if he had even the slightest hesitation. Knowing well how women, especially new mothers, especially his wife wrestle with fear and anxiety at times, he very lovingly and calmly put me at ease. He encouraged me with a new mantra to replace any and every tempting, fear-laden thought, “I will not live in fear. I will not make fear-laden decisions.” And that was that. I took a deep breath. Resolve. I committed despite any lingering ‘what if’ notions.
But then this book… then this particular chapter… then these particular paragraphs. It was serendipitous timing as it arrived in the mail only a few weeks later. I began feeling almost compelled, called if you will, back to the Isle of Capri. And one thing was absolutely certain. We would dine at the Lemon Tree.
So there we were on the island, wandering cliff side gardens and indulging in endless gelato. It was surreal to be back in a place that felt so familiar and exotic at once. What I was completely unaware of however, was how God was about to orchestrate the next few hours in a way that would leave me speechless.
Our first few days in Italy had been sheer delight, but every night as darkness fell so did my spirit. As I crawled in bed each night I would begin grappling again with fear. Nothing specific, just fear itself. Knowing well my sensitivity to spiritual climates, Josh had taken to praying over me every evening as we went to bed, calling on the Holy Spirit to impart peace and deep rest, to hedge me in at every side. With every day it lessened, as if it were beginning to lose it’s grip, but still it was there, taunting.
Dressed for dinner we finally set out in search of the Lemon Tree, right at sunset. A dark cloud loomed on the horizon but failed to raise any kind of alarm. We rode the sweeping lift back down to the marina across the treetops and began a slow stroll up winding roads in the direction of the restaurant. I carried Everyn as Josh attempted to navigate a side of the island completely foreign to us.
Very suddenly the wind began to pick up, a significant chill on its breath. We glanced at each other with a knowing look. We’d made it up the main roads and entered a residential area with narrow passages, concrete walls draped with ivy, iron gates. Nothing about the area looked fitting for a restaurant. Then the rain began, slowly at first. There was literally nowhere to duck for coverage. We kept moving, sure the restaurant couldn’t be much further. The rain kicked up another notch. I passed Ev to Josh and we began jogging, unsure where we were headed at this point. And still the rain grew heavier, almost to downpour. We were frantically attempting to find anything to step under, even the slightest overhang. Nothing. As Josh became increasingly frustrated, I became increasingly giddy. It washed over me, through me, and I began laughing delightfully, racing thru the rain in flip-flops and a long skirt. At every intersection we seemed to peer down yet another endless street and I’d squeal and laugh harder, calling over my shoulder, “Embrace it! Just embrace it! There’s nothing else to do!”
Soaked nearly to the bone, I finally spotted a tiny covered vending area. I yelled back to Josh and darted under. Two young guys stood casually with sodas in hand watching the rain, and in the back corner, two sweet Italian grandmothers huddled together under a small umbrella. Both in calf-length skirts, scarves tied over their heads, they smiled sweetly as I joined them shaking off the excess water.
Just as Josh came jogging up with Ev a third grandma rounded the corner as well, deciding it wise to join us. She shook off her umbrella chattering to the others, seemingly amused by the rain. As we stood waiting for a break in the downpour the two ladies in the corner pointed and cooed at Everyn. The talked quietly to themselves, their eyes locked on us, pointing softly here and there. With a slight slowing of the drenching the guys darted out, but we stayed put, well aware we still had no idea where the restaurant was located. I glanced up at the sound of Italian clearly directed at us, just as the grandmothers tentatively approached from their corner. One held out a tattered sweater, pushing it into my hands and pointing at Everyn. I wasn’t sure how to respond at first. Glancing at their own worn layers, I hesitated. Certainly they needed this more than we. Sensing my hesitation the third grandma jumped in with heightened volume. She rattled and rattled, pointed and pointed, and I stared blankly understanding not one single word. It was clear they wanted me to wrap the wet baby, certainly, but how would I ever return this sweater? The longer we hesitated the more emphatic they became in the most concerned but heartfelt manner. Finally I wound the sweater around Ev's shoulders, expressing our thanks again and again. I was on the very verge of tears at their incredible concern and kindness.
When the rain finally came to a slow and steady drizzle, we decided to brave it. I looked to the ladies and asked “The Lemon Tree? Do you know the The Lemon Tree??” They rattled at each other in Italian until deciding they knew what we meant, then began pointing up the hill and nodding. “This way?” I asked to confirm. They rattled back more than what seemed a simple ‘yes’ in response. Our confused expressions must have concerned them, as the third grandma bid goodbye to the others and motioned for us to follow. I was dumbstruck. Clearly she had just finished a full days work, arms loaded with bags and a large umbrella. I reasoned it must be on her way, surely. We followed her up a hill and around a few corners. She struggled up the inclines, breathing heavily, almost waddling in her orthopedic shoes. My concern grew she was going much out of her way. Finally stopping at a crossing she pointed at a darkened gate, smiling exuberantly and trying to catch her breath, motioning for us to go. We thanked her profusely as she turned to leave in the same direction we’d just come, affirming my suspicion this stop had not been conveniently on her route.
We approached the gate and peered down a winding path, lights glowing somewhere towards the back. It was quiet, too quiet. Tables and chairs lined the partly illuminated pathway. Approaching a large seating area situated literally beneath a grove of lemon trees, limbs densely intertwined to form a canopy draped with lemons and dangling lights, we knew we’d finally arrived. And not a single soul was dining, save a small group of staff on the far side. One caught a glimpse and promptly stood to greet us. He approached with a smile and kindly explained they didn’t open for another hour but welcomed us to wait. As the rain began beating down on the canvas roof out of sight beyond the branches, he motioned to a nearby table for us to sit.
Relieved to be out of the downpour we had no issue waiting. As we pulled ourselves up to the table a server arrived with a basket of bread and lit a candle on the table, as a second wrapped a huge, plush blanket around my shoulders, then Everyn, then Josh. We were all so cold, I almost wept.
The handful of guys who’d been dining across the way packed up their plates and moved to a room off to the side, though clearly we were the ones who’d intruded. I could still see them laughing and chatting, eating intently. I loved how they shared a meal together, not so much as a staff, but almost as family. Very Italian.
As they finished their meal and transitioned to work mode, we watched as they began diligently piling platters in two distinct rooms. One situated just in front of us, the other off to our right. Having forgotten the details from the book months earlier, I wondered what they were doing. There was a huge table in one of the rooms, and the platters just kept coming. And coming. And coming. I was so enamored watching them I barely noticed as the filled the other, as well.
When a server returned to take our order and I asked what a particular item was listed under ‘Aperitivos,’ he just motioned towards the room. I raised my eyebrows, “Really?” He nodded with an amused smile. “I’ll have that, please.” Josh did the same. No brainer.
We tried so many things I cannot even begin to detail them all. Marinated vegetables, seafood galore, cheeses and cured meats and pasta. It was incredible, a feast of something both body and soul. It felt like a celebration. We ordered entrees, astonished again by the decadence, and when they asked about dessert and pointed to the other room, I about died of happiness. There were tarts and pastries galore, tiny layered cups of tiramisu, handmade chocolate truffles and big bowls of whipped cream with liquor drenched fruit. The platters and bowls circled the entire room. I could barely decide what to try and just stood there forever, staring happily.
It was delicious beyond description. All of it. Every last, unassuming bite.
As the rain continued to patter we sipped hot espressos and waited. We’d been dining almost four hours. We were so content, so grateful to be savoring this moment, this food, this life, as Shauna so perfectly noted, “…so beautiful I almost couldn’t stand it…”
As Everyn started indicating her exhaustion, we waved goodbye and wandered back down the winding path towards the road where the taxi they’d summoned for us was already waiting. Despite a subtle drizzle, the clouds were beginning to give way to a dazzling star filled sky. I stared out the window, deliriously happy, so terribly grateful for this rain-soaked night.
The driver dropped us near the main piazza, far as he could go, leaving us to walk the winding stone alleyways back to our hotel. The white pillared Mediterranean overlook to our left, the piazza to our right, the sky above now clear and dancing with stars, all was still. Thanks to the rain the typically bustling piazza was quiet, one lone storekeeper standing outside across the way. The tables and chairs were leaned to drain and the whole piazza was aglow from lit café windows, the warm light glistening against the wet stones. It was breathtaking.
Still enamored with the scene I stood speechlessly taking it all in, when quietly my husband began swaying and humming, Everyn wrapped up in his arms, a knowing smile spreading across her tired little face. Her giggles propelled him, and I watched in near disbelief as he twirled her in circles, dipping her, spinning her, both now laughing deliriously.
I didn’t say a word for fear of interrupting. I just watched in stunned admiration, this man, this darling girl, spinning in circles in a glowing Italian piazza under the stars on the Isle of Capri. I could do nothing but marvel at how very, very, indescribably, unspeakably good my God is, utterly blown away by His rich and decadent goodness.
Following their spontaneous waltz they walked ahead of me towards the hotel, flirting still along the way. I walked slowly, savoring deeply the last of this magical evening, when suddenly I heard clearly the voice of my Lord, as crisp as the now fully dazzling sky, What was it you feared, my love? In My hand, you are. Nothing can snatch you from my grasp, the world over.
I felt stunned to the core. All my previous fears seeming suddenly so small and trivial and irrelevant. Failure to filter constantly negative media and conversation, even casual thoughts, not only robs me of joy but breeds fear to overflow. Crippling fear, the kind that prevents you from living, from freedom, from seeing anyone but yourself. The kind that holds you captive, starving and cold, terrified to breathe. The diabolical kind.
I suddenly realized the magnitude of this night, God’s very goodness on display, a desperately needed reminder of the great beauty and kindness we experience when we slay our fears and brazenly stomp past knocking it to its knees with defeat.
I so easily could have missed it, could have missed Him… in the kind eyes offering a tattered sweater, in the thick, exhausted ankles leading us thru darkened stone alleyways, in the warm hands wrapping blankets around my shivering shoulders. In tangled branches heavy with lemons and steaming espresso in tiny cups, in pounding rain and dancing stars, handmade truffles, glistening piazzas. In a dancing man and his tiny girl, in echoing giggles and starlit walks… Gods goodness to me on display, brilliantly, vividly, obvious.
How silly to think, in the clutch of God’s hand, there is every anything to fear.
This night set the tone for the rest of our adventure, and from that moment on fear lost its clawing grip, crushed in the very light of Truth. And it hasn’t returned since.
(Up Next: An unexpected detour to Sorrento...)