In 2008, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Italy for 3 weeks for a landscape painting class. I was terrified to go...I had never traveled internationally and I would have to make the journey to Florence alone. But I went anyway and that trip became one of those defining experiences of who I am as a person.
We stayed in a villa-turned-sustainable-farm, home to a Countess and her family, as well as numerous gardeners, cooks and interns. The various guest rooms had housed Art History Ph.D. candidates the week before our arrival; the week following, an eclectic mix of writers arrived. The place attracts those searching for beauty.
It wasn't hard to find myself in awe of the sweeping views of the Tuscan countryside, the cypress-lined gravel driveway, the elaborate garden which provided our dinner every evening, the vast expanse of sky uninhibited by light pollution as night fell.
But what caught my breath, time and again, were the people. There was the night that a group of local musicians came to dinner and we danced circles in the courtyard as the evening waned and darkness fell. There were the interns, traveling from far and wide to learn about the heritage livestock breeds and sustainable gardening methods. There was the afternoon gardener who happily shared her boundless knowledge in beautifully broken English.
There were the cooks who spent the entire day in a stone-walled kitchen with no air conditioner and yet tirelessly provided elaborate lunches and dinners. And of course, there was our small group of painting students, brought together by a quirky instructor, our mutual love of art and wanderlust.
Once a month, the villa holds Nostra Cena (pronounced NOH-struh CHAY-nuh.) Everyone who lives on the estate comes to the main house to share "Our Dinner", a meal grown or raised entirely on the property. The noise levels rise as friends come back together from weeks of working in other areas (at the vineyard or harvesting olives, perhaps).
If it's pizza night, several people gather around the outdoor brick oven, laughing, sipping wine, and communing as dinner is prepared. More wine is shared this evening than most and if the weather is nice (as it was then), dinner is served outside next to the lemon trees growing in massive pots.
On the night of "Nostra Cena", dinner guests linger long after the food plates and wine bottles are emptied of their gifts. The laughter rises and falls like a tide as old friends (and new) share their stories. Time slows down as souls entwine.
There's something absolutely spiritual about friends coming together over a meal. Breaking bread has always been a sacred event for every culture across time. To invite someone to your table is to invite them into your heart.
To break bread is to break the tension and move into deeper territories of relationship. It is not a minor thing to extend the invitation to share a meal; it is extending an invitation for closeness, for intimacy.
There was a time in my life when I was caught up in the "rules" of entertaining, of one person's particular brand of hospitality. I'm grateful that if I learned nothing else at that villa in the Tuscan countryside, it was the value of connecting with one another over a shared meal. The seed of that lesson was planted in my heart over pasta and wild boar, but has grown into an intense desire to live with an open home, open heart, and open table.
Breaking bread with one another is a sacred experience. Who do you need to invite to the table?