The waiter looked confused. He shuffled the menus in his hand from left to right, then put one in the middle, then rechecked them again. “Why don’t you just give them to us,” I found myself thinking, “why all this fuss?” He opened and checked each menu again, and finally handed them to us. The quality paper and elegant font matched the fanciness of the restaurant, encrusted on a hill overlooking Rome and its domes, carved on marble floors and with a couple Ferraris adorning its entrance.
Vongole. Risotto ai funghi porcini. Gnochi alla romana. It looked like a grand meal was about to start. I read all options carefully, each seemed delicious, though I have a penchant for anything quattro formaggi. “How do the oysters sound to you?”, asked my father-in-law. “It’s on page 3.”
“Which oysters? Page 3… Oh, I see, here it says vongole, your menu is in English,.” That’s why all the fuss, I thought. The waiter had to select English menus for my in-laws, visiting us for a week, and menus in Italian for Sarah and I. Makes sense.
“But why doesn’t this menu have prices?,” asked Sarah. “I can’t choose if there are no prices.”
Her father smiled. “Choose anything you like, it’s on me. Don’t worry about the price.” Sarah and he always have discussions about prices: she wants to pay the lowest price possible, to negotiate the best bargain. Whenever she searches for some product online, like airfare, she puts cheap to start: cheap flights, cheap hostels, cheap car rental. “Look at the value,” says her father.
“My menu has prices,” I said. “Yours doesn’t?”
“No, it’s all empty. I can’t choose like this. Let me see yours.”
We switched, and her menu didn’t have any price indeed. Then we checked everybody’s menus: mine and my father-in-law’s had prices, but Sarah’s and her mom’s didn’t. That’s why the waiter was so confused; he had to match not only the language of the menus, but also those which had prices and those which didn’t.
“Oh, I see… The gentlemen pay, and the ladies choose blissfully without worrying about the price.” I had never seen this menu ethic before, though I must says it befits Italian culture well. The couple next to us were probably used to it, he in a suit and she in a long gown, even if now was lunch time. Maybe they are the ones who came in the Ferrari.
“How unjust! Let’s call the waiter and tell him that here it’s the women who pay…” Part of me found the whole think funny, the other part found it sexist and offensive. But since I could play the generous gentleman at the fancy restaurant and not pay for a dime, I’ll leave my protest for next time.
Sarah’s mom looked flattered to be treated like a lady, but Sarah and I put the priceless menu aside, and started to browse the one with the big expensive prices. Neither she nor I could choose our food if we did not know how much it cost, even if her father would treat us. How would you dare order a 180 euro lobster at someone else’s expense, even if if it was your father? Better to stay humble, and aim low, and enjoy the risotto at 28 euros, which was delicious enough. We were already ordering a plate for each of us, and feeling guilty for doing so; we usually share a plate and placate what remains of our hunger with the free portion of bread. She’s not the only one who’s cheap, I admit.
But this time it wasn’t only the bread which was free. Everything was free, thanks to her father. Actually, everything would be paid for, which means that for us everything was priceless. We could not evaluate the worth of a plate of food based on a number next to it. We are so used to it, and used to evaluate people and jobs and houses and countries by the numbers they come with. Remove the prices, and how we monetize and evaluate the whole of life, and we remain clueless.
Sarah’s father talks about value, but I savored my risotto thinking instead of another word: of grace. The worth of things is different when they don’t come at a price. For people who are used to evaluate worth with money, and to measure people for how much they make, and moments for how much they cost us, to receive things for free sometimes feel like they come at a lower value. We did not earn it, we did not conquer it with our sweat. They arrived just too easy.
But that’s what grace makes to us. It confuses and disorients; it points to a logic of life which is like a menu without prices. But it is the logic we arrived here by, granted with our lives and bodies and minds and families for free, and the logic we have to relearn if we are to grasp what life is about. For the fundamental quality of existence is that it is given. It is offered for free, and until we learn to remove prices from things and people, we reduce them to how much we think they are worth, and miss the whole splendorous generosity and fecundity of life.