We were still pretty much ourselves when we landed near midnight in Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport, two stressed-out New Yorkers balancing shoulder bags, rolling larger-than-we-needed suitcases, and searching an enormous parking lot for our rental Peugeot. Scouting separately and irritated that there was no one to help, I had to stop and remind myself that Sicily was a wished-for destination, a starred spot on the world map pinned to my bedroom wall. Laugh at this, Eileen. Then it appeared, the car with the license plate number that matched our rental ticket. Calling out and waving. I finally got my husband David’s attention. “You’d think they would have given us some idea of how to find the car,” he said as he materialized from the darkness.
“We’ve done this before,” I said, glancing up from my navigating and wondering whether he knew what I meant.
OK, now we’re on vacation, I thought, but the voice guiding us on the GPS was speaking in Italian. So we sat a while longer trying to figure out how to switch languages, wearily clicking icons until we just gave up. We had the GPS visual, and I had an actual map unfolded on my lap. I looked at the roads outlined before me and something felt oddly familiar. Then I remembered what it was—we had sat like this, David in the driver’s seat in a foreign car on Italian roads, only it was 30 years ago, just before we were married. We had driven from Rome through northern Italy on a trip that we still refer to as our Pre-Wedding Honeymoon.
“We’ve done this before,” I said, glancing up from my navigating and wondering whether he knew what I meant. That “before” also meant “before” we became a blended family with my two stepdaughters and our now 24-year-old daughter, “before” college tuitions, career evolutions, moves, the triumphs and trip-ups of life.
“I know,” he grinned, and squeezed my hand as he sped us onto the A29 autostrada. That’s when it also came back to me that David becomes Italian when he’s behind the wheel in Italy. He’s a safe driver, but also an assertive and fearless one. I admit it, there’s something sexy about the fearlessness.
Taking a Late Honeymoon: Rule-Breaking is Sexy
A wisp of adventure rose up between us as we entered Palermo’s rundown, poorer, not-for-tourists part of town and tried to find our way to our hotel in the wee hours among ghostly streets. A number of turns and backtracks later, thanks to the paper map, we finally reached the Via Vittorio Emanuele, the street we were looking for. It was pretty empty, and it was barricaded and one-way—not the way we wanted to go. “I’m going in,” said David as he managed to get up on the sidewalk and around the barricade, driving opposite to the indicated direction. His rule-breaking, here at the start of our travels, harkened back to our younger falling-in-love selves, unafraid of taking silly chances and laughing about them later, and, in fact, in our hotel room later, we did laugh about David’s Jason Bourne driving.
I wanted to visit Sicily for its natural beauty, food, and antiquities and for the Italians themselves. Added to that was my desire to escape from the tensions of our divided political system. I hadn’t thought about romance, never even put it into the mix, but I could see that we both were starting to feel and act differently on this island, and it didn’t take long. Our senses, which I hadn’t thought were muted but apparently were, came alive, jolted by sights, sounds, and smells.
“I’m losing my sense of time,” David whispered as the day wore on.
In a Palermo market we linked arms and harmonized with the fishmongers who operatically sang out the fish of the day. We shared a pint of wild strawberries and arancini, fried rice balls that hide centers of mozzarella, tomato, and peas. And then there was the single cannoli with dried orange and chopped pistachios that we passed back and forth and ate bite by bite, licking the cream from each other’s fingers. Was it lunchtime? It didn’t matter. “I’m losing my sense of time,” David whispered as the day wore on, and he didn’t mean just mealtime. “It’s feeling like we haven’t been married so long,” he said as he kissed me midway up the steps to the Teatro Massimo opera house.
Taking a Late Honeymoon: Dionysus and Venus Cast a Spell
Everywhere we went seemed romantic. We were immersed in the springtime fragrances of rosemary, wild thyme, and fennel that filled the air on the road and the colors that came in waves. Acres of sapphire blue borage, bright yellow alyssum, the white blossoms of fruit trees, the red snapdragons and shades of purple, blue, green would have made Monet blush.
Sicily is where the party God Dionysus is said to have planted the stolen vine that brought forth wine; where the town of Erice, atop a half-mile high mountain, was built around a devotion to Venus, Goddess of Love; where Persephone, the daughter of Zeus, was kidnapped by the lusting Hades. As we walked hand in hand through a field of wildflowers on the slopes of a Doric temple in Segesta, the island’s mythological legends were beginning to make sense. Here anything can happen. Look at what was happening to us! It actually felt as if Venus were taking an interest.
We became giddy, sort of like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn on that motor scooter in Roman Holiday.
We knew we were in the Mafia’s homeland and that Sicily had its economic issues, but for our space in time, that didn’t matter. The road was open, the coast clear. We became giddy, sort of like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn on that motor scooter in Roman Holiday. All vacations are supposed to give you a chance to “vacate” your normal environment and experience new ones. We had been on plenty of vacations filled with new experiences, like swimming with the Galapagos sea turtles or getting close to a pride of lions in Botswana, but those extraordinary trips did not make us flirt with each other during the day and wrap ourselves around each other at night. Perhaps the guides who shepherded us around foreign countries and gave us so much history and cultural information, also took something away. Our days were in their hands, not ours.
Taking a Late Honeymoon: The Re-Awakening
Sicily surprised me—and us—because it not only sharpened our senses but also drew something out of our personalities that I hadn’t realized was buried: our cute, spontaneous, open-to-anything sides that had clearly gone dormant over years of routine and responsibilities. We were guiding ourselves and, at the same time, finding ourselves.
Standing on warm black lava at 8,200 feet elevation on an erupting Mount Etna moonscape was spectacular but not half as wonderful as the unplanned experiences, like the turnoff that took us to the beach at Marzamemi. There we drank Sicilian wine and ate pasta alla Norma at water’s edge as we talked about nothing. Driving to the sea at Punta Secca we unexpectedly arrived at the shoreline location for the famous Italian TV series Inspector Montalbano.
“How did we happen upon this?” I asked the air. We took turns posing in front of the inspector’s house and shed the New York City cynicism that prompts us to make fun of the women who pose in our neighborhood in front of the house that was Sarah Jessica Parker’s home in the long defunct Sex and The City. We were star-struck just like them.
Being on the road in Sicily gave us a chance to rediscover who we were before we officially became Eileen-and-David. Our less serious, more playful selves appeared. I bought four shades of Italian matte lipstick at a flea market in Scicli. David got one of those Sicilian caps worn by a young Robert De Niro in The Godfather. We walked hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, more than we ever have in recent memory.
“I think we’re having a Second Honeymoon,” David said, and I had to agree, although we never had an actual First Honeymoon. Sure we had that Pre-Wedding Honeymoon in Italy, but following our wedding, which took place in front of the fireplace in the loft that’s still our home, we went to the Plaza Hotel for two nights, and that was it. I usually tell people that I honeymooned in Central Park, because that’s where we went for a walk outside the hotel.
Sicily was in essence, 30 years after our wedding, the honeymoon we never had. In my mind, it’s never too late.
A version of this story was originally published in December 2017.