Years ago, my ex-husband took me to Italy to celebrate my 40th birthday. Years ago. Before Facebook even. The point is, he took me. It would never have occurred to me to actually plan a trip for myself, purchase a plane ticket and fly away.
He handed me the tickets at my birthday party in front of friends and family gathered at the table to celebrate my big 4-0. While he made a speech thanking me for my years of service and reciting a quick highlight reel of my life, including birthing four children and winning a Vogue knitting contest, (I designed a sweater trimmed in Barbie shoes!) an annoying voice in my ear kept saying, "Girl come on. Do SOMETHING. You are halfway done."
As everyone oohed and ahhed when I opened those tickets, I smiled and nodded. "Yes, I'm excited!" "I know, I've always dreamed of going to Italy." "Yes he is the most thoughtful husband ever." In my mind I'm thinking, No way I'm going. Who would drive the Hebrew school carpool, bring the little league snacks, make sure my daughter remembers her cleats on Field Hockey day? Spending a week across the world was surely out of the question for this 40-year-old wife and mother.
Later that evening, the last wine glass washed and leftovers put away, I climbed into bed and shared my thoughts. "Ridiculous," he said. "I have made reservations for wine tastings, cooking classes and freaking bike tours. I got your parents to stay with the kids. I worked my ass off on this thing. All you have to do is get on the plane. Of course you are going," and of course, I did and yes, it was amazing.
I remember walking through the ancient streets of Rome -- at a very fast clip mind you -- as we only had one full day in that city and my ex had to try on every leather motorcycle jacket in a 10-mile radius. Apparently, I had come to Italy looking for food, wine and rekindled romance, and he had come to in search of a cool jacket that would wow the socks off of his middle-aged motorcycle club back home.
As we ran from shop to shop, I noticed a group of women leisurely strolling the streets, arms joined. They moved slowly, stopping to look in windows and take photos in front of ancient fountains and famous statues. At one point, they stopped moving altogether and collapsed into laughter, causing my ex to take my arm and steer me around them gruffly. "Idiots," he muttered.
I watched in the reflection of a shop window as they disappeared into a street side cafe behind me. Those poor women, I thought. It most be so lonely traveling without a man. I mean who needs to lounge around in adorable street side Italian cafes with frothy cappuccinos and gooey pastries when you can grab a water and some breakfast bars from the hotel sundry shop and be on your way? Poor things.
Fast-forward ten years. The Italy trip is but a memory now, as is the hideous drunk texting and stalking that took place during my divorce after I finally accepted that the new woman in my husband's life was not a passing fling but a permanent fixture, much like the Italian tile I brought home from my birthday trip and had cemented onto my kitchen wall. Sure, I regret the texting and stalking, but that tile brought me much happiness and brightened up my American kitchen for years. When I left that house, happily moving on to another life and much smaller house, I left it there. It wasn't worth knocking down a whole wall for a tile that seemed so permanently at home right where it was.
The day I broke down and filed for divorce, aside from thinking Now what? I remember thinking I will never again be able to go on a great vacation. Ten years later, I proved myself wrong.
This summer, my best friend D turned 50. She called me and said, "Come to Italy with me." I said, "What? No way. I can't. Go. Enjoy." Then my sister called and said "Let's go to Italy with D," and again I said "I can't."
"Sure you can," she declared. "You're coming."
A few months later, I found myself in the air once again and bound for Italy. This time, instead of thinking about field hockey cleats and carpool lines, I thought about pasta. I thought about wine. I thought about how glamorous I was going to look in my short black dress and sandals. I also thought about the credit card bill that would be waiting for me when I got home, but I pushed that one aside. It would be worth it.
Worth it is an understatement. We stayed in a Tuscan villa with lemons the size of grapefruits hanging off the trees. We had chef-prepared meals featuring robust meats, homemade pastas with vegetables from the garden, bruschetta that didn't taste like watery Mexican salsa and wine, wine and more wine.
Each morning we awoke when we felt like it and sat around in our pajamas drinking espressos and eating those Italian pastries I missed out on the first time. We drank each other in really, retelling stories we had told each other a million times, but still finding new theories and answers in the retelling.
Midday, we would got dressed and headed into the neighboring towns, walking arm in arm, collapsing in laughter, wandering into stores and local shops, trying every gelato shop we passed by, (sometimes twice.) There was no rush... where did we have to be? What I realized is that we expected nothing of each other besides the ability to listen, to really hear, to not judge but nod in sympathy and understand as only women can. Oh, and maybe stop me from going for that third gelato, but in my defense, that place was voted the Best Gelato in the World, so...
I thought back to that day when I just knew I would never again have a great vacation because I had no man to plan it, pay for it and then take me. If I had only known then what lay ahead for me in the company of women. Since Italy, I have had many other fabulous travel experiences with women to places like Sedona, Santa Fe and a Hilton in Ft. Myers, where a friend introduced me to Dirty Martinis, my now favorite drink. My friends and I now have a saying that we use when one of us has done something that she would prefer to keep under wraps: "This one goes to the grave!" "To the grave!" we all agree. I can only imagine the stories we will have once we get there.