We had planned a romantic trip to northern Italy, home of Romeo and Juliet and George Clooney, where Enchanted April and Under the Tuscan Sun were filmed. But then my husband said, "How about we go to Sicily instead? And can we bring my mother?"
She hadn't been back to her home country in 25 years. What could I do but agree?
I agreed to a lot of sitting at dinner tables, and trying to follow conversations I couldn't understand. I agreed to surviving several near-death experiences in cars, and being introduced to many dark-haired, affable aunts and cousins who were all called Maria and competed to feed us until we burst.
We were off to Barcellona, my mother-in-law's town in the province of Messina, and my first lesson in driving Sicilian-style.
"Why don't the cars have side mirrors," I ask my husband as his uncle navigates. It's the question that didn't need asking, I realize: Arriving at an intersection is a bit like huddling in a media scrum. There are no apparent rules, except he who pushes hardest wins.
Barcellona and the nearby town of Milazzo, in the northeast of the island, have plenty to offer if you're not expecting anything too polished. Miles of unpopulated, golden beaches are used here and there as a garbage dump for old furniture and the odd burned-out car. Oranges and lemons lie fallen from trees; they have more than they can use, and uncle says it's becoming too expensive to export them now. At a local café that had never seen a tourist, I enjoy my breakfasts of brioche and granita - a sweet, dense bread hollowed out and filled with a creamy concoction of crushed ice, sugar and lemons (or, if you prefer, coffee, chocolate and sweet fresh cream). After dark, Milazzo's promenade teems with young people out doing their young people thing.
My husband and I break free from the family feeding trough long enough to rent a car and drive to Taormina - a postcard of ruins, mountains and Mediterranean, of quaint shops, lemon stands and outdoor dining. To celebrate getting there alive, we enjoy a glass of the restaurant's homemade Limoncello (not nearly as good as his uncle's) and a seafood risotto on a patio that spills with geraniums and overlooks the cobalt sea. Then we contemplate whether to join the hordes of tourists waiting for the cable car down to the pristine beach 200 metres below.
Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands, once famous for its talcum-powder mines and, today, its pumice stone. We go there because we have time for only one island, though it's hard to choose when my relatives sing the virtues of Salina over Stromboli, or Panarea versus Vulcano. It's a grand day of solitude and more eating, until we have to come home. Sicilians don't understand the concept of queuing, nor will they tell you when they cancel the next - and last - ferry back to Milazzo. The result? Mayhem. Tourists who don't speak Italian fare badly. Enter my fluent husband. One heated exchange later, and we are squeezed onto the departing ferry. I'm carrying my stash of Malvasia - a lovely dessert wine I discovered while a lot of soon-to-be stranded passengers were busy shouting at one another.
We thought we'd missed dinner, but the family has waited for us. Four-hour lunches followed by four-hour dinners are becoming our norm. But the cooking is excellent and I scribble down recipes that my mother-in-law translates for me. "Do they eat this much all the time," I ask her. "Of course not," she says. "They'd be dead."
On our last day in Barcellona, we visit the cemetery where her parents are buried. It's an arresting sight of fresh flowers and white marble, set on the side of a steep cliff overlooking the sea.
Then we set off to visit my father-in-law's family. The small car coasts over mountainous, gorse-covered terrain: parched, yet in parts surprisingly green. There are olive, eucalyptus and chestnut trees as we climb high, passing only an ancient, weather-beaten shepherdess dressed in black.
Capizzi is one of the highest municipalities on the island. Its narrow streets are a challenge even for a Fiat 500. It has a population of about 3,500, but it looks like everyone has left town. The only sign of life is the few women who peek at us from behind curtains. Apparently our visit is news. Maria-Antoinetta, who is showing us around, waves at a curious signora peering around the door of a formidable, window-less house: The Countess, she tells us.
Later, we climb Maria-Antoinetta's stairs and stare out above tiled terra cotta roofs, laundry lines, the church of San Giacomo and hills faded by eternal sunshine, while we wait to be called down for lunch. Everything is unnaturally still and quiet, like peering over the edge of a canvas at a painting. "This place never changes," my mother-in-law says. "Once every 25 years is enough."
We eat. Two weeks fly by, except for mealtimes. I am sorry to leave the farmhouse, and Maria-Louisa's cannoli, a sweet pastry stuffed with unpasteurized ricotta from her own cows.
We have one last stop for just the two of us: "Romantica"- I hear my husband use a word I recognize. Cefalu is the medieval fishing village where Cinema Paradiso was filmed. We walk into Hotel Kalura on a promontory overlooking the Med that should cost a fortune but doesn't. Our room is basic, but the view from our balcony is almost a full circle of endless blue sea. It's a short walk into the town, with its irregular houses and small, unembellished harbour.
For three days, we eat the same lunch of milky mozzarella salad, and dine at the same trattoria in the shadow of the cathedral. My last meal is a crispy, warm sandwich of anchovies and cheeses oozing with olive oil, before I go home to start my diet.
Carol Mason is author of Send Me a Lover and The Secrets of Married Women .
Special to The Globe and Mail