In the fall of 1998, while sitting in a freshman art history class, I decided where my future husband and I would honeymoon someday. The professor clicked to the next slide and there it was: the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul.
I remember him telling us that Hagia Sophia meant “holy wisdom.” He described how, when it was built in the sixth century, it was the largest cathedral in the world, and remained so for nearly 1,000 years. In the 15th century, it was converted into a mosque. My professor talked about how the Byzantine mosaics blended with the panels of Arabic calligraphy. If you went at the right time of day, he said, the sunlight would stream through the windows in a way that made the massive dome appear to float.
It might seem strange, but to me this merging of religions and cultures seemed like the most romantic thing on Earth.
There, I thought. That’s where I want to go with my one true love, to feel peace and awe, and be bound together forever in sacred union. (I had been reading a lot of Rumi.)
At the time, I had no idea who my one true love would be. But I figured it wouldn’t be too long until I found out.
Over the years, as I learned more about Turkey, the plan for my fantasy honeymoon got ever more detailed. While studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia, I got my first taste of Turkish food. (My one true love and I would someday wander Istanbul’s streets looking for the best doner kebab, I decided.) While working at the Strand Book Store in New York, I found a photography book about the ornate mansions along the Bosporus River. (My one true love and I would take a boat tour to view them.) While chatting with passengers after I became a flight attendant, I learned about the Cappadocia region. (My one true love and I would definitely take a sunrise hot-air balloon ride through the “fairy chimney” rock formations.) In graduate school for journalism in Chicago, I researched a group of American Sufis offering whirling lessons on the North Side. (My one true love and I would recite Rumi poems to each other while watching dervishes whirl. Obviously.)
Sixteen years later, I had an elaborate itinerary — and no husband. Even after loosening the criterion from honeymoon to a merely romantic trip with a long-term boyfriend, no one had ever fit the bill. I’d had three relationships that each lasted six months, several unrequited attractions that lasted years, a score of passing dalliances and a truckload of first dates.
By the fall of 2014, it seemed clear that, at 34, it might be time to admit I wasn’t the type who had a “one true love.” Statistically, it was possible, despite my mother’s insistence that any man who didn’t love me was “an idiot.” Just 7 percent of those 64 and older have never been married, according to data from the Pew Research Center. I knew a number of never-married women in their 50s and 60s. And while some of them were unhappy, the majority seemed to truly enjoy their own company. Unlike me, they were neither waiting around for part of their lives to begin nor filling their schedules to bursting to distract from their aloneness.
What would it be like if I embraced what seemed to be my fate? I decided to give it a try.
I gained 15 pounds almost immediately, casting off the struggle to be a more “lovable” weight. I started going to women-focused or spiritually oriented events, knowing no single men would be there. I stopped pushing myself to go out at all, reveling at home in my pajamas with Netflix or a book.
Amid all this, I came upon a blog post about curing “the disease of being busy.” It was well-written, so I read the author’s bio. He was a professor at Duke University, and, it said, led multifaith, spiritually minded group tours of Turkey. I checked the itinerary: Every item on my fantasy-honeymoon itinerary was there, right down to the balloon ride. And the deadline to sign up was only a few weeks away.
Stop waiting. Go on your honeymoon, a voice inside told me.
No, keep waiting. Maybe you’ll meet someone, an anxious part of me said.
I sent the down payment.
On my honeymoon in May 2015, I wandered around Istanbul searching for doner kebab — not with my one true love but with Waheed, a recently widowed doctor from Michigan who was also on the tour. I took a golden-lit boat ride up the Bosphorus with Valerie, an irreverent South African woman who lived in Barcelona. I went on the balloon ride in Cappadocia with Mariam — a 17-year-old prodigy taking a break from college, who called me her “twinsie” despite being half my age. And I watched the dervishes whirl while sitting next to Gehad, a young Egyptian woman who passionately studied the poetry of Rumi with a Sufi teacher.
When I finally felt the cool air inside Hagia Sophia, I was by myself. Through my thin shoes, I felt every dip in the stone floor molded by millions of footsteps over 1,500 years. And that feeling of peace and awe I imagined I’d have when I came here with my one true love? It was in me the whole time.
Nine months later, I got an OkCupid message from Bobby, 37, a Web developer.
“Nice profile picture — that’s Hagia Sophia, right?” he said. “I’ve wanted to go for ages, since studying it in school. Finally took myself last year!”
Our first date was pretty standard: tacos in the neighborhood, polite talk about our families, jobs, travels. But on the curb outside the restaurant, where we were supposed to kiss and part, we started a second conversation that lasted nearly an hour. At one point, we were both doing impressions of L. Ron Hubbard moonwalking and I thought: Anyone this comfortable with himself on a first date is someone I want to know better.
When Bobby and I had been dating for three months, I got an email about a huge sale on Delta Air Lines flights. The available destinations for the deal were Dublin, Munich and, you guessed it, Istanbul.
“So, I, uh, noticed the available dates would coincide with our one-year anniversary,” I told him over dinner. “If we stay together. …”
He smiled. Despite the wonderful few months we’d shared, I knew he was a little concerned about my as-yet-unproven ability to commit. (I was, too.)
“Let’s do it,” he said. “But why don’t we go somewhere neither of us has been before? Ireland?”
We agreed that if it didn’t work out between us, we’d be fine with an awkward plane ride seated next to each other on the way to our solo trips to Ireland.
That flight was a few months ago, and when the plane took off we were holding hands. Our next trip will be our honeymoon — my second, but our first together.
Dating on vacation: Dead end, escape from routine or a little of both?