It began with Arnaud, a sweet, soft-spoken French boy who might’ve proposed marriage had I not fled after he whispered “Je t’aime bien” one autumn night. Fresh off a devastating college breakup, I was traveling for the first time as a quasi-adult sans parents, spending four months studying in Provence and exploring Europe. On the first day of my university program in Aix-en-Provence, several professors gathered us impressionable young female students for a very important lecture on the perils of encountering suave European men. We were given strict instructions to “Never smile at a Frenchman while out at a bar…He will take that as an invitation to go home with you.” Naturally we hit the town that night, smiling in all directions ‘til our faces hurt. And that’s how I wound up in the arms of Arnaud, discovering to my amusement that his English was even worse than my French (Quelle desastre!).
My French fling lasted a few weeks, just long enough for me to decide I loved his unabashedly romantic text messages but detested his taste for house music and pastis liqueur. Europe was my oyster and it was time to move on. Once I discovered the power an American girl holds on the overseas dating chain, I was hooked. Arnaud was followed shortly by a whirlwind roster of exotic love interests, each with his own nationality-based nickname–British James, Danish David, Kiwi Matt, Austrian Max, and, of course, The Hungarian in the Vest (long story). I was unstoppable! The thrill of catching the eye of an exotic stranger became as addicting as racking up new stamps on my gleaming U.S. passport.
Why do some of us fall in love so easily when we travel? What is it about venturing outside of our usual environments that makes us more prone to meeting an attractive stranger at a café, aboard a train (by now I have flirting on a moving vehicle down to a science), or on the street? I always assumed Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s “Before Sunrise” train encounter was a romance purely for the movies until I too met a handsome stranger on a mountainous Amtrak ride to Vancouver. The two of us even got stuck on that train together for three extra hours due to a bomb threat at Canadian customs…ah, romance these days!
In a much different part of the world, on a rickety Central American bus bound for the rainforest, I met Kevin, a Costa Rican soccer player who for that five hour ride spoke not a word to me, but exchanged furtive glances from across our seats and probably noticed the stifled giggles I shared with my bemused friend. My heart sank as we reached our destination and I alighted from the bus, knowing I’d never see him again. But as I stood there on the hot pavement adjusting my backpack and trying to figure out where exactly I was in the mist and sun-filled village, he walked toward me clutching a small, neatly folded white receipt, which he handed to me before quickly walking away down a graveled path to God knows where. Scrawled on the inside were his name and phone number. I shrieked, and my friend snapped a photo of me, the two of us laughing hysterically, drunk on the thrill of the road, the ecstasy of being young and bent on adventure.
For as many carefree, travel romance-enthusiasts I have encountered on my journeys, there has also been an unsettling number of 20-somethings who engage in what I’ll call “travel cheating.” One all-too vivid memory of a beachside night in Costa Rica recalls a Canadian backpacker who, in the midst of pursuing me, casually admitted that he had a girlfriend back at home. He calmly reasoned that it wouldn’t count as cheating if he never saw me again (I’ll leave my reaction up to your imagination). Indeed, I have known both men and women who chalk their infidelities up to some sort of “What happens in Vegas” law, as if adhering to an alternate moral code that contains a special travel clause. What gives? Does it really not count if you’re out of town? I’d love to hear someone else’s opinion on the matter. In the meantime you can find me, happily unattached, in some exotic corner of the world…and if you happen to be a dashing foreign gentleman, make sure to say hello.