When I finally pulled myself into my last taxi ride to Charles de Gaulle, puffy-eyed and disheveled, my driver asked if the person kissing me goodbye was my husband. Ha! Nope. A large crowd of nearby tourists had begun flashing pictures of the tearful goodbye as well, adding to the absurd publicity of the moment. To invade our privacy? Maybe. But it was, in my belief, most likely a manifestation of a social obsession we have with both The Parisian Romance and The Foreign Love Affair.
(Or, as the person sending me off would most likely add, maybe we just looked “fit”).
I’ve thought a lot about that day since then – less so now that I’m accustomed to Milwaukee, but it’s very much embedded into the fabric of my life. The long cab ride, the frantic last minute goodbye messages in the airport, feeling my body melt into the airplane chair for eight hours – a numbness partially caused by my nearly 6 ft. frame’s space deprivation, and partially by the overwhelming, anxiety-ridden final farewell. Every last moment was on a broken repeat wheel, spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning.
The seduction of falling in love abroad – a standard Hollywood premise – oftentimes becomes a main topic of conversation amongst hopeful expats and study abroad students.
Given our general fascination with the subject, it’s time we lay down some ground rules: what I’ve learned both from experience and watching close friends and fellow travelers delve into the bizarre realm of dating abroad.
The first four rules are fairly simple – and essential. The fifth requires significantly more effort.
1. Don’t have sex in hostels
One of my friends maintains that the cardinal rule of staying in hostels is “Don’t turn the lights on once someone has turned them off for the night.”
Okay, this is absolutely absurd.
It’s don’t have sex in public rooms.
We’ve been debating this for months. While I know I’m right, I’d appreciate your opinion to help settle the matter – thoughts?
If someone turns the lights off at 8:30, you can briefly turn them back on, as long as you’re respectful and keep quiet. I would never expect fellow travelers to keep the lights off if I happened to be exhausted and fall asleep early. No, the cardinal rule is do not have sex when you’re sharing a room with people. No, you’re not being quiet, and yes, everyone knows exactly what you’re doing. This is what private rooms are for, people.
2. Bring your own protection
For most of Europe you’ll be fine, but fellow travelers and friends have told me enough horror stories about condoms in various parts of Asia to make me a little wary. And don’t forget to ask your health insurance about having a long-term supply of birth control to avoid shipping costs or confusing foreign pharmacies.
3. Travel by yourself
I used to break this rule all the time. I had feelings for people both while living in London and Paris, and as a result, I either stayed in my home city to spend my weekends with him, or only traveled with my boyfriend.
I know countless people who may have had novel-worthy whirlwind romances, but they didn’t quite explore as much as they had hoped. When we stay behind, we lose a fundamental component of living abroad. Traveling solo as a woman is an incredibly valuable experience, one we often lose when we tether ourselves to relationships.
And before you know it, the lists and lists of plans meticulously chosen before departure, the circled destinations in your Lonely Planet Guide, will begin collecting dust, forgotten in the back of your closet.
Traveling with someone, be it boyfriend or friend, can be one of the best experiences in the world, but don’t deprive yourself of a solo trip either – whether to a new country or even just unexplored places in your own city. It’s all about balance.
You may not actually be in love. This takes some time to admit to yourself, and it may not at all apply to you. But as we’ve seen with Paris and romance, people become addicted to the romantic haze of their lives very quickly while wandering around foreign cities. Sometimes, if you’re not careful, you may end up with someone you wouldn’t normally date back home. And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that! It can be quite wonderful to simply enjoy a person for being in your life – love the connection you have with someone you may never see again. You don’t have to be in love to love, something I learned a lot about this year. Just remember that the environment can muddle your emotions, and it’s important to step back and maintain a clear head to avoid being hurt later on.
5. Remember you’re living abroad
As I said, this rule isn’t quite as straightforward or easy to heed. Remember your circumstances. Remember you’re abroad. Remember the nature of having entirely different citizenships, living in different countries, and the wonderland-type atmosphere you tumble into while spending a few brief months in a foreign city.
You may have convinced each other – and yourself – that it’s casual, or that you’re just friends, and perhaps you’ll uphold these claims. Most likely though, something deeper will develop, and you’ll briefly forget your circumstances.
I’m not saying it won’t work. I know people who met just last year and are still together, and it’s wonderful. But it’s not easy, and it’s quite uncommon.
Most people I know who dated abroad broke up while boarding airplanes. And while they didn’t necessarily leave with bad blood, they don’t speak anymore.
And it hurts. I’ve tried to come up with an eloquent way to discuss this but it just fucking sucks sometimes. It’s not easy – pouring yourself into someone, only for them to disappear, or for you to disappear, and then waking up months later after you’ve left and realizing they’re really gone – gone in the way that you don’t know each other anymore. And all you have left is a handful of pictures. Or nothing at all.
Maybe she’ll have a mane of curly Irish hair, or he’ll have a quirky Canadian accent. We all meet people we can’t forget. And we all notice the unsightly holes hidden under our clothes – the holes these people leave behind.
And on the one hand, it’s just like any other breakup. It ends, it hurts, and you move on.
And yet I believe there’s something fundamentally different in the way “abroad relationships” operate. There’s either an abundance of pressure or a detrimental lack thereof. Regarding the former: Will we try to stay together? And if so, where will we live? Long distance? For most people studying abroad or, as I was, teaching English right out of college, the time period is quite limited, so decisions need to be made quickly. People need to be almost unseemly rash, and emotions need to be felt, deciphered, and analyzed in short spurts. For a select few, it seems obvious, and everything gently falls into place; but again, for most, a frenzied, frantic cloud of impending departures and decisions settles over the relationship.
Or there’s no pressure at all. You already know it won’t last. Both parties have agreed that your casual relationship will be a beautiful casualty of this altered reality you’ve created for the year. And instead of pressure, there’s an alarming abandon of decorum, in which people depend on the utter lack of commitment to avoid confronting their emotions.
Or perhaps you simply exist in a relationship, enjoying it for all it’s worth, fully aware of its looming ending.
The best “abroad relationships” I’ve seen have worked in the simple understanding of what they were, and the limiting constraints of time and circumstance. And those who have made it last, while rare, don’t usually require the cross-Atlantic travel most of us encounter.
And even though there’s something quite endearing in simply enjoying someone who’s only meant to accompany you through life for a short while, there’s an undeniable melancholy of the whole affair if you consider it too deeply.
So we don’t. We love, we smile, we kiss, we drink, we dance, and we sprawl ourselves languidly on striped bedsheets, whiling away Sundays with baguettes and sex, willfully ignorant of the emotions that prickle the veneer of our cool facades – letting them surface in broken, indecipherable bursts of panic instead.
And it’s always in the lie where we falter. Pretending it’s nothing, pretending we don’t feel, pretending we’re friends, always pretending.
But then the lights of the Eiffel Tower will cease for the evening, leaving la Ville Lumière in darkness, and you’ll be left with those striped bed sheets and a unique singularity that comes from being with someone. And then, in just one breath, all will be still. And you’ll have to confront your own emotions.
And then you’ll take a train. Or board a plane.
And – for most – that will be it. Finished.
And maybe someday, if you return to Paris or Barcelona or Sydney or Galway, you’ll pick up the tangled wires of your emotions and see what’s left. Perhaps he still has the old books you left behind or the pillow you couldn’t quite squash into your overstuffed suitcase – perhaps he has nothing but the one picture of you dancing on Barcelona’s streets, red scarf woven through your hair. And perhaps she has nothing at all – only memories. When you fall for someone abroad, you need to content yourself with knowing that’s enough.
It doesn’t quite matter who you meet afterwards. The experience is its own. You may know it’s different – you may feel deep in your skin that you’ve encountered something – or someone who matters. But if you’re going to fall for someone abroad, you need to remember the circumstances of your life. A semi-nomadic lifestyle does not lend itself well to long-term relationships, a reality I keep confronting over and over again as I once more plan on uprooting my life.
Love. Fall. Indulge in the brief flings in foreign cities. See what happens. Lose track of the moments you spend curled up in tiny apartments with tea and cookies, talking long into the night. Follow your instincts. And never forget – you’re living abroad. When you live abroad, or even just a temporary location, you can end up seeing your life through stained glass – a riot of color strung together by inexplicable emotions. You can feel oddly detached and compelled to hold on all at once. And sometimes, the emotions must remain in that altered reality you created in the quiet moments before dawn – in that space where, just for a moment, you both went a little mad.
Just be careful, both physically and with your heart. And enjoy every last minute.