The movie Before Sunrise depicts falling in love abroad better than I ever could. It’s fleeting and ephemeral, and oftentimes you can’t even be sure of how you feel; falling in love–genuine, deep love, is a rare occurrence, one that leaves us stunned.
You see, the last time I lived in France, romance couldn’t have been further from my mind. I’m sure I daydreamed about my various high school crushes from time to time, but for the most part, when I closed my eyes and made a wish, I just pictured curling up in my own bed, safe at home. I hated living here. And I hated myself for hating it.
However, as I explained in my very first post, that scarring impression of France is exactly why I needed to return. Now that I’m older, wiser (ahem), and have finally laid those issues to rest, I’ve opened my eyes to the bizarre world of dating abroad.
Living in Paris has introduced me to an entirely different kind of love, both in myself and others. Sometimes I’m not even sure we’re falling in love when we say we are. The emotion doesn’t always feel the way we imagined it should. It doesn’t always feel right and sometimes imagining a relationship with the person in your heart seems as absurd as a Kafka story. The pieces just don’t fit together; they never will.
But even so, he shows up in my dreams, listening to me reveal who I am, never questioning it. It’s the simple acceptance of everything about me and what I’ve been through that I fell in love with. But I’ve found that we’re not falling in love with each other, we’re falling in love with the connections we make. When you live in a place for a finite amount of time and your support system lives miles away, you crave human contact, so instead of gradually establishing a solid foundation for a relationship and revealing parts of yourself bit by bit, you strip yourself raw, showing more of yourself than you ever would after a night, a month, four months. We have nothing to lose. Either people accept us or they don’t so we fling ourselves into the open air, hoping it’s worth the risk.
And when the wind feels just cold enough to send shivers up your spine, the Eiffel Tower lights up at midnight, and you’re leaning over a Parisian balcony to see it all with someone’s hand in yours, you know you feel love. It doesn’t matter if that emotion belongs to the person or the moment or the connection or even yourself in that moment. The point is that you feel something. You feel something for someone you barely know because we’re all living in this alternate reality, this fantasy, knowing full well that our paths will never cross again, and risking more because of it. We’re boarding trains with people we barely know, staying up all night in hostels, strolling around foreign cities, hand in hand with someone we know we’ll never see again. It’s alive and vibrant and heartbreaking and wonderful and I’d never give it up.
I’d also never compare it to a healthy relationship. Relationships require work and nurturing and the comforting knowledge that someone will simply be there for you, and when you’re from different countries and living different lives that just happen to align for a brief moment, that security vanishes. And yet, the romance of it all would make a fantastic movie, one I would likely watch a sickening amount. Truthfully, some of the most romantic nights of my life have happened abroad. We fell in love for the moment, and that was all we needed. We never try to make it work or pretend we can be anything but what we are. And almost because of that, because we’re shockingly aware of the transient nature of our lives, we pour ourselves into each other. It’s lovely really, this idea that we can just share who we are and have memorable nights with people without fearing the consequences. But when I consider the trajectory of my life, these half-relationships or brief emotional affairs are simply too unstable for one’s peace of mind, and above all else, a relationship should provide comfort, not cause distress.
Just as Julie Deply’s character depicts in Before Sunrise, intimacy with a stranger can break your heart. Not the sex–that’s different. The emotional sharing of apart of yourself, knowing you’ll never get it back, and that your lives will likely diverge in the morning, or in a week, or a couple months, can suffocate you. But in the end, the characters in Before Sunrise sleep together anyways, trusting that on some level, it will be worth it. So I suppose for those planning to live abroad, whether in school or through a similar TESL program, know that in my experience, connecting to people, knowing full well that I’ll uproot myself in just a few months time, feels rewarding, exhilarating, and painful. And never once have I regretted it.