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Hard Baggage 

Ruminations on the dark side of travel romance


February 7-13, 2007

The 2007 Sex Issue:


When it comes to the ways of love and romance, no aphrodisiac is quite so potent as travel. On the road, freed from the dull routines and restrictions of home, you become more open, more daring, more willing to seize the moment. Away from home, the people you meet, be they locals or fellow travelers, seem sexier, more exotic, less repressed--and this makes you feel sexy, exotic, liberated. Freed from your past, happily anonymous and filled with a sense of possibility, you are never more willing (or able) to fall headlong into a love affair.

The only downside is this: Don't try to rekindle things when you get home. It simply doesn't work. Regardless of how great you and your lover felt in Rio; regardless of how seamlessly the two of you bonded in Paris; regardless of memories you cherish from Koh Samui, you are only inviting heartbreak if you try to resume the romance in Hackensack or Burbank or Minnetonka.

I used to wonder why this was the case. Why, after sharing intense travel experiences, my relationships with the intriguing women I met in Cuzco or Tel Aviv would sour into a series of uninspired e-mails, awkward phone calls and (the occasional) anticlimactic reunions. Why would everything change once we'd stopped traveling?

I finally got a clue to the problem several winters ago in Thailand, when I met a Belgian woman I'll call Katia. Willowy and doe-eyed, with a sexy pout and effortless European grace, Katia would have been out of my league back home, but in the colorful madness of Bangkok, we somehow fell into an easy love affair. Together, we took a train down to Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, where we stayed in a tree-house hotel, swam the jungle-rivers, drank Mekhong whiskey and shared the stories of our lives. After a week, when it came time for Katia to fly back to Brussels, I felt like we had really connected, that our time together had amounted to something special.

Katia must have felt the same way, since, over the course of the next several weeks, she told me how much she missed me, how much she cared for me and how much our time together had meant to her. When she eventually invited me to join her in Brussels for Christmas, I didn't hesitate: I bought a plane ticket and flew out as soon as I could.

Once I arrived in Brussels, things fell apart almost immediately. When I tried to put my arm around her as we walked to meet her friends at a bar, Katia curtly warned me not to touch her in front of her friends ("They know I'm not sentimental like that"). Once in the bar, Katia continually scolded me--for eating too much, for not sitting up straight, for not asking her friends the right kind of questions. For some reason, I'd suddenly become an embarrassment to Katia, an uncultured American fool who couldn't do anything right.

The disappointment went both ways. Back in Thailand, Katia was laid-back and affectionate, and she'd talked about her passionate calling to design jewelry. In Brussels, I discovered that she was a shrill busybody who used her art studio mainly to play computer games. When we visited Belgian museums, Katia sneered at my ignorance of art history; when I read a book on the train to Louven, she scolded me for not looking out at the scenery; when we ate dinner with her parents, she lost her temper when I didn't pay enough attention to the conversation (which, I reminded her, was mostly in Dutch). In Thailand, Katia had found pleasure in the simplest moments; in Brussels, the only times she seemed remotely satisfied were when we were arguing.

After a week of being trapped in a small Brussels apartment with Katia, I had a realization: Despite everything that had happened between us in Thailand, she was still a complete stranger to me. I had fallen for Thailand as much as I'd fallen for Katia, and she had done the same. The world we'd experienced together as travelers was, in many ways, a transient fantasy--and the mountaintop experiences we'd shared in Asia amounted to a sandcastle by the time I'd arrived in Europe.

Indeed, if the anonymity and renewal of travel makes love bloom easier, returning to the noise of your home life makes road-romance reunions that much harder. Despite all the memories you've shared on the road, you can't pick up the relationship where it left off, because that place is now thousands of miles away.

Last summer, after having not communicated for four years, Katia sent me an e-mail suggesting we meet up and talk. We met--as friends--in Paris, and I felt like I got to know my old Belgian lover for the first time.





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