I had an uncanny skill for meeting the perfect man three days before I left a country. He was perfect because he lived there. And because I was leaving. I was young. It felt tragically romantic. I clearly had work to do in the relationship department.
I traveled to five continents by the time I was 21 and fell in love repeatedly. With African skies, Australian beaches so long they had no end in sight, Shoreditch street art, and the gooseberries in my great aunt’s garden outside of Paris. And, inevitably, with the smouldering eyes, noteworthy forearms, and accents that threw themselves in my way.
Traveling and living abroad demands flexibility and courage. It’s usually laced with uncertainty and often meant to be temporary. And it can teach you a lot about relationships.
1. Not everyone wants to go on the same trip
There’s a little bit of something for everyone out there, so you need to define your expectations. Unmet expectations equate to disappointment. If someone’s idea of a good trip involves museums and walking tours and all you want is to go bungee jumping, one of you is not going to have a good time. Communication and compromise are essential to a great trip.
Beyond what you want from a relationship, you also need to figure out what kind of relationship you want. Some seasons of life call for all-inclusive Cancun resorts with swim-up bars. Others are more about organic farming in Hawaii or moving to Shanghai for a postgraduate degree. Those experiences are not the same trip. They do not require the same level of seriousness or commitment. You may not have a type now, but, ultimately, your partner will want to know where you’re going, for how long and how you’re going to get there.
2. You don’t have one soulmate, you have many
The more you travel and the more people cross your path, the more it becomes apparent that there cannot be a single human amongst nearly eight billion at this precise moment in history made to complete you in every perfect way. In love and in travel, you’re pressured by others to pick the One, the best, the favorite. And if you’ve been in love or traveled before, you know that’s impossible. Apples and oranges, Alaska and the Caribbean—hard to compare. Just like places, people you fall for can have genuine, lasting impacts on you whether you spend six days or 60 years of your life with them.
This is the best possible news. Having many soulmates means they can be your friends, your siblings, your chosen family, or your lovers and that your life can be infinitely richer around every corner. It means that love is possible even after the most abysmal heartbreak. It means that love can carry on, in your heart or someone else’s, with or without you.
3. Don’t ask anyone else to carry your baggage
Backpack, suitcase, carry-on, duffel bag, multiple items, cabin only, overweight, oversized, carrousel 3. They are essential. They are unavoidable. Everyone has baggage. It got them here and it will get them elsewhere. It makes them who they are. Go ahead, check it in and check it out on the floor of your hotel room or in the confines of your relationship.
Other people’s baggage deserves respect and acknowledgement. It can be a burden or a privilege when it’s unpacked in front of you. It can travel smoothly on wheels or get hauled around with pain. You can volunteer to watch it or to hold it while their owner takes care of the rental car, but other people’s baggage is never yours to carry. Not for the whole journey.
4. Sometimes you need a second visit
I have a love/hate relationship with Paris which, in itself, is very Parisian. I’ve been seven times and every time, my feelings flip on a dime. It’s grown on me. There are a number of places I’ve returned to and a few I know once wasn’t enough. I went to Budapest twice in two years because I was so spellbound. But the only time I visited Hong Kong, I spent three days nursing a broken heart with dumplings in very heavy rain. Needless to say, I’d like a second chance.
In the great big world, most places are worth revisiting. In love, most relationships aren’t. The exceptions are deeply personal, shelved for years, lacking closure. They are the gut feelings, the romances cut short by circumstance, the ones that got away. There’s nothing forcing you to a second visit, no guarantee it’s meant to happen. However, once in a while, the risk is worth it. And you never have to leave again.
5. The best and the worst things aren’t in the guide book
Tourist attractions—the ones plagued with lines, selfie sticks, and plastic souvenirs—are rarely all they’re made out to be. Sightseers flock to the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, and the Great Wall like bees to honey. They want a part of the shiny thing, its cachet to rub off on them, its glory to hike up their status. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb to stay away from the most popular attraction—do your research before deciding you want to get involved.
The best and most memorable moments of any trip are rarely the most photographed or the most obvious. They are the lazy afternoons spent drinking aperitifs on a European terrace, the pick-up soccer with Mexican boys in their school uniforms, the card games with your Thai hosts you play even though you don’t speak the same language. And the worst moments aren’t advertised, either. Feeling lonely in places full of people, seasickness, homesickness, pickpockets, seeing AK-47s for the first time, rampant poverty.
You have to get to know someone before falling in love with them, before committing to them. You have to explore their secrets and their back alleys, usually without a map or a guidebook. Visit their past, their present, and their reactions to hardship. Make a list of your favorite things about them. They are always more than meets the eye.
6. Things rarely go as planned
Life is messy and travel messier still. Lost luggage, canceled flights, misplaced passports, natural disasters, hostel bed bugs, Bali belly. None of this sounds foreign or exotic. You can buy insurance. You can plan. You can overplan. Every relationship will weather its share of turbulence. And, yes, it is all about how you deal with it together, unless it’s a straight up deal breaker. Your willingness to problem-solve and your attitude will make or break a trip.
It takes courage to let go and to travel spontaneously, to hope for favorable winds and vacancy. But time after time, that’s when the magic happens. Just when you least expect it. Just like love finds you when you’ve given up on it, when you don’t force it, when you finally look for it right under your nose instead of 15,000 kilometers away. Or when you’re about to leave a country in the next three days.
People embark on travels for the same reasons they pursue relationships: to learn more about others and about themselves, to find out what they have in common, to share their loves and dreams and to become better in the process.
The skills and qualities developed traveling can make your relationships stronger. Travel teaches you to define your expectations and to take responsibility. It teaches you to be brave, not to judge appearances, and to go with the flow.
Don’t let that stop you from being tragically romantic, though. Three days could be all it takes.