The scene was set: Rome in autumn. An up-lit fountain in an ancient piazza. Lovers separated by an ocean — both physical and metaphorical — reuniting. A tentative hug, a bashful glance, hearts swooning with the purr of motorinos. Sparks would fly like those light-up toys the immigrants sell. There would be gelato.
But I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I did not have a romantic rendezvous in Rome.
The vacation fling, the romantic getaway, the honeymoon: romance and travel are as hand-in-hand as a long walk on the beach. We step outside our physical comfort zone, and we move beyond our emotionally comfortable borders.
It often opens space for love, a kind we normally wouldn’t welcome. In my case, that kind was self-love.
It started with a vacation-style case of the fuck-it’s. I met M when he was leaving, only in town for a few more weeks before taking off for a prestigious internship in Rome — where, as luck would have it, I would be traveling during his stay. It was okay that he was much younger than me, freshly out of the longest relationship of his life and sleeping on his friend’s couch, because he didn’t have a place to live.
He would be leaving soon. I couldn’t get hurt. No strings, no expectations. Three weeks of fun, then back to regular life.
It’s a funny thing to have spent your whole life starved for love — hungry for it, searching for it, desperately looking for someone to give it, an elusive feeling you’re sure would fill that big empty inside.
They say hungry people make bad shoppers. You pick the hurt, the broken, and it becomes a project: “I’m going to love them like no one else has; I’m going to make them love me. Goddamnit.”You tend to pick the people least able to give you the very thing you crave.
You hope, you dream. You weave elaborate fantasies and scenarios in your head. You are far more concerned with these fantasies than the actual reality of what’s around you. You rationalize and justify. You cling to little scraps they give you like life jackets on a sinking ship.
Because hungry people, they say, will settle for scraps.
But it’s a funnier thing to feel a shift. It’s a funnier thing to hear a voice — a quiet but insistent voice — that keeps repeating, “You deserve better.”
M didn’t deliver me any egregious wrong. He just didn’t say goodbye, save for a text message at 5 am, and he didn’t bother to write or say hello for a month. I felt dissed, but hell, I’ve been dissed a lot harder than that.
My own trip to Italy was approaching. We had to meet up, right? Hadn’t Fate delivered us into the same city? Hadn’t we made plans? Hadn’t I constructed the perfect fantasy in my head? What did it matter that I’d gotten hurt when he left. It’d be a couple days of fun in a foreign country, no strings, then back to my regular life.
But the voice just wouldn’t stop. Like a mantra, “You deserve better.”
Over the course of the repetition, the weeks of chanting in my own head, “you deserve better” became about something other than M, about what he did or didn’t do. It became about me. It became about what I’ve settled for, what I’ve let be okay with me. It became about how I’ve set myself up to be hurt, and refused to acknowledge or be accountable to that hurt. It became about how I’ve constructed fantasies and lived inside them, used them as a way to not be present for myself and my own pain. It became about how I have so recklessly given away my self-worth and looked to other people to validate me — begging and begging for them to fix something in me that isn’t theirs to fix.
It became about how I wouldn’t dare ask for something better, because I didn’t really think there was anything better for me.
And somewhere, inside all that, it became about believing, if even in only some small broken chamber of my small broken heart, that maybe there was something better.
So I didn’t do it. I didn’t have my romantic Roman rendezvous.
We travel in part to be free of ourselves, the roles and responsibilities of home. Travel allows us to escape those self-constructed constraints of Who We Are and What Our Lives Are, and allows us to live more freely in the moment. This is in large part why vacation/travel romance holds such allure, perfumed in the hazy mystique of What Could Be and If Only. Traveling, we are truer, simpler versions of ourselves, finding truer and simpler versions of love.
For some, this means being open to a fling with someone you might not normally date. For me, it meant taking care of myself in a new way. It meant really, actually loving myself.
And so I spent my days in Rome alone. But I wasn’t really alone. I still had the fountains, the piazzas, still had the motorinos and the ruins and the gelato, a lot of the gelato. I still had the monumental crumble, the remains of greatness, still had gleaming black stones of the streets, worn smooth from the centuries of feet walking, walking, walking.
I still had Rome.
Has travel changed your thoughts on love and self-worth? Share your comments.
If you enjoyed this story, make sure to check out our other Love in the Time of Matador articles.
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler. She maintains the blog lonelygirltravels.com, where she writes about her explorations of untold stories, underground music, abandoned buildings, street art, tattoos, 12-step recovery and of course, travel. She is currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, researching and writing narratives of trauma. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.