As a solo backpacker, you’ll probably fall in love at least once, more than likely twice…maybe even three times. Free from the stress of your job, from expectations, from inhibitions, it will be a giddy, fantastical, quickly consummated, single serving of love.
It will also end as quickly as it began.
In Budapest, I met Svein. He told me his name was Sven, to avoid confusion and because, let’s be honest, Sven just sounds sexier than Svein, the Norwegian version of Arthur. I saw him leaning against the wall at the bar, all tousled blonde hair, artfully ripped ironic Van Halen t-shirt, and scuffed Converse. I imagined him smelling like hand-rolled cigarettes and sea salt. He was staying at the sister hostel to mine, worked with chimps in a lab in Norway, and secretly loved musical theater.
We drank together at the bar. Back at the hostel, we commandeered the common room, hooking up on the giant socializing beanbags, exaggerating drunken moans, shedding clothes, proving to ourselves how far away we were from home.
The next days continued in a haze of street-corner makeouts and communal bathroom rendezvous. We lounged at the thermal baths, playing floating chess and sipping rakia with rotund Hungarian men, hit every single one of Budapest’s ‘ruin bars,’ found a tiny teahouse with secret passageways that led to perfect nooks for clandestine sessions. I wondered how much a studio in Oslo would cost, how hard it was to learn Norwegian.
One night, after a glass of pálinka too many, he leaned over and spilled the contents of his stomach (veal pörkölt) all over the common room floor. I left Budapest the next morning for Balaton, a lakeside haven for the weary, a note from him tucked into the pocket of my frayed jean shorts: “I think you’re the girl for me.”
Then there was Brett, the tall, slightly awkward American boy, who leaned over from his top bunk down to mine and asked, “What’re you reading? Oh, Proust? Me too.”
With grand visions of two aspiring expat writers exploring the ‘quaint charms’ of Krakow, we sat in the main square, strolled down Grodzka Street to Wawel Castle, past the textile museum and the monument to Poland’s beloved poet, Adam Mickiewicz. We lay in the sun doing crossword puzzles and eating sweet cheese pierogies. We joked about New York pizza versus Chicago, feeling like newlyweds on a honeymoon. I straddled him there in the park, teasing him as if I knew his likes and dislikes, as if I knew that he left home with a broken heart, and that he secretly felt like he could be the next great American novelist.
We slept together on a narrow bed in the coed hostel room those next two nights, pretending to know each other’s bodies, slowly touching and kissing with false confidence, a wistful desire to connect after months away from home. His flight to Spain departed in the morning. We vowed to stay in touch, made tentative plans for a reunion back in the States, and promptly moved on.
The last days of my trip were spent in Frankfurt, at a hostel in the red-light district, two blocks of strip clubs and dusty dildos in neon-lit window displays. The check-in area was also conveniently the hostel bar; I sat at a swivel stool to sign the requisite forms, wiping sweat from my cheeks and brow, remnants of the long train trip. A frosty pilsner appeared in front of me, and it was then that I noticed the boy sitting to my left.
“It’s on me,” he smirked.
I was in love. He wore stiff, slim jeans, his hair stood up on his head as if from an invisible breeze, camera equipment and a tattered Bukowski paperback on the bar in front of him — straight out of Brooklyn; I could recognize one of my own.
Alex was the shortest fling, but the one that stuck with me for the longest, like spaetzle in your teeth, slick so you have to keep running your tongue over it. We walked across the bridge towards the Altstadt, fed each other sausages and drank apfelwein at the beer garden, joined a German bachelor party, selling penis-shaped trinkets and mini bottles to unsuspecting tourists. We considered a life on the road, forsaking our Williamsburg studio apartments for backpacks and train tickets. It felt strangely real, the possibility of a future. We lay by the river, joined a birthday party at an underground bar, and attempted to tango with a group of vacationing Argentinians. As the sun went down, I waited for him to kiss me.
“I can’t,” he said. “I have…someone I really care about back in New York.”
Drunk, I slapped him. I walked back to the hostel, embarrassed, crying, wanting no one to look in my direction. An hour later, a knock at my door. He stood there, reached for me, put his lips on mine. I slept in his bed that night; we didn’t say a word, groping with electric fingertips and tongues, an ocean separating us from our obligations, our self control.
I left his room. He left for New York in the morning.
Months later, after a night out at painfully hip East Village bars that you enter through a fake phone booth, or by knocking on a door at the back of a rundown taqueria in a precise rhythm, I sat on the curb, leaning onto my girlfriend, enjoying our $1-slice pizza in silence.
I swear I felt a crackle in the air. I looked up to see him there. Alex. Crossing Bowery in those same jeans. We locked eyes, cocked our heads quizzically, simultaneously. I lowered my eyes, refocused on my pizza, and he continued walking into the sticky New York City night.