Anna Hart


How solo travel taught one woman what she wanted from a relationship

While travelling the world for work, Anna Hart witnessed couples up-close – the good, the bad and the ugly

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By Anna Hart on

When people tell me they’re planning a “romantic trip”, I solemnly wish them well. Because I know that travel can be the most unromantic thing you can do to a relationship. Travel is a fluorescent bulb, a siren wail, a paper cut, to the bad relationship. Travel will have you longing to lug your leaky love affair back to the forgiving softness of the sofa, where the lights are dim enough and Netflix bombastic enough to drown out your doubt.

I have lived much of my life travelling solo, first as a student backpacker, then as a reporter being sent all over the world. Being a lone woman (and being a writer, in fact) permits me to slip between slides of social circles, observing humans in close quarters, a tourist in the game reserve of society. All around the world, I’ve seen couples I admired, who I hope to emulate one day, to steal their adorable turns of phrase, their bircher-muesli recipes, their easy mutual respect. But, more often than not, when I travel I see terrible couples. Couples that I wouldn’t want to be in, not in a million years. Relationships I’d dynamite myself out of.

When we travel, I guess we’re going in search of better ways of living. We’re trying on a whole new life for size, which means we also have to take a good look at the person by our side and ask if they’re a good fit. We’re also pushed on to the back foot, taken out of our natural habitat, stripped of our everyday armour. We’re tired, stressed, harried and either too hot or too cold. We’re presented with a series of challenges, all the while being seemingly berated in an unfamiliar tongue. When you think about it, humans really shouldn’t want to travel. In evolutionary terms, travel is a perverse impulse, an unnecessary indulgence, a species oddity. But I’ve heard the same charges levelled against the female orgasm.

We relish travel regardless. And perhaps, if we’re really honest, we relish the purge it performs on our relationships. For travel illuminates the stark differences between us and our loved ones, in the manner of lemon juice reliably exposing previously imperceptible abrasions on one’s skin.

Sure, we travel to immerse ourselves in exotic cultures, expose our senses to new landscapes and face new physical challenges. But we also travel to judge other people. I don’t collect souvenirs, but I do collect terrible couples and lodge them in my mind, like cautionary tales. There was the surfer couple in Bali, where she hissed and twitched every time her boyfriend opened his mouth, before finally rolling her eyes and spitting, “This might be new to all of you, but I’ve heard all his stories a thousand times already.” The air floated sourly around them, despite their sun-kissed locks, the brightness of their Billabong beachwear and the strains of Joe Jackson emanating from their beach hut. She plainly couldn’t stand him, but he loved her too much to admit it.

We’re tired, stressed, harried and either too hot or too cold. We’re presented with a series of challenges, all the while being seemingly berated in an unfamiliar tongue

A relationship therapist once told me that the thing that kills a relationship dead – more effectively than infidelity, rage, depression or addiction – is contempt. That you look at your lover and you just don’t like what you see. And you aren’t afraid to show it. In front of strangers. Contempt is the dry rot of love. Just about everything else can be patched up. I think about that surfer girl often and make sure I haven’t inched any closer to contempt, in my dealings with anyone. I never want to talk about anyone the way she talked about her lover.

There was the couple I met campervanning around New Zealand, who were both perfectly nice, but pitifully incompatible. Everything he liked – the sea, beer, spicy food, political jokes – she hated. It was a mutual exchange. I found myself struggling to think of a single thing, on this planet, that they could both enjoy equally. It was a fun game that kept me occupied on long walks around the coastline of the North Island. While I can be wildly optimistic about the odds of me winning the lottery (but it COULD happen!), I’ve always been meticulously mathematical about my chances of finding love – on dating sites, at bus stops, in techno clubs at 3am. Romcoms have schooled us to expect perfect matches on every street corner. In fact, we’ll be lucky to have a few genuine loves stretched over a lifetime. This couple met at work, shared mutual friends and were physically attracted to each other, but when they stepped beyond this backdrop, there was no life furniture they wanted to share.

Then there was the couple I met at a resort in Mauritius, who struck me as too compatible. A tennis-playing pair from Boston, who didn’t express opinions to each other because they already knew. Who barely looked up when the other entered the room and could order for each other in restaurants. Who said things like, “We thought Tom Hanks was great in that movie. We really love the colour blue. We love your top!” You can slip along so smoothly in a relationship like this that you barely notice time passing. There was no friction, nothing to challenge or provoke, nothing to hold on to.

There was the couple in Malta, where he seemed determined to rain on her fledgling parade, whatever it might be. Nothing was good enough and everything was a hardship. Worst of all, his negativity was always in direct proportion to her positivity. He wasn’t opening a critical discussion or lively debate – he was actively shutting down her pleasure, as if pleasure needed to be rationed. I promise I’m no positivity zealot. It’s fine to point out the cracks in the Alcazar, but only if you’re doing it because you know your lover gets a total kick out of cracks.

As I travelled, I saw bullies, I saw creeps, I saw cowards, I saw cheats, I saw phonies. And I rarely felt sad about returning to my hostel room alone at the end of the night.

But gradually, by collecting relationships I didn’t want, I began piecing together an artist’s impression of a relationship I did want. I want a relationship where you both bring something to the suitcase. Perhaps it’s Spanish or wine knowledge on a trip to Chile; it might be kindness or patience in love. I want a relationship where you help each other enjoy the world, pointing out surreptitious shards of street art or parakeets hidden in the trees. The world is a sharing plate, and love should be about sharing the world with each other, spooning it into each other’s mouths.

I want a relationship where it feels like you’re playing on the same team, united against life. Not as rival players in this strange sport called love. Couples who play well, I’ve observed, obey one team rule: single individuals out for praise, but bear blame collectively.

I want a relationship where romance isn’t confined to grand gestures, but seeps out into the everyday. Travelling is hard, like life is hard, and we have to sweeten the day for each other, with kind words, cuddles, kisses and caresses. I once shed a tear behind my sunglasses on an EasyJet flight at a teenage traveller’s tender treatment of her boyfriend, who was terrified of flying. To me, love played out among the indignities of an EasyJet flight – well, that’s true romance. One kiss in economy class is 10 times as potent as anything performed atop the Eiffel Tower. I want a relationship where we reclaim romance, wrest it off Interflora and make it our own.

Because travel isn’t romantic. We need to bring our own romance.

Departures by Anna Hart is published February 15, 2018


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