Having dropped out of university after one year because I wanted to live in the ‘real world’; having moved out of my family home and into a one-bed flat at the age of twenty-one; and having somehow fallen into a rather responsible senior executive role at an independent book publisher, by the age of twenty-five I felt somewhat trapped by this ‘real world’ which I had so deeply longed for while living my (worst) student life. What was this concept dubbed ‘real life’? I got up every day at 7 am, spent the majority of my waking hours in an insipidly lilac office, went straight to the gym after work and then got home in time to cook myself dinner – alone – and watch an hour of mindless TV before hitting the sheets to get some rest before doing it all over again. And again. And again. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. So I handed in my notice – without a job to go to or any kind of plan of action – and used my notice period to figure out what the hell I was going to do that was not working nine ’til five office hours (that kind of reality was far too real for me); not going back to university (the idea alone made me shudder); and not (heaven forbid) becoming a totally jobless bum. So I opted for travel.
I hadn’t taken a gap year before starting university and was not overly au fait with the notion of backpacking or hostel-dwelling. More precisely, I had never done either; I had never contemplated doing either; and I was not entirely sure what either would entail. My biggest concern was whether I needed to take my own toilet paper with me for the duration of the trip. (FYI – I didn’t.) Toilet paper fears aside, I borrowed a backpack, became a master of clothes-roll packing (a crease-reducing art) and bought a bumper pack of condoms to keep me going (for the first month at least).
Given my inexperience alluded to above, the far-flung lands of Thailand / New Zealand / South America were very much off the cards. Anyway, I didn’t want to meet a load of ‘Brits Abroad’ or get drunk at the Full Moon Party with the wannabe cast of Geordie Shore; I wanted to meet the locals, experience the culture and perhaps bag myself a terrifically tanned and deliciously dark-eyed Italian husband. (Definitely not too much to ask for.) I could picture the meet cute… we would lock eyes on a sandy beach in Puglia, or a busy terrace in Veneto, or a beautiful vineyard in Tuscany. He would teach me how to make fresh pesto and spaghetti, we would unintentionally recreate the iconic scene from Lady And The Tramp. We would fall in love, he would propose and we would live happily ever after (and make lots of lovely little Italian babies). So I decided to take my trip around Europe.
Whether out of support or doubt or ridicule, my dad bought me a book on how to find an Italian husband as my leaving present. (I mean, I would have preferred a travel towel or €50 in cash but, hey, if the book worked I wasn’t complaining.) So I set off on my trip, Italian-husband-bagging-guide and condoms in toe, and travelled through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania before flying into Bari, Italy, to commence my south-to-north tour of the country’s fascinating regions, and my nationwide swoop of their available suitors.
In Bari – the very first stop – I did indeed lock eyes on the beach with an Italian male, but on closer inspection his eyebrows were plucked to within an inch of their lives and his speedos were covering barely an inch of his flesh, so I quickly endeavoured to unlock eyes and vacate the area. Lecce, Naples, Rome, Florence and Pisa all followed. Admittedly I did meet a number of pleasant men of varying degrees of tan and distinctive features. But none of them, I deemed, were husband material. And then came Bologna.
Joining me on this stint of the trip was one of my best friends from back home; a lovely and crazy full-of-beans kind of girl who is always up for adventure (and the only one of my friends I considered willing (or indeed able) to stay in a multi-bunkbed dorm). After a couple of nights in an Airbnb in Milan, the city into which she flew, we headed to a small and friendly hostel in Bologna for the real ‘travelling’ experience. The hostel itself was wonderful. It felt cosy and caring; there was a chest of looseleaf tea into which one could dip at any time of day; there were privacy curtains on each of the bunks and the most spacious of little wooden cabins within which each mattress was placed. After a handful of truly hideous experiences, this hostel was thoroughly top notch.
Making dinner in the shared kitchen that evening – exactly one year ago today – I immediately spotted a rather handsome looking fellow guest sitting at the large communal table. He was speaking in English with a slight accent that I detected (and later proved to be correct) as Dutch. He may not have been Italian, but at least he wasn’t British.
A group of us decided to head into the city that evening for a couple of drinks and, much to my delight, the dishy Dutchman was going to join. (The Lady And The Tramp music was already playing in my head.) But what was his name? Perhaps Hans, Pieter or Luuk. Or maybe Jan, Jeroen or Jurgen. Alas, no. His name was definitely Dutch, but, on first introductions, it was not distinguishable as a word let alone a form of reference. It was a sound – an unknown, unfathomable sound – that seemed to fuse the hiss of a snake with the rasp of a phlegmy sigh, and there was definitely some kind of ‘I’ or ‘Y’ sound in there. But further than that I could not comprehend. I just stared, dumbfounded, at his deliciously Dutch eyes, blinked a couple of times and exclaimed, “right!”. Getting to know Chyuiys was going to be interesting. (Correct spelling: Gijs; correct pronunciation: God knows.)
So my best friend and I, mister unpronounceable, and a handful of other much less good looking fellow inmates made our way into the city centre, stumbling upon a graffitied and fairy lit alleyway en route which was littered with cute little VW-type vans offering a whole manner of weird and wonderful alcoholically-spiked concoctions. This was to be our destination. We placed our orders at the bar – best friend opted for a cocktail featuring lavender (yuck); I went for something more citrusy; the poison of the delectable Dutchman I cannot quite remember, but it most definitely would have been strong, stylish and indecently sultry. Our glasses were quickly drained and followed by seconds and thirds. The conversation was fun and fiery and, of course, alcohol fuelled. I had placed myself intentionally opposite the Nederlander for the best vantage point from which to admire his facets, and there were definitely a few seconds of fleeting eye contact. This was it. This was the moment. This was my Dutch Italian. And then the world as I knew it turned upside down.
After three cocktails half of the group were ready to go home. (What?) Best friend and I were the only British representation, and we were only just getting started! Devilishly handsome Dutchman had a devilishly inopportune bad stomach and was going to join the party poopers (pardon the pun). I was mightily pooped. Even my most convincing persuasive arguments could not change his mind (not that I blame him – sometimes that kinda shit’s just got to happen). So off he went, out into the darkness and lost, potentially, from my future life. This called for another cocktail (or three).
The remaining clan moved on to another drink truck further along the alleyway, and placed bets on the likeliness of Chyuiys’ return. I was the only one who predicted a higher than 50% chance, and that was admittedly more out of willing than wager. But what do you know, half an hour later as we gathered at the makeshift counter to place our umpteenth order, a certain Dutchman sauntered towards us through the rows of twinkly, dangling fairy lights, like a reincarnation in a climactic movie scene. He was back. And he was back for me. (I prayed.)
Best friend and I took our seats at the table, far enough away from the bar to confer on the recent events. We confessed to one another that we really, really fancied him. Ooh! Which one? The Dutch one! Ah. Agh. This did not go down so well. With either of us. We discussed the troublesome situation we found ourselves in, and like all good friends came to a mutually-agreed consensus: f*** you, he’s mine! The battle was on.
Suffice to say, as the evening progressed and the drinking came to an end, my mate and I returned to the hostel separately, neither of us alone, and she spent the next three weeks trying to block a random Aussie from all of her social media accounts. (I did feel for her.) Chyuiys, new nickname Gigi, became acquainted with my bunk (thank God for the privacy curtain), and my (potentially ex-) best friend up above had to listen to a night full of smooching and sweet nothings. (Luckily she didn’t hear the part where I suggested he come meet me later on during my Europe tour, and he politely declined for he was “really busy right now”. Yikes.)
Over breakfast, however, (shared with fifteen of the hostel’s other guests) we became Facebook friends, and proceeded to ‘message’ every single day from then on in. After two months of emoji-filled love letters he decided he did have a spare weekend, and our first date was arranged: three nights away in a studio Airbnb in Lisbon. (Not that I’m encouraging spending seventy-two hours straight with an almost-complete stranger in a foreign city, but, you know, I was in travelling mode…) I told my mum, hesitantly. (You know how mums can be.) I did not tell my dad. (I didn’t want any more relationship-coaching literature Fed-Ex’d direct to me in Portugal.) I arrived at the apartment first, and waited anxiously for Gigi to join me. It was a nerve-wracking, restless and exciting couple of hours. Until he arrived. And then we both knew, in roughly five minutes, that this was going to be a bloody good first date. And the rest, as they say, is history.