Five Peculiar Stories: Love Overseas
Strange tales of romantic adventure in foreign lands.
The Fish Pond
When I was seventeen, I ended up traveling through Southwestern China with a few friends my age. Our third stop out of Hong Kong was Yangshuo, a city in Guanxi Province that the Chinese call “The most beautiful place in world” with no discernible sense of hyperbole.
I’d been traveling with the same two friends for a couple of weeks and was getting a little stir-crazy, so decided to rent a bicycle and spend an afternoon riding around the countryside by myself. It was mind-numbingly beautiful — giant thumbs of rock shot up from the countryside around fog-covered lakes and green mountain passes. Old men punted on bamboo boats down rivers, and young women milked goats. Except for the odd DirectTV Satellite looming behind a shack, it felt like the land before time.
After a few hours, I stopped at a little family-run restaurant and went inside to have something to eat. No one was there except a young boy, the son of the owners. He was surprised to see a white kid in the middle of the countryside, even more so, one who spoke decent Chinese. It was love at first sight, at least for him. Upon my arrival, he decided immediately to stop doing his job and spend the afternoon on what felt like a strange impromptu date with me.
It started with a tour. We walked around the restaurant, around the property, and ended up at a small fish pond in a stone-tiled courtyard in front of his family’s house.
I was a vegetarian at the time, and a dumb American, and so I obviously assumed it was like a koi pond to enhance the atmosphere. It was not. With surprising dexterity, he reached into the water and snatched up a large flopping carp by the tail. In Chinese, he asked, “What do you think of this fish?” Not wanting to be rude, I said, “It looks great." So he swung it above his head and slapped it down on the flagstone, killing it and scaring the hell out of me.
When someone kills a fish for you, vegetarian or not, I think etiquette dictates you must eat it. When a boy in China kills a fish for you, cooks it, and serves it to you for free, you’re on a date.
For the rest of the afternoon, I ate fish (delicious, the beginning of the end of my vegetarianism) while he showed me calligraphy. When it started to get dark, he kissed me on the cheek. Then I hopped on my bike and was off, after perhaps the strangest afternoon of my life. — Ben Reininga, Nerve writer
In Vietnam, they sell something called snake liquor. You see it in all the markets and in shop windows. It’s clear, of unknown provenance, comes in a curved glass bottle… and contains the body of a preserved cobra.
I was traveling up the coast with a friend and stopped at a little town called Nha Trang, one of a dozen beach hamlets between Hanoi and Saigon. On our first night, at a little hotel by the beach, we had just settled in our room when we heard friendly laughter coming from nearby. A bunch of traveler-types — not tourists, but scruffy guys with beards and backpacks who had no intention of returning to Australia for years, if ever — were sitting out on a little patio. And of course, they had a couple of bottles of snake liquor.
They motioned for us to come and join them. They were drinking it straight, in gulped shots from teacups, and bragging about its aphrodisiac qualities. After a few teacups, the burning in your throat faded. At eight, I started to think they were right. And then the magical happened. I looked up, and there, standing above me, on a balcony in the hotel was a stunningly attractive woman.
We caught eyes and smiled. A minute later I looked up, and she was still there. I took a shot of snake liquor and waved. She smiled, and she motioned me up. I pointed at my chest; yes, she meant me. Walking up the outdoor stairs to her terrace on a warm night in Vietnam, sand under my bare feet, in view of the sea, drunk as a sailor, I felt like I was in a dream. The magic of the snake liquor was real.
We spent the evening sitting on her balcony, looking at the ocean, smoking cigarettes and talking, before retiring to bed together. When I woke up in the morning, she was gone, like it had been a dream. — Dave Manno, Nerve designer
I’d been in Argentina for a few weeks when I decided to surprise my girlfriend, Lauren, with a trip to Mendoza — we were getting serious, and it was the biggest romantic gesture I’d made so far. But I was totally broke, and so rather than book a hotel and a plane flight, I decided we’d take an overnight bus across the country, and, for accommodations, use a website that paired travelers with friendly strangers who were willing to let them sleep on their couches for free. Romance on a shoestring.
This is how we met Leandro. We showed up in Mendoza at 6 a.m. after an entire night on the bus, with nothing but a phone number for our host, a man I’d corresponded with through the site. But we didn’t need the number. He’d come to meet us — a couple of complete strangers — at the bus station at dawn. And he was a sight: short as an elf with a weeks old beard and dramatic dreadlocks, he looked like criminal, except too short and jolly to be threatening.
There was no time to consider what we were getting into. He grabbed my girlfriend’s backpack, started chattering in Spanish, and hopped us into a cab. As we careened through Mendoza’s streets, he began to ask us questions. Mostly about Kate Bush — he was, as he said “Un super fan." When we arrived at his apartment, I realized what he meant.
It was a half audio-visual nerd-paradise, half shrine. Life-sized cut-outs of Kate Bush competed for space among huge speakers, a giant gleaming television, and mountains of DVDs. Instead of exploring Mendoza, or taking a nap, he insisted that we spend the morning watching her complete collection of music videos and drinking mate.
My girlfriend is a wonderfully game, down-to-earth girl, but I was starting to worry that I’d majorly fucked up. This was the last thing anyone would call a romantic getaway. But, if she was upset, she was keeping quiet about it. In either case, it appeared we’d never get a minute alone to talk about it.
“Tonight,” Leandro said, “I will make a party for your arrival.”
That evening found the apartment packed with colorful oddballs and loud music. Amid the crazy dancing, I pulled Lauren out to the patio, hoping to apologize for our train wreck of a weekend. But before I could get a word in, Leandro popped out and said, “You two really flash together.” He spoke in Spanish, but used the English word “flash.”
“What does that mean?” my girlfriend asked.
“You do not know the English 'to flash?'" He called over a friend and said to him, “Can you explain to these two the English word 'flash?'” It didn’t seem worth it to remind them that it was us, not them, who spoke English.
In accented English the friend offered, “Like, ‘the smile of my lady love, it makes me flaaash.”
“Yes,” Leandro said, “Like that. Together, you two, you flaaash.”
Lauren laughed and we kissed, right there on the balcony. When I closed my eyes, I thought I knew what he meant. Flash. — Michael Howard, editorial intern
A Scottish Vampire
My last day in Edinburgh had a particular sense of urgency to it. Not only was it the last day I’d have with my study-abroad friends before we scattered to our different homelands in Canada, but it was my last chance at spending time with the Scottish guy I’d more or less fallen in love with.
Toby Law. He dressed like a goth and worked as a teacher’s aide. He wore black eyeliner and played the guitar, and on my last night in Edinburgh, was sitting on my bed. This was it. My last shot before returning to choir rehearsal and field-hockey practice. We watched the DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that he brought over and drank the red wine he had purchased, and altogether I felt very mature. But that was all we were doing. As the hours passed, and nothing happened except an awkward chuckle here and there, I broke.
“So, are we going to make out?”
He took the hint. At this point, I should offer up one relevant detail. It was summer, late August, so I put my hair up in a high ponytail, exposing my neck. This is relevant because, after a moment or two of normal kissing, Toby started to bite me.
Now, I’m not talking about hickeys or playful nibbles — he began to gnaw on my neck and ears. It didn’t hurt, but it was deeply unsettling. His choice of entertainment — a vampire TV show — and his gift of red wine, and his gothic style choices.
After what felt like an unbelievably long time, he stopped, abruptly. He seemed satisfied, as though he’d had his fill. I felt my neck; the skin was unbroken. He put his black PVC trench on. He kissed me goodbye, and was on his way. Toby stayed in Edinburgh to prey on other girls. I went home the next morning, glad to at least have a story for the plane ride. — Danielle Gibson, editorial intern
The Italian Stallion
It’s a stereotype universally acknowledged that when we’re traveling, American girls really, really, want to date Italian guys. Or, to narrow it down: when I was an American girl traveling abroad, I really, really wanted to date Italian guys. Visions of wine, mopeds, and C-grade romantic comedies danced in my head.
So when I spent a summer in Italy in the pre-Amanda Knox era of worry-free study-abroad-hooking-up-with-Italian-people, it should come as a surprise to basically no one that I began a relationship with my Italian professor.
He was about twelve years my senior, a little sleazy in what I decided was an innocuous “oh he’s just European” way, and taught in the school where I took my daily language classes. Even aside from the always hot professor/student dynamic, he hit all the important checkpoints of what I wanted in a man that summer: attractive and Italian.
To be fair, a lot of our relationship was just what you’d think it would be — he’d do his best to teach me dirty phrases in Italian, I’d do my best to wrap my teenage head around the fact that his parents had never thought to circumcise him, we’d both do our best to defile as many local landmarks as possible.
But I kept running into signs that instead of holding up his role as the worldly, sexy older man in the equation, he was actually just corny. And not in the cute "I put rose petals on the bed" kind of way, but in more of an "of course I wear a fanny pack on our day trips” kind of way. More to the point, other than its extreme frequency, the actual sex between us was terrible, something I understood even without a decent point of comparison.
A little context: he had once reminisced about his days in a “breakdancing troupe” in the ‘80s, a fact I found endlessly entertaining and wouldn’t let drop. I should have expected, however, that such teasing, when it met his ego, would ultimately lead in a showdown.
One night, I startled awake to him eating a peach and bopping around the apartment naked with “Fuck tha Police” blasting at full volume. “Isn’t it great?” he said, dripping part of his peach on me, licking it off, then launching back into the verses, which he knew by heart. I stared. "Fuckin’ with me cause I'm a teenager / with a little bit of gold and a pager" he yelled, still dancing.
Then, looking to prove he still had moves, Claudio treated me to one of the least attractive sights on this earth: the naked male form in a headstand, gravity in full effect. He kept holding the position, so I pretended to doze back off until he eventually peeled himself off the wall.
We actually saw each other a few times after that night — enough times to satisfy my desire for a “whirlwind Italian romance.” To date though, I’ve never been happier that a relationship had a set ending point. And I never liked N.W.A. quite as much again. — Carolina Jones, Nerve writer