“I think you are very sexy, American Boy,” he said to me with a thick French accent, putting his mouth close to my ear so that I could hear him over the music. “You understand what I am talking?” I took a long swallow from my vodka and tonic and watched the Madonna drag queen on stage gyrate to “Lucky Star.” I knew what was coming next.
“Perhaps on this night, you would like to spend the time in my arms, in my bed?” he asked a minute later. I turned and looked at him. He was bundle of French stereotypes: thick, pouty lips, smoldering eyes, puffy scarf tossed casually over a black turtleneck sweater. And he was beautiful. “When you are visiting France,” he explained to me with a raised eyebrow as he led me out the door of the club twenty minutes later, “it is quite good to make love with a French boy.”
I followed him through the dark, winding streets of Old Nice. By now the drill was familiar, and I knew how the rest of the night would go: I would fuck him once, maybe twice on a lumpy mattress in his shabby, third-floor walkup, then drift in and out of restless sleep until the sun came up. We’d exchange awkward small talk in the morning while he tried to cobble together some breakfast, and then I’d make my escape, explaining that I had a train to catch, a new city to visit.
“You want to sex me tonight, American boy?” he asked as he pushed open the door to his apartment. I was drunk on vodka and the prospect of getting naked with this handsome European stranger, and suddenly I did want to sex him, very much.
“Certainment,” I replied, taking off my coat and throwing it to the floor. “I thought you’d never ask.”
I was twenty-eight years old, nearing the end of a four-month backpacking trip through Europe. It was the journey I should have taken eight years earlier, when sleeping on a bunk in a sixteen-bed dormitory wouldn’t have felt like an injustice and living on $16 a day seemed completely feasible. But in the last half-decade my life had somehow gotten off track, and I was trying desperately to catch up. In college, I’d been hired to work part time for a big record company, and became instantly intoxicated by the possibility of a life in the corporate fast lane. While my dormmates and friends got drunk, went to their first gay-pride parties and had all kinds of sex, I was stapling Toad the Wet Sprocket displays onto record-store walls and hosting Indigo Girls listening parties at lesbian cafes.
After graduation, I followed the corporate path to a full-time, sixty-hour-a-week job in the gay Mecca of Cleveland, Ohio. I acquired a blandly handsome Midwestern boyfriend with whom I had bland, boring sex; moved him back to Boston with me when I was promoted; then watched my life implode after he discovered therapy, anti-depressants and an MIT grad student whom he fucked on our living-room sofa while I was driving Mandy Moore to radio stations in Providence.
After the breakup, I told my therapist that that the boyfriend wasn’t the only thing I needed to jettison, that it was time to get out of corporate America, to take a long trip and finally start living. She was surprising supportive. “It’s your chance for a new beginning,” she said. “To realize a fully actualized version of yourself.” I knew what she was getting at beneath all that psychobabble: I needed to get laid, and fast.
The sheer number of cultures that Europe packs into a single continent thrilled me. As I crossed from Spain into France, I found myself entering a whole different world. The quick train ride from Amsterdam to Brussels brought with it a new language, cuisine, and set of customs.
And the men in Europe were as diverse and exciting as the cities from which they came. In Milan, Marco wore leather pants and in the bedroom shouted in Italian-accented English that I was the hottest man he had ever had ever gotten naked with, and wouldn’t I please fuck him all night? After laying on the charm to get me into the sack, Keyvan the Frenchman became aloof and slightly distant, managing to look bored even during his orgasm. Gerardo, the MBA student from Hamburg directed our sex with classic German efficiency. “Just like that please, David,” he instructed, pushing my head toward his crotch with one hand while smoking a joint with the other. “I’d like it very much if you proceeded in this manner.”
My weeks in Europe became a blur of sidewalk cafes, hostels, gay bars and sex with a long string of European men. I rode an InterCityExpress train halfway across Germany not because I was dying to see Cologne’s world-class art museum or cathedral, but because I had read that its gay clubs were “slightly seedy and lascivious.” Barcelona was stunning, but it was the dental arts student who I met there who really took my breath away — it was his Matthew McConaughey-caliber abs, not the Sagrada Familia, that kept me coming back. When my best friend Nicole me sent an email asking about my favorite part of Frankfurt, I was embarrassed to admit it was Francesco, the hot Moldavian who worked the front desk at my hostel there, and worked me over one night in the laundry room.
On long train rides from city to city, I slept off hangovers and told myself not to be ashamed that this trip to Europe had morphed into a nine-nation slut-fest. I wasn’t a hooker with a passport, I was a guy who was finally having some fun, making up for five years lost in corporate America. Sure, I followed the hordes of tourists to Westminster Abbey and the Coliseum, wandered the Avenue des Champs Elysées and drank a pint beneath the Brandenburg Gate. But I also made out with a busboy behind a dumpster in Florence, got a handjob among the ruins of Pompeii, and groped a hot, unemployed Italian construction worker on the slow ferry to Sicily. The days and nights spent banging it out in tiny studio apartments and steamy gay saunas weren’t about simply scoring another piece of ass. They were about understanding Europe in a way that few others ever did, about sampling the very best that each country on the Continent had to offer.
As I worked my way across the EU, I found myself in bed with some of the hottest men I had ever laid eyes on, men who were unquestionably out of my league. Why was it so damn easy here? Had travel brought me a new vitality and radiance that young studs from Aachen to Zurich simply couldn’t resist? Maybe, but it seemed that my winning track record with the boys in Europe had less to do with some mid-sabbatical glow and more to do with my United States passport.
Yes, it was my American citizenship that was getting me laid in the Old World. When I first entered a gay bar in Amsterdam or Paris or Berlin, I was usually ignored, the same way I might be in New York or Chicago or Cleveland. But when I awkwardly ordered a drink with my unmistakable Boston accent or pulled a crumpled American Express Traveler’s Check from my pocket, suddenly people took notice. It was then that the men unleashed their arsenal of European charm, bombarding me with shy glances or confident winks, boldly approaching me with lines like “Hello there, handsome American boy,” or “I would love to show you everything of my beautiful city.” For these men, my nationality was the accessory that made me suddenly irresistible.
It wasn’t what I had expected. I was sure that my country of origin would be a huge liability on this trip, positive I’d have a giant “Ugly American” sign taped to my back that no amount of cultural sensitivity could remove. I met fellow backpackers who had sewn small Canadian flags onto their luggage to ensure that they wouldn’t be mistaken for Americans, listened to horror stories of hotel clerks and restaurant managers chastising my fellow countrymen for the excesses of American capitalism and imperialism.
Sure, my men had their share of anti-American generalizations to share. “You people from the United States, you are not like the movies. You all have so much fat, yes?” Keyvan said when I removed my shirt, running his arms across my stomach before going down on me.
“It is quite typical of an American, I suppose, that you would come here without learning a word of my language,” Gerardo snapped at me when I asked him to teach me the German term for fellatio. Even Marco, my passionate Italian, threw in his two Lira worth.
“In America, there is none of the passion, no? Your people just have their sex and squirt-squirt and then go to sleep. Why is it this way for the Americans?”
But beneath these criticisms and stereotypes lay a deep admiration for the American way of life. After chastising me for not knowing the German term for blowjob, Gerardo lit another joint and began telling me how difficult it would be for him to find a job after business school, and how hopeless his generation of Germans felt. “In America, you have so many opportunities,” he said wistfully. “I wish that in my country it could be so.”
Marco explained that while making a living as an actor anywhere was tough, in Italy it was nearly impossible, and he feared that soon he would have to move back home with his parents. “It is sad to live in a country,” he said, “where at age thirty you move home with mama.”
Even Keyvan, the aloof Parisian who had disparaged my gut, spoke fondly about America. “You don’t understand, American Boy,” he said, propping himself up on a pillow and lighting a fresh Gaulloises. “Here in France, there is nothing to look forward to. We have no jobs. We have no future. In America, you can do anything, be anything.”
I tried to correct these misconceptions, dutifully lecturing on the excesses of free-market capitalism. I explained that while we Americans blindly rode the wave of late-1990s prosperity, it was killing us — causing an ugly, unstoppable appetite for conspicuous consumption. And working seventy-hour weeks, we hadn’t noticed that the US was kind of falling apart around us — that the environment was a mess and thirteen year olds were shooting each other up between classes and that our cities were full of homeless people that we couldn’t care less about.
Americans might make more money, but this prosperity brought a different kind of hopelessness.
But none of my Euro playthings wanted to hear it. They only wanted the good news: that all Americans were rich, had big houses with giant yards, vacation homes with boats and that they spent their worry-free days planning the next luxury vacation. I was, they told me, proof that it was true. Only a rich, powerful American could quit his job and spend four months traveling through Europe without a care in the world. When I explained the real story: that corporate America had chewed me up and spit me out, that I would return home to America with no money, no job and a mortgage payment looming, they brushed it off. They weren’t interested in getting naked with my American reality. They wanted the dream.
And so after a while, I began giving them the America they were looking for. During post-coital snuggles I recalled $300 dinners at trendy New York restaurants, impromptu shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus, my beautiful blue Saab with heated seats. On those occasions where conversation was a required precursor to sex, I described a life of penthouse hotel suites and business-class cross-country flights, doting executive assistants and maids who cleaned and scrubbed my apartment until every corner gleamed. In America, I assured them, anyone could have this life. In America, you could be anything you wanted to be.
In return, my men showed me the Europe I had come hoping to find. When Keyvan served us a breakfast in bed of crusty French baguette and jam, rather than his usual Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in milk, he was giving me the French life I wanted him to have. When I needed some new socks in Milan, Marco didn’t take me to the hypermart in the suburbs where he usually shopped, but led me through the winding streets of the Old City as if he ran errands there every day. I let these men have their fantasies about America, and they let me have mine.
On my last week in Europe, during an overnight in Tarragona, or maybe it was Zaragoza, I met a beautiful Spaniard named Michael. He was a musician, and took me back to his tiny flat so that he could serenade me with song. He played and sang, then told me that while he was sure he would make it in Spain, what really mattered to him was becoming successful in America.
“Because when I am famous there, I buy the giant house in Hollywood and have the big parties in my pool,” he said excitedly as stepped away from his keyboard and pushed me onto his bed. “When America knows me, then I am really a star.”
And as Michael began tugging at my zipper with his teeth, I wondered what was going through his mind. Perhaps he was dreaming of the day he would open for U2 at Madison Square Garden. Maybe he was envisioning a fancy car, a beautiful waterfront home in Santa Monica, a staff of servants ready to meet his every need. Michael whispered something Spanish in my ear, and then began removing my clothes. His hands and mouth were all over me, but after four months in Europe, I knew his thoughts were somewhere else entirely.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.