“You’re going to have the time of your life over there. Maybe you’ll meet a prince! Or some handsome man with a brogue.”
It was a statement I heard from nearly everyone before I moved abroad, and one harmless enough. I’ll admit that the idea of falling in love with a dashing Irishman was always on my mind. Who doesn’t dream of living out a fairytale of their own as they jet set across Europe? Between the castles and the sweeping landscapes, there’s enough allure in the air to fuel a hundred romance novels. Comfortably relatable American girl goes abroad, where she meets a young man sitting next to her on the train only to find out he’s actually royalty in a country she can hardly pronounce. Internally lost co-ed spends her graduation money backpacking across Europe to find herself, only to be swept off her feet by a rugged highlander on horseback. It’s a tired narrative, if not altogether unrealistic. The fairytales are the exception, not the rule.
Still, there’s no harm in dreaming. As I rolled my eyes whenever a family member suggested that I was off to find my soulmate some 3,000 miles away from home, I found the idea of finding love abroad increasingly etched in the back of my mind. Thanks to previous relationships that had fallen short of fulfilling, I was inhibited by trust issues and fears when it came to finding interest in anyone new. I felt I knew American guys by now. The notion of someone who brought the promise of a new culture, and perhaps higher standards and – dare I say – chivalry, was appealing. The accents certainly didn’t hurt either.
My gap year in Ireland was a never a vacation, but rather a platform to move abroad permanently. I knew that I had to take every opportunity from the moment the plane touched down in Dublin to network and expand my chances to earn job sponsorship to stay longer than the one year my visa currently allowed. I was prepared to work and find some niche in an industry only I could fill. Of course, the ‘easier’ option never went overlooked. “Just find a husband,” became the running joke. “You have one year to lock him down. Better start looking right away.”
A joke, of course. But it fueled the expectations that had been planted within me by every rom-com I’ve ever watched (which was, as of late, a lot of P.S. I Love You and Leap Year). This year abroad was about self-growth. About adventure. About finally paving my path through the world. But subconsciously, it became a hopelessly relentless search for romance.
Search might be a strong word. I am tragically romantic, and therefore a bit of a traditionalist. I have nothing against the matchmaking apps that seem to pervade twenty-first century dating culture, because I know that they’ve made beautiful love stories for some people. But I still dream of that fairytale moment of meeting somebody organically. So I didn’t go searching for love. I waited for it to happen, because I believed that at the right moment, it would. And I waited. And waited.
Plot twist: I didn’t find my soulmate abroad. Or at least, I haven’t yet.
Throughout the year, every missed connection brought a sense of disappointment as if I was running out of time. It wasn’t until I was on the plane home that I realized this year was never about that kind of love, because it wasn’t something I was ready for.
Instead, this year had everything to do with falling in love with myself.
Is that cliche? Oh well. I’ve come to learn that I can’t love anyone until I learn to love myself first. It’s with that clarity that I can see now why past relationships didn’t work out. That doesn’t mean that love wasn’t there. It just means that it’s impossible to emotionally support someone when I couldn’t yet do the same for myself. And that’s okay! Learning takes patience, and it takes time.
And let me tell you, there is no better place to learn everything you want to know about yourself than on the road. You’ll see yourself at your highest highs and lowest lows.
You’ll go to all the pubs or concerts or hikes you can and hope that this will be where you meet that somebody. Because at the end of the day, we all want someone to share these experiences with. Isn’t that what this is all about?
But then one day, when you’re in a different country where you’re not familiar with the language or any of the people, you’ll sit at a table in a cafe by yourself. One that’s outside, facing the road. You’ll order an aperitif and watch as passerby hurry to wherever they are going. You feel the thrill of anonymity in a city where no one knows your name. It’s in that moment it will strike you. That you’re perfectly comfortable with your own company, and the only person you really need to share these experiences with is yourself.
And you’ll begin to recognize what makes you happy, like splurging for those pastel macarons in the window shop, or taking a weekend trip alone because you enjoy sticking to your own itinerary sometimes. You’ll recognize the things that make you uncomfortable and how to push those boundaries, like going to see your favorite band from home even if you have to go alone because no one’s heard of them. You’ll encourage the best version of yourself. And really, isn’t that what love is supposed to do?
Even now, as I pack my bags to move to Scotland for grad school, the idea lingers. “Maybe you’ll meet him this time around.”
But I push the idea aside. Because my first relationship is with myself. And once that foundation is built, I have faith the rest will fall into place in the right time.
So yes, I am still single. But I am young, and single, and abroad. And loving every minute of it.