At the beginning of the summer of 2009, a wise man named Ronnie uttered this now-famous piece of sage counsel to the young Italian-American men of this country: “Never fall in love at the Jersey Shore.” (He quickly went on, saying “I don’t really know what love means” and that “the whole thing about this is pretty much getting laid; you just take your shirt off and they come to you.”). Unfortunately, this noble philosopher’s words did not reach me until this winter, long after they could have enlightened me and helped me avoid the romantic transgressions I committed in my time studying abroad in the United Kingdom last semester.
All joking aside though, I was pretty much on the same page as Ronnie, at least about the not falling in love part, when I flew out of Boston on the evening of September 6th. As I set foot on British soil the next day, I smiled fiercely and exulted in the myriad new opportunities ahead of me. For the first time in my life, I had a complete break with my previous reality. I could do pretty much anything I wanted, almost anything could happen, I had no idea what to expect, and I loved it. Only one thing, one huge thing, was completely set in stone: I was leaving the UK in the early afternoon of December 13th, likely never to return.
This meant that everything I experienced on that island would be temporary, transient, and ultimately fleeting. Though it was far from the first thing on my mind as I arrived at Heathrow that day, I knew that that was definitely not the right recipe for any kind of serious relationship. I would be coming back to America with experiences, memories, and a greater knowledge of the world, but I would not be coming back with a girlfriend. In my opinion, the dual forces of refusing to consider getting into a long distance relationship across the Atlantic and wanting to just have a great time in the short while I was there — the Ronnie approach — combined to make any kind of serious commitment a horrendous idea.
I discovered, however, that I have a bit more of the Ron-Ron juice flowing in my veins than I thought. Like that jacked and tan Sartre, I found that matters of the heart, no matter where, are never as black and white or predictable as guys like the two of us would hope. While I certainly did not turn 360 degrees the way he did and I would almost certainly decline to use the L-word (at least with its traditional, serious connotations), I ended up being romantically involved with more girls in one semester abroad than in my previous four at Harvard, albeit for much shorter periods of time. This says a bit about the UK, a lot about Harvard, and maybe even a little about why I should start posting on Harvard FML.
Despite my philosophy on relationships while abroad, and despite the horror pre-commitment Ronnie would certainly have exhibited if he saw that I was not trying to find a different girl, take my shirt off, and ‘pretty much just get laid’ every single night, I was fine with these ‘involvements’ because they were not relationships. There is a middle ground between Ronnie’s fairy-tale love with Sammy and Pauly D’s relentless pursuit of extremely short term physically-based interactions with the fairer sex (to put it euphemistically). All three of these varieties have their place in certain situations and with certain people, though I still maintain that one should stay away from a serious relationship while abroad. While I did maintain this ultimate resolution, the middle ground turned out to be more complicated than I would have liked while I was in the UK.
In the abstract, short term casual dating is ideal for study abroad students. Without the rigid exclusivity and long time period of a true relationship, one can really get to know and have a great time with a person from another culture. It is harder to make serious cross-cultural relationships work anyway, just because differences in nations’ social and cultural practices can be larger than we think — trust me, this is true for the English, even though they speak the same language. For many reasons, casual relationships look great on paper, but real life is rarely so simple. I found that the girls involved had a much harder time with this sort of thing than I did.
Everyone I met knew within a minute of talking to me that I was leaving in December. The plane ticket turned out to be something like a scarlet letter on my chest. Women immediately shifted me from the “normal guy” category to the “leaving really soon!” category. This meant that a different kind of girl than normal was attracted to me, or that girls were attracted to me for different reasons than they normally would be. The result was that I was something of a fling for some women, or that things just got a lot more complicated than they had to with others. Neither situation was exactly what one would ideally envision. I am not blaming women as a whole for this, but in my experience and that of my friends most girls seem to have a lot of trouble with the grey area in romance; a guy has to be everything, nothing, or a possibility to be everything, which I ultimately could not be because I was leaving in December.
So does all this mean that having any kind of romantic involvement while temporarily abroad, whether serious or casual, is a mistake? Does a study abroad semester have to be populated exclusively by one night stands? Some would agree, but others certainly do not. Many of my American friends in Britain firmly believed that studying abroad was exclusively a time for random hookups. Nonetheless, the plurality of people I have talked to about this are not that extreme in their views; they think that some casual involvement can be worth it, but that getting a long-term girlfriend or boyfriend is a bad choice. Even still, some students are open, to one degree or other, to entering a relationship with someone met overseas. There are even a determined few who go abroad looking for love, romantic idealists fighting against the odds.
And despite my skepticism and that of most college students, transoceanic commitments do sometimes work. A girl in my program from California got a boyfriend while in the UK, and has stayed with him since she returned to America. Having recently broken up with a long-term boyfriend, she went to Britain “not expecting to get into a serious relationship.” She was, in fact, looking forward to being single for a while. But, in her words, “it just happened.” She and her boyfriend just hit it off, decided to keep going when she left, and now long distance is working out. My friend is still aware of the difficulties of such relationships, and she notes that maintaining a “laid-back” mentality and a flexible approach to break things off if they are just not working are key to having a trans-Atlantic significant other. She does, however, agree with my opinion that many girls have trouble with a middle ground in relationships. At this moment, her boyfriend is everything to her romantically; if they had decided earlier in the semester not to pursue a long distance relationship, she would not have continued seeing him even for her remaining time in the UK.
Where does all of this leave me? Do I regret becoming even somewhat involved with girls while in England, even if I never had any long term intentions? Do I regret not being open to getting into a serious relationship, like my friend from California? Somewhat surprisingly, since I went from having no direct experience in the matter to having a ton, my views have not really changed since September 6th. The short term things I had with girls over there may not have been the smoothest ever, but that’s what makes things like that interesting. I have brought no emotional damage home with me. Nor do I regret not solely going for random hookups, as Ronnie once advocated. I had a great time, experienced ups and downs, and just lived. I spent some time with some great women, but I never seriously entertained the idea of getting a girlfriend, and I stand by that decision. Long distance may work out for some people, like my friend from California, but not for me. Too much of a relationship is about actually being with a person to have a girlfriend you only hear on the phone.
All this said, there is still a tiny sliver of dissent in my mind. The romantic in me, the Byron and Shelley-inspired aspect, protests against my realistic, rational, and worldly majority. There is a certain chivalric, dreamy appeal to finding true love in another country (along with, for me at least, the hilarious possibility of someday having children with British accents). I briefly tasted this amorous ambrosia in my fleeting involvements with girls in England, and it was most enjoyable. Can I truly say that if I had drunk deep of that wine, of my own volition or not, I would not have broken Ronnie’s rule as egregiously as he has? Most of me says no to this possibility, but a very small part of me says maybe.
Steve Rizoli ’11 (srizoli@fas) is a modern-day Casanova.