For most people in their twenties even regular relationships are messy, and while seeing international pairs succeed beyond all imagination is endearing, we must not exclude the intense learning experience that is unrequited love. This one goes out to everyone who thought they’d found the one but ultimately had to hop on a flight back home and leave everything behind.
I had just returned from my seven months in Italy and sat pouting in my bedroom while reading about the one million babies that came into existence because people fell in love on Erasmus. I, too, had fallen in love. Unlike past instances, when this feeling had taken my brain hostage, this time around I knew exactly when it happened. I was on a dock in Sorrento, my bare feet dangling above the cold April water as the bravest of my friends jumped in for a quick swim. I watched the light sparkle and swoosh on with every gentle wave, but what I was most intent on was… well, a boy that had once been a professional swimmer. Seeing someone do what they were passionate about with grace and ease sunk me into a puppy love that was like dense marmalade. But where did this leave our entourage?
It’s very likely that the creator of Friends could have written a global village-type sequel using our group as inspiration. Two of the girls had boyfriends back home but had started passionate affairs as the months rolled on. The boyfriends and lovers had even dined together in perfect ignorant camaraderie. It was strange to dine with them – it felt as if I was telling a child that Santa Claus is indeed real. A white lie here, a lie by omission there – you might point out that we were all part of something morally corrupt, but were these really my relationships to blow to smithereens? There were nights of crying on the couch in our flats, romantic meetings in Piazza Italia beneath the full moon. It was a powerful dynamic that instilled everything with a sort of twisted magic. We arrived in this small town as scattered strangers, but we were like-minded and we believed this coincidence meant something.
In Sorrento, I looked at this boy for what felt like hours. He was already somebody else’s lover. I knew, but I wasn’t sorry for feeling the way I did. It’s bad luck to apologise for loving someone. When the others came out to sunbathe, he stayed in the water a little longer. One friend muttered “That Portuguese fish!” as he caught his breath. Why does nobody talk about these wonderful moments? I felt so much love and so much pain all at once. I was alive with contradictory feelings that oversaturated my entire world. I was stuck on the sidelines, joyously floating in honey, wanting to cry. Life does not cater to our expectations, although anything can become funny, given enough time. Sure, there was a classic success story among us, and there were also those who prevailed in their faithfulness. What inspired me most were the moments that defied what was normative in favour of what was romantic. I fell in love, but never really told this person, so maybe he’s reading about it now.
While this encounter was not a viral success story, it did make me curious about my crush’s country and culture. A year later, I pursued an internship as a research assistant at the Universidade do Minho School of Psychology. I carried my unrequited love with me about 2,800 kilometres and made it the driving force of a new life-changing journey. It made me learn a 6th language, write a novel, and about forty poems. Being heartbroken as a young adult is searingly painful, but I truly hope everyone finds the fortitude to use that pain as fuel for greater things. Love stories that end happily give us hope that love is real – it’s something that Disney has planted into our heads since childhood. Unfulfilled love isn’t pleasant to think about, but it should not be disconsidered merely because it’s a difficult topic. Frankly, there are more of us that have felt the beautiful sting of a relationship that can never happen than those who have found their happily ever after.
What would I say to people going on Erasmus? Be careful, you might fall in love. It’ll be immensely beautiful, but you might also get hurt. I wrote this so you wouldn’t come back home to a quiet bedroom and have only alienating success stories to read. A lot of us hid our hearts in other people’s luggage before they went back home, and never got them back. It’s not the end of the road, it’s the missing surge for a new beginning. Be brave enough to own up to what you feel.