From MORE, May 2006
by Laura Fraser
I wasn’t in Sydney for more than a few seconds when the phone in my pocket started vibrating. Already, four Australian men in their forties had left messages, eager to show me around. I was a bit disoriented, halfway around the world, armed with only a guidebook, a list of e-mail addresses from Match.com and a mad plan to date as many men as possible in six weeks. I took a deep breath and started calling them back. I scheduled my first cocktails at six, hoping that I didn’t look too much like I’d just spent the last 18 hours in economy.
It’s not that there aren’t any good men left in the United States. But in the eight years since my divorce — after countless blind dates, parties, art openings, and salsa lessons — I haven’t met a single man who offered even the remote possibility of a long-term relationship. I’m tired of dating people who are threatened by my worldly tastes, shocked by love handles, or happy to have sex but looking to settle down with a woman in her thirties.
Foreign men, on the other hand — especially those from countries where flirting and romance are well-developed arts — have always made me feel vibrant. When you are traveling and open to chatting with attractive strangers, exciting liaisons can land in your lap, like the time I fell for a French professor on the Italian island of Ischia, and ended up having a three-year love affair. Or the time I met a scruffy artist in a duty-free shop at the Frankfurt airport. He called me at home that week, and in what seemed a Sex in the City episode—flew me to Spain for his art opening at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Those chance encounters, marvelous while they lasted, made me wonder: Could I set out traveling with the deliberate intention of finding romance? I picked three cities where I wouldn’t mind living forever and booked my flights, imagining a Mystery Date archetype for each locale. In Sydney, he would be good-natured and outdoorsy, with a wine cellar packed with Shiraz. In Buenos Aires, he’d be intellectual and romantic, quoting Borges and sweeping me off my feet on the tango floor. And in Rome, he’d call me bella and whisk me away to his weekend place by the sea. Daydreaming, I packed my bags—tossing in some sexy sandals, and, because you never know, sassy lingerie.
FIRST STOP: SYDNEY
Sophisticated, easygoing and built on a beautiful bay, Sydney has a lot in common with San Francisco. I set out from my hotel, wandering from the Harbor Bridge to the spectacular Opera House, which looks like it’s about to set sail, I repeated to myself: “I love this Sydney!”
When I wasn’t fielding calls from men I had contacted through Match.com, I tried running into them randomly while swimming in the city’s seaside pools, taking surf lessons, even going on a singles’ sailing cruise. One cute, if rather inebriated, puppy on the boat asked me out, but before he could get my number, he lurched aside to heave his lunch overboard. Another flirted with me at the hotel bar, but he was wearing knee socks — with shorts.
I needed to refine my search, so I went back to the Internet. The Aussie Match.com profiles seemed less than exciting—most emphasized that they were “normal guys” who liked sports — but by filtering out those who weren’t college graduates, I did uncover a few with cultural know-how. I indicated that I was an outdoorsy type with a love of fine dining, a traveler who was looking for some locals to show her around. I tried not to give the impression that I was game for a quick fling, because I long ago learned that not even heart-thumping sex is worth waking up next to a stranger.
Geoff, a 46-year-old musician who leads walks into the bush, seemed the most promising. He picked me up in a car that looked like it had spent 30 years in the outback and took me to a jazz club downtown. A skinny guy with over-sized glasses, Geoff mentioned that I wasn’t cuddly, as my profile had indicated—who knew cuddly was Australian for obese? — then invited me to a nude beach.
Next was Peter, 44, a “screenwriter” who turned out to be a carpenter with aspirations. He took me on a bike ride and showed me the underside of Sydney, stopping in a sketchy area to point out a run-down Victorian, where his ex- girlfriend lived. “She was a Scottish prostitute who went off to do some Indonesian generals and they wouldn’t let her back into Australia.”
“Uh… which way is my hotel?”
I pedaled back as fast as I could for my date with Bill, a 49-year-old divorced insurance salesman. After Peter, I was ready for someone more conventional. It turned out that Bill was witty and well-traveled throughout Asia. We ate oysters and drank Australian Sauvignon Blanc on the Circular Quay, watching the boats come in and out of the harbor until the sun set orange, casting a glow on the sails.
“Sydney is so perfect,” I said. “Like San Francisco but with warm water.”
“We try to keep that a secret,” he said with a sly smile.
I was reluctant to part after lunch, but I was meeting someone for drinks. (What made me think that RealMan4U would be a viable prospect?)
Bill and I agreed to go to the northern beaches the next morning. That’s when he presented me with a small package. “I brought you flowers,” he said. I opened the envelope and found a quarter ounce of sticky-budded marijuana. One thing those Sydney boys have in common: They sure like to party. In his spare time, Bill also happened to be a deejay at rave parties. I thanked him, but told him that I couldn’t possible take his lovely gift back on the plane—or use it all by Monday.
We drove an hour out of Sydney to a wild coast, where we bodysurfed until it was time for another long lunch. Bill was a wonderful guide and full of youthful spirit, but I’m old enough to know that a charming boyfriend like him would mean a lifetime of Al-Anon meetings. It was becoming clear that Sydney men were a little too far from the world’s cultural centers and a little too close to the bars at closing time.
My last date in Sydney was with Raul, who was actually from Buenos Aires. From the moment we met, I could tell I wasn’t the mini-skirted blonde he had in mind. He told me about his passion for tango—dancing close and yet distanced, embracing a stranger until the musical “curtain” falls, and then going back to your seat alone. “If you go to Buenos Aires,” he said, hugging himself, “you have to try the tango.”
A WEEK IN ARGENTINA
It takes a lifetime to learn to tango, but I did my best in the three weeks before my next trip, to Buenos Aires. I took classes, bought sexy skirts — and found out you can tango every night of the week in San Francisco. I became addicted to the dance, which allows you to indulge, if just for a few minutes, in complete flirtatious femininity.
I told a friend I had recently reconnected with about my plan to meet a hot dancer in Buenos Aires. Evan, an all-American engineer—not exotic, and not my type—was curious. I showed him how to hold me in a tango embrace, and his goatee tickled me.
“I like that,” he said, his hand lingering on my waist. “We should go dancing sometime.”
Had a straight man in San Francisco just asked me out? The bar was noisy; I must not have understood correctly.
If Sydney is light, clean, modern and extroverted, Buenos Aires is the opposite, but no less seductive. BA is a faded beauty, with elegant, decaying European architecture mingled with concrete high-rises. The Argentines have weathered political and economic tragedy, which partly explains why there are more shrinks per capita than even in New York. So although my Spanish was rusty and my tango rudimentary, I was convinced that I was more likely to find a soulful, romantic man in BA than in Sydney.
I stayed at the Mansion Dandi Royal Tango Residential Academy in San Telmo, a once-seedy neighborhood where the dance was born and still thrives in late-night bars, so I could take lessons and slide right into the scene. The hotel proprietors made me feel at home amid the worn velvet drapes, spiral staircases and chandeliers. I loved the cheap glamour of the place.
Every evening I went to a tango lesson at the hotel, where I met other touristas tangueras and locals who were willing to spin a beginner around the floor. Swedish Anders, while too young for me (barely drinking age), was a perfect partner, leading me assuredly across the floor. I also met Claudia, a 42-year-old Mexican film location scout, who drifted with me from tango practice to the milonga (tango dance), stopping to drink Malbec wine and eat grass-fed steaks when our feet were sore.
Claudia and I went daily to La Confiteria Ideal, a grand ballroom with tarnished mirrors, worn tablecloths and white-jacketed waiters. We would sit on the sidelines, nervously sipping water, and wait for a nod from one of the men across the room. The dapper, aging gents gave courtly advice and called me “niña” — “little girl.” But I sat out a lot of dances. Tango is a meritocracy: Men choose partners not for their beauty or youth but their ability to meld into the man’s lead. The woman who got the most danceswas a short, stout señora in her seventies, with a sparkling blouse and a skirt slit to the knee.
Discouraged, I went back to Match.com. Several men had e-mailed virtual besos, but most wanted quick sexo. I tried calling a couple, which seemed to shock them into silence—either the cell phone reception was really bad or I had violated some cultural rule. One man finally said that he wanted to take me to a ranch, but I wasn’t about the set out for the distant pampas if he wouldn’t meet for coffee first.
The only date worth mentioning was with Juan Miguel, a 50-year-old, cue-bald architect who teaches yoga. He took me to a trendy restaurant, reached for my hand over dessert, and made poetic comments about my appearance. “Piel como terciopelo.” Skin like velvet. “Ojos como topacio.” Eyes like topaz. He correctly guessed my astrological sign—”You’re such a free-spirited woman, you must be Aquarius” — which made him think we might be fated for each other.
But it was not to be. After dinner, we went to a crowded milonga, where Juan Miguel drove me around the dance floor like a bumper car, crashing into other couples, whose female partners adroitly jabbed me with their spiked heels. No mas.
I packed up my own heels, realizing that the tango is no way to meet an Argentine to date. For one, there’s a generation gap: It’s either men over 60, or twenty-somethings who are trying to be part of the retro trend. And while I danced with dozens of men, each two-minute encounter was like a one-night stand — physically close, but emotionally distant. Only such a strict indifference allows people to rub their chests close and intertwine their legs, moving across the floor like caressing skin.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME
I came home asking myself: “Perchè non sono andata in Italia?” Why hadn’t I just gone to Italy? I am fluent in Italian, have friends in Rome, and love the city’s food and the statues that surprise you around every corner. Surely, if anywhere, I could find romance in the city that is practically my second home.
I decided to go for three weeks, and threw an Italian-themed party the night before I left. Evan lingered afterward, but I shooed him out the door with a peck on the cheek, Italian-style. I checked Match.com one last time in the morning. Sixty men had e-mailed. I deleted all of those whose photos showed them shirtless, wearing more than one gold chain or standing next to their mother. That left six.
As much as I love Italy, I have never had a romantic relationship with an Italian man, and I was beginning to realize why. Despite the many responses to my profile, it was even harder to arrange dates here than in Buenos Aires. The very concept of dating is strange to Italians, who go out in big groups until they marry, at which point they go live with a big group of relatives. My smart Italian women friends complain that Italian men are either married, philanderers, or still living at home. They laughed like opera singers at the idea that I was coming to Rome to try to find a single forty-something man.
My first date was with Maurizio, a literary type in his early fifties who works at La Repubblica. Maurizio regarded me with disappointment, maybe because I’d cut my long hair since the photo. He wasn’t the journalist I thought he was, either—in fact, he sold ad space. We shared a pizza as I listened to him explain why Italian men think Italian women are real ball-busters. “It makes sense that Italian men go to prostitutes who are transvestites,” he said, chain-smoking. “Even if the femininity is artificial, it’s still femininity.” Ciao, ciao, ciao.
Antonio, a surgeon in his late forties, was testy when I was five minutes late. He warmed up over wine at the out-of-the way Roman trattoria he’d picked for drinks, which turned into dinner. We had homemade pasta with pork cheeks and a meaty conversation. Antonio was on his way out of town, but promised to call me so I could visit his beach house. I imagined myself, married, watering the geraniums on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. Non c’è male. Not bad at all.
I tried to meet more men through friends. At one party, the married couples departed early, leaving a group of 10 women dancing by themselves (it might as well have been New York). One invited me to a party the next night, where the only single man, a writer and publisher, talked solely about himself. When I mentioned that I had also written a couple of books, he didn’t even pause in his litany of accomplishments, adding, “Well, my first book was in English.” Basta.
I gave up and headed for one my favorite islands, Filicudi. As usual, I flirted casually with the local men. Paolo gave me a kiss with my cappuccino, mentioning that as long as a good-looking woman like me was on an island with a man like himself, we should take advantage of the situation. “You’re married,” I said. He spread his arms wide and declared, “All the interesting men in Italy are married.” True enough. Antonio didn’t call again; I suspect he was married too. I spent two glorious days by myself then boarded a plane to California.
LAST STOP: SAN FRANCISCO
I had set out to find the man of my dreams, but discovered that you can’t force fate. I have always found men when I wasn’t looking, when I’ve been busy pursuing my own curiosity and alive to my own desires. It’s one thing to meet somebody by serendipity, and quite another to make the locals a major tourist attraction. I’m afraid that I also lived up to the stereotype of the businesslike aggressive American woman: Several men sensed that I had an agenda, including the Italian who said that I “scared him.” And since my mission wasn’t a quick shag, most of my dates had no idea what to make of me.
Back home, Evan invited me to a baseball game. I walked to the ballpark under a clear sky, watching people happily making their way to the stadium by the bay. I spread out a tablecloth on the bleachers and surprised Evan with a picnic: Australian wine, Italian prosciutto, pecorino, and olives. “I love you,” he said, which I took to mean, “I love this picnic,” and he kissed me on the lips.
As we walked toward the bus after the game, the Bay Bridge glittering in the background, Evan put his arms around me. “I would love to go traveling with you,” he said. “Where in the whole world would you like to go?”
“How about dinner at my house?” I asked, and he gave me another kiss.
Update: “Evan” and I did go to Peru together, climbing the Inca trial to Machu Picchu, which was amazing. It was fun, but it didn’t last. Next.