illustration of a couple on a bridge

(Illustration: Yeji Kim)

Romantic Getaways

Meet Me in Venice? Tales of a Vacation Boyfriend and a Romance That Spans the Globe

“I like this thing we’re doing,” Sam said, gazing at me with big green eyes as we sipped Aperol spritzes in a Venetian bar in the city’s Sant’Elena neighborhood. “Meeting in a new country every few years. I wonder where our sixth will be.”

Italy was the fifth country we’d met up in and traveled through together. Earlier that evening, we had watched fog settle on the waters in front of the Biennale Gardens, me quoting Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” him keeping count of the many granny panties we saw hanging on clotheslines.

Although we lived at seemingly opposite ends of the globe from each other, since 2018, we had explored Ljubljana, Singapore, Bali and Taipei together — and here we were at each other’s sides once again, in the City of Love.

I met Sam the ring maker in 2018, just a few days shy of my 30th birthday, when we matched on Tinder while I was traveling through Slovenia, his home country. I had spent that November day on a hike, crunching through autumn leaves — a joy for me, living in tropical Singapore at the time — and climbing a very steep hill to Bled Castle, where I was greeted with a view of a glistening emerald lake and snowcapped Alps.

Sam half laughed, half smirked when I told him about my adventure on our first date later that night in Ljubljana. “No one walks up there,” he confided. “They drive.” He looked like the character Steve Harrington from “Stranger Things.”

We were eating dinner at a burger joint because he insisted his country’s traditional cuisine was “not good.” However, the Slovenian Crazy Duck craft beers we were drinking were crisp and hoppy.

We were both in celebratory moods. Sam told me he had just founded a jewelry company in his hometown of Novo Mesto, and I shared that I’d recently left an office job I disliked and was traveling solo around Eastern Europe.

A few pints later, we walked to the limestone and granite Three Bridges spanning the Ljubljanica River, the waterway’s banks covered in creeping red and orange vines. We passed a bubblegum-pink building with colorful patterns spiraling out from the windows and vendors selling Hello Kitty and Spiderman balloons so big I thought if I held one, I would fly up to the cold sky.

As we walked, Sam explained Slovenia’s architecture and history to me, like why the buildings were garish-looking (Communism) and how he was born in the midst of the fall of Yugoslavia during the Slovenian War of Independence in 1991.

illustration of a couple in singapore
(Illustration: Yeji Kim) 

Sam said he was going to make a custom ring and fly to Singapore to give it to me personally. Now it was my turn to laugh-smirk. Was he going to sit on a plane to the other side of the world for 14 hours? He replied quite seriously that he was. “I’ll annoy the person in the seat next to me.”

It was him who ended up being annoyed, barricaded in the window seat and blocked in by passengers in the middle and aisle seats. This was his first trip to Asia and the longest plane ride of his life. He arrived carrying the daffodil ring he’d made (and I helped design), with a bright blue topaz — my birthstone — in the middle. It didn’t fit my index finger so I wore it on my ring finger.

The trip launched a tradition of jetting to a different destination every few months to see each other. Now, three years later, we were celebrating his belated 30th birthday in Venice.

But were we a couple? An older Austrian husband and wife who joined our table at the Sant’Elena bar wanted to know.

I looked at my ring, the once-brilliant blue topaz now slightly tarnished. Sam looked at his second Aperol spritz. Unable to look each other in the eye, our mutual feeling of unease was palpable. “No,” we replied as one.

We met on Tinder. We meet in different countries. We travel together. We are together for that. We return to our separate lives.

Our explanations tumbled out, and the Austrian couple looked at us, perplexed — I saw what they saw: two people now in their 30s acting like dramatic teenagers.

I’ve had travel romances before. Many of us have. We travel for the idea of romance, and travel makes us more romantic people. I had an American roommate in Sicily who flew to Milan to see a guy she had once kissed at midnight on New Year’s Eve by a river in Japan. She ended up loving Milan more than she loved him and even learned some Italian along the way.

Like hers, my past travel romances faded, but Sam and I have now kept this up for years — the glinting daffodil on my finger a reminder.

illustration of a couple getting massages on beach
(Illustration: Yeji Kim) 

Indeed, the ring followed us to Bali, where we kicked coconuts around on the sand until the skin on his back peeled just in time for our sunset massages on the beach, and then to northern Taiwan’s Yilan County, where we swam underneath a freezing waterfall in the mountains on Valentine’s Day.

Still, the biggest adventure was his first trip to Singapore. We got lost on a hiking trail along a human-made reservoir. Hours in, we emerged from the nutmeg trees of MacRitchie Reservoir as parched and sweaty as two castaways and boarded the first bus that came our way, disembarking at the first bar we saw. “Pretty ring.” He touched my finger on the bus, the stone in my ring as blue as the ocean. “Must be a good ring maker.”

His touch still jolts me. I’m so used to traveling alone, to being alone. But whenever I don’t feel like exploring solo, I knew who to summon. Everything is always more fun, more exciting, more mysterious with Sam.

Even buying cheap sunglasses from a vendor outside of St. Mark’s Basilica then wearing them in the winter fog was an Indiana Jones–level adventure. Through smudged lenses, we watched the other passengers on the water bus: families, lovers, Venetians on their daily commute. Did we have them fooled that we were a normal couple?

A Swedish friend who has been nomadic for years once told me that travel for her was not only about discovering a new place. It was also about discovering new people and new relationships and entering a sort of bubble that consists of all those aspects of normal life, romance being a part of it.

illustration of a couple at a waterfall
(Illustration: Yeji Kim) 

As a nomad myself, I often feel I’m living several different mini lives in the different countries I’m in. What is real and what is not has become so blurred it doesn’t matter anymore. Many relationships have come and gone over the years, some while on the road, others when I was in the same place for more than a few months.

Throughout all of this, my tango with Sam has been the one constant. It might have started as an escape from my so-called “real life,” but the time we spent adventuring across the world together made me happy. The moments we shared were real. I’m grateful for that.

I know things about him, too. And not just the fact that he doesn’t like pizza. (Sacrilegious! Who doesn’t like pizza in Italy?) But intimate things that you would only know from being in a relationship. Such as how he can’t fall asleep unless he watches a true crime documentary or something equally grisly.

The ring made a loud clang when I lifted my third empty cocktail glass. “She’s tired,” the Austrian man told Sam. “You should take her home.”

And so, another shadowy night in the city of water slipped away.

Now, Sam’s back in his workshop in the snow in Slovenia making rings, and I’m staring at the late-January heat reflecting off the Strait of Malacca. The topaz on my ring still looks bluish against its backdrop.

Wherever I am in the world, when I wear my ring, it makes me smile. This little daffodil encapsulates the moments Sam and I shared — Ljubljana’s Three Bridges, Singapore’s MacRitchie Reservoir, Venice’s canals — and if we tried to define us, to admit that we were a (quasi) couple, the magic would be lost. I’m happier this way, than if my band were an engagement ring.

For now.