Photography: Will Bembridge
British men go together with romance like Coco Pops and toothpaste; like Angel Delight and olive oil – we do it worse than anybody.
Where French guys can cook, we can upgrade your desktop to Windows 10. Where Spanish men can dance, we can recite every service station on the M1. We’re a bunch of well-meaning nitwits who learned their trade watching Love Actually, bumbling their way through relationships, saying all the wrong things at the wrong times. The worst part is, we had four decades of open travel within the European Union to put that right. Four decades of drinking in the same bars and sharing the same food as the most romantic people on Earth. Yet we didn’t bother picking up their languages, let alone the language of love.
Now, it’s 2018, we’re on the cusp of kissing Europe goodbye and staring into a sexless abyss. But what if I told you it didn’t have to be this way? What about, if on the eve of our hard and fast Brexit, I’ve devised a way of gleaning all we can from our neighbours before it’s too late?
And what if I told you it requires an epic quest?
It will not be straightforward though, dear reader. This trip is about as complicated and insane as, well, Brexit itself. A 3,000-mile, four countries in four nights, planes, trains and automobiles tour of Europe. It is Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Rome, Rome to Barcelona and Barcelona to London. It is going on a date with a local in each place. Meeting my suitors through Instagram, I’ll learn each city’s ways of love so that we, British men, can be saved.
Sounds spot on, right? So why, at 2am on the day of departure, am I sat on the edge of my bed, unable to swallow? I need spotting by an expert, so I badger my friend Thevi who works across Europe for dating app Happn.
“When you date in another country,” Thevi texts, “you often want to get to know some locals to have a better look at the sights, surroundings and culture of that place. Keep it spontaneous. Always be yourself. And, depending on the culture, be aware of the traditional dos and don’ts!” she adds. “Oh and, seeing as you’re going to Paris first, know this: British men are French female users’ favourite nationality in-app ;).”
London to Paris
Like New York, Paris is strangely familiar. I’ve only been once before, and yet walking through its heart, I feel like I could draw a map of it. But this is no normal time to be here, my waiter says. Sat under a parasol on the Quai Malaquais watching rose gardens disappear, lampposts drown and oak trees waist-high in water, the Seine has risen to its highest level in a century.
“With any luck, it won’t stop rising.” I make a swimming action. He laughs. “It’s always a joke with you English.” This is affectionate, but I sense something deeper, so I ask.
Patting down his hands on his apron, he utters 15 November 2015, the date of the terrorist attacks in Paris – one that hangs over every Parisian and that changed the city forever. “But after the London attack, it was different…” Within hours, he recalls, memes of people with pints running away from the danger circulated; Londoners joked. “That must be the difference between us.” Grief is a strange thing. Paris is stricken with it – London deflected it.
As evening comes, I order viognier and wait by candlelight for my date, Laura, who runs a bakery in the north of the city. We met online after she read an article of mine and, noting her feed of vin and pain, I got in touch. With her blood-red lipstick, long, unbrushed black hair and turtle neck, Laura’s late arrival completes the Parisian caricature. She goes in to kiss either cheek and, moving in, I notice that Paris’s rain has soaked my dusty woollen coat, making me smell like a corpse.
Emptying a pint before touching the wine I’ve bought, Laura is good fun. She makes a hard question easy to ask: what don’t you like about English men? After three years studying in London, she knows about the non-stop drinking and 10pm pizza habits, but there’s one discovery she’s wide-eyed about, hurriedly chowing her food to charter. “The sheer volume of cocaine London men do!”
But, apparently, we also dress very well, are a funny bunch and have an irresistible accent.
I embarrassedly shun these compliments like they were directed at me, and flip another question: what are French men good at? Deadpan, she says, “Cooking and fucking.” I gulp.
The plates empty, the bottle of wine now upside down in the bucket. I’m comfortable enough to address an idea about French relationships: mistresses. Why are they normal?
“That’s a bit exaggerated! But I think we don’t link sex to morality as much as Brits do.” She sips wine. “Like, I don’t think it’s a big deal to have sex on the first date. Why would you wait if you want to?” I go to drink some water despite knowing my glass is empty. With the bill paid, we get our coats.
Laura stands on the kerb. “Well, I’m going to a warehouse party in Voltaire…” I butt in: “Great! How far is that from my hotel?” Laura squints at her phone – shit. That wasn’t an invite. I, all of a sudden, complain of tiredness, wafting away her half-invitation. Waiting for her cab to arrive, I launch into questions: what did I do that was awful? How do I be better? She laughs, saying if she had to be pressed, I didn’t bring a gift and wasn’t an ‘English gent’. But she has a question for me. “We had fun. Why are you so unhappy?”
Dawdling alone through Montmartre, I chase the hue of the lamplights and murmur of parties just out of reach. If Paris has taught me anything, it’s that the key for us British is relaxing. Parisians aren’t overthinking things – analysing every word or trying to crowbar shit jokes into every moment. They’re comfortable.
Paris to Amsterdam
The pleasant nature of the Dutch makes it easy to forget how abstract Amsterdam looks upon arrival. Each block filled with houses tall, crooked and crossing over one another like the discoloured bottom jaw of a history teacher. This time I’ve got some flowers, wine and even a little gift for my date.
Nemi is one of Amsterdam’s biggest Instagram influencers; her life looks like a fragrance ad. Walking up to knock on her door, I catch my reflection: Dr Emmett Brown looks back. She acknowledges the tulips and wine, and before I know it, I’m on the back of her moped trying not to die. We come to a halt outside a darling waffles place on a canal.
“What can I get you?” I ask, my legs cramping. Nemi makes her way towards the bridge. “I’m fine. Maybe it would be nice to do a photo?” There are dozens of people taking similar pictures. It’ll be 45 minutes of these stops.
Later, in a half-bar, half-barbers (?!), I ask where’s good to eat. “There’s a burger place all the British guys go to,” she says with a slight huff, so I ask what she thinks of us. “Well, I live on the edge of the Red Light District.” Oh dear. Nemi’s description of British men: a football-screaming, booze-soaked horde who prop up the sex trade. “Mostly,” she sighs. “I just find British men boring.”
I’m pacing back and forth in the toilet: what can I do? It’s then that I feel it: The gift! “Nemi.” She looks up from her phone. “I forgot to give this to you.” I hand it over. “It’s a £5 Amazon gift voucher.”
I smile. Soon, we go our separate ways. Did I at least get the outfit right? “Sneakers… with a jacket…” She packs her things, leaving the tulips. “Dutch men prefer casual.”
I knew not everyone I met on this trip would take to me, but I didn’t think they’d despise me. She’s right though. It’s time we stop the drunk and disorderly, and learn when to go home.
Amsterdam to Rome
We’re absolutely disgusting, Brits. All of our neighbours are sick to death of our drinking, yet does that stop us singing karaoke and sinking pitchers on Nieuwebrugsteeg into the early hours of Monday morning? I’m in a taxi driving the sun-blessed Appian Way into Rome, and all I can think is, “What is wrong with us? We’re unhinged. We’re the uranium of nationalities; so chemically unstable from apologising every time somebody walks into us on a train that a simple pipette of booze can cause us to explode into a pack of maddened, bad-breathed bulldogs barking ‘Football’s coming home!’”
As the city begins to take form, I look up. Imagine that instead of the glass arse cheeks on Old Street roundabout, there was a Colosseum as old as Christ. That’s Rome. This city retired a long time ago, and is bored by the modern era. It doesn’t care that the bus engines sound like splitting oaks or that my hotel room looks like a Butlin’s. Scaling the Spanish Steps from the Piazza di Spagna, you can see why. I notice an old guy, dusty hair and olive skin, smiling at my €2 rose. So I sit next to him.
Luigi is looking at Roman monuments – something he does for hours at a time. He references obscure professors who worked at the Academies 200 years ago with absolute nonchalance – like any Roman, art historian or mailman should know this.
What can we learn from the Romans about love? “All Italian culture is built on Christianity,” he pinches his index finger.
“One learns the feeling of love from the body of your mother. You don’t know how to speak, eat, but you know how to love.” He pauses. “The biggest present one can receive is life and, therefore, love.”
I sit and ponder this, staring down the Via dei Condotti. Surely young Romans don’t base their understanding of love on Christianity today? I’ll find out when I meet my date Giulia for pasta later.
As a vegan and recently qualified architect, Giulia comes from a newer school than Luigi. Downbeat from the Amsterdam disaster, I turn up filled with self-loathing, wearing a £5 shirt. Giulia, by comparison, is dressed to the nines and is acutely aware of how much of a stereotype this makes her seem. But things do fit the bill. She’s fiery and was brought up by a “badass” mother who raised the family and ran a DIY store alone. All things considered, Giulia describes herself as a non-traditionalist and thinks stereotypes are nonsense. “For example, with you as an Englishman coming here, I had two images: James Blake or Geordie Shore.”
Filled with pasta, I explain how I just didn’t take to Rome when I came here as a younger man. Giulia holds her heart and looks at me like I’ve just spoilered three of her favourite TV series for her.
Soon, we’re scaling Janiculum hill in Trastevere in the dark of night. We stand before the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola – a spot so beautiful that, at the beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, the sight of it causes a Japanese tourist to collapse. Past the prison, the pyramid, Giulia can’t stop excitedly describing her city. But it’s the view overlooking Rome from the Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi that stuns her into silence. “This,” she says at length, pointing across the city, “this is the city I will birth my children in.”
I’m a little shocked – it’s not something you’d ever hear from a young Londoner, Parisian or Amsterdammer – so why from a Roman?
“As an architect, I believe we cannot escape tradition as we are buried in it. We can’t even build underground lines because we’ll plough through ancient villas.” She smiles. “It’s the same for any Roman – impossible to not consider the past.” It’s a salient point.
And though this means we can learn valuable lessons from Italians about self-love, accepting who we are and the obsessive passion with which they view the world, this value of the past also makes me question whether they’re the ones to follow into our brave new dating world.
Rome to Barcelona
Whether it’s frosty Gothic streets or red wine and marble, with every destination on this trip so far, I’ve had a pretty decent idea of what I might expect to see upon arrival. Before landing in Barcelona, I had imagined stepping off the plane and being handed a margarita by a tanned man in a vest named Chet. But the reality is entirely different.
From La Rambla to the Parliament of Catalonia, huge crowds march in red, yellow and blue wearing face masks of their exiled president Carles Puigdemont. They scream the Catalonian anthem over the sound of low-hanging Spanish police helicopters.
I’m trying to speak to a few of the protestors when, all of a sudden, leftist Catalan MP Carles Riera emerges from the crowd. With the screams lifting and police closing in, I decide to duck into a bar. Conflict floods this city, right through its metro stations to its bar stools, as I realise when my date Erich arrives.
Yes, Erich. A man. While I don’t myself identify as gay, it would seem somewhat dishonest to write about dating culture in this city and neglect its gay scene. This is an open and inviting city after all, which is one of the things that attracted Erich here. And though today he works as one of the most influential party organisers in Barcelona, it wasn’t always like this for Erich.
Born in the Dominican Republic, he grew up awkward, aggressive and unsure of his own identity. Even when he moved on to study at Stanford University in the US, he couldn’t shake this feeling of inadequacy in himself until, one day, he decided to make the same pilgrimage that many young gay men do: to Catalonia. He never went back home.
Twelve years on, you can’t move an inch in Barcelona without bumping into an American model that Erich is working with, or sharing a drink with one of his former business partners. It’s what makes him the perfect person with whom to reflect on the values of this city.
“I find you quite calming to be around,” says Erich. “We argue so much at the moment that it’s nice to have one of you placid Brits around.” Is that how we’re seen out here then? “Well, there’s the average Brit, who behaves really poorly and is aggressive when he’s drunk. Or the gentleman, who is all the contrary.” Erich takes a sip. “But most of the British men have an OK dick and are OK in bed.” The sky is the limit.
Later, we fly 26 floors up to ‘Beauties Night’, a party Erich organises at the top of the five-star W Hotel. Yet despite the throbbing Balearic beats and paint-covered revellers, Erich is still arguing. It just looks exhausting. Are the Spanish also this ruled by passion?
Erich shrugs his shoulders. “On some level, but being from outside of Europe, I can see that love here means the same for the Spanish as it does for the Brits: love and commitment. And I think Brits can provide that.” Then, it hits me.
It takes running across Europe from date to date, sweaty and exhausted, to realise how truly awful you are at romance. And it takes being British to convince yourself that a journey of 3,000 miles is the way to find an answer to that problem.
On the continent, we’re seen in two ways. On one hand, there’s an identity we desperately need to sort out: absolute drunken embarrassments. The other, we just need to come to terms with: big slices of OK. People-pleasing middlemen. Guys who are needy, but hate awkwardness too much to let it cause problems like the Spanish; old-fashioned, like the Italians; open-minded, until we meet the French; modern, yet we embarrass the Dutch like their drunk uncles.
It’s something each of my dates raised, and found charming. So let’s run with it! Be the safe pair of hands people would happily introduce to their parents; tweet about the life you’ve got out of those George by Asda socks. Embrace your inner mediocrity! It’s the only way to a life of happiness. And comfort.
Thanks to free dating app Happn for supporting our Euro romance odyssey; happn.com