I spent a week swiping across London, Berlin, and Stockholm in search of new sights and city secrets known only to locals. But I ended up discovering a kind of romance I couldn't find at home.
Jet lag and lukewarm offers.
I'd been counting on Paul, a scuzzy-but-still-sexy manager of a music club in Shoreditch, to meet up with me on my first night in London. I'd been talking to him for a week, after I'd used the Passport option on Tinder to help plan my trip. Who needs guidebooks or Google when you can swipe before you go? (In addition to Paul, I'd also lined up a man in Berlin who knew where to find the best weed in Germany, as well as an artist in Stockholm who wanted to give me a museum tour and then draw me.) Unfortunately, Paul was "working late," and asked me to come over to his flat to "smoke some weed and cuddle," because obviously, I'd boarded a transatlantic flight to entertain the same lukewarm offers I did back in Brooklyn.
As a result, I spent the first few hours of my London stay in the hotel restaurant trying to figure out what, exactly, to say to people in order to get them to meet up with me right away, on a Monday night. ("Sex?" usually works, but it wasn't the desired rendezvous I was going for this evening.) I've used Tinder on and off since its second month of existence and I've never mastered the opening line. Come across too cheesy and nobody answers. Maybe it's just me, but all of my opening lines--from pithy to perverted to pictorial--are usually a fast track to deafening silence and the occasional "unmatch."
I tried several: "Hi!" "Hello there!" "What's Gucci?" "Help! I'm trapped on the London Eye and have no idea what to do!" And my go-to: waving-hand Emoji.
Related: The 15 Best Beaches in California
There was an architect who didn't respond to my "Looking for a tour guide, what should I do today?" Some other dude responded to my "You look fun, where should I go tonight?" with, "I don't know, Soho?" A few people initiated with similarly bad lines like ":Emoji flower: :Emoji flower: :Emoji flower: here, I got you some flowers because you're pretty!" I responded with "Would rather have an :Emoji beer:" which deftly ended the conversation. The sun was setting and I hadn't done anything with my first day in London but nurse coffees in the lobby and swipe. And then I got a message from Adam.*
"Where are you staying in London?" he asked.
I told him the Ace Hotel Shoreditch, and he gave me a list of bars to visit and walks to take in the neighborhood. He lived nearby. He offered to escort me on any of these excursions. He was free that very night, right after work. I wasn't exactly attracted to Adam, but I needed to get out of the hotel and do something.
"And what do you do here? Working or studying?"
I told him I was a writer, and he asked what I was writing about.
"I'm writing about using Tinder. Do you still want to meet?"
Silence for about twenty minutes--another conversation killer, I suppose.
"I can meet in thirty minutes, but I haven't shaved. And don't use my real name, please."
I heard a story once about a coworker of a friend of a friend (so many degrees of separation that it might actually be an urban legend) who routinely went to Paris for work. Every time she went, she was so busy with market appointments that she rarely left her hotel room and never got to see the city. Around the third trip, her coworkers were so sick of watching her waste her days working and her nights eating room service, that they forced her to fire up Tinder, and found her a Frenchman who was willing to take her around the city for a day. A day turned into one, into two, then into three. Which eventually resulted in a New York visit a month later. It didn't work out--he wanted to spend his entire trip inside her apartment watching Lord of the Rings instead of exploring the city--but that story illustrates why people use Tinder, even against their better judgment: rumored potential. This is despite the fact that it sometimes seems like there's one positive experience for every five hundred disturbing ones.
As with all things Tinder-related, I tend to keep my expectations low. My experiences vacillate between easily accessible sex, hilariously bad dates (the stories we tell ourselves in order to keep from weeping into large pizzas on Sunday nights) and depressingly mediocre ones. I've also used it in travel situations--once in Costa Rica where the town was so small I ran out of people to swipe in twenty minutes. And most recently during a stint in L.A., where my bio read, "Here for a month, help me find the good tacos?" because I assumed the forced short-term dating would appeal to more men. What most of them found appealing was the chance to assert knowledge of any kind. After four weeks, I'd had few dates, but had eaten a lot of really excellent tacos.
My goal wasn't to get laid (though if the opportunity arose. . .)--I was more curious to see what Tinder could offer a single traveling woman besides just convenient sex. If I was lucky, maybe I'd have a good conversation with someone I would never otherwise have met, a meal at a restaurant I would have overlooked, in a neighborhood I might have neglected to visit, or a buddy to show me some wild underground party that I never would have been cool enough to discover--basically facilitating the other chief travel fantasy, experiencing a city as if it were your own.
Related: World's Strongest Liquors
Adam, true to his word, hadn't shaved. He was also in a stained hoodie, a sign of low expectations--we matched in that respect--and he apologized for his appearance all through cocktails at Happiness Forgets, a highly rated basement cocktail bar that I'd passed three times without realizing it. We'd talked for hours--about his business (a bike shop with a second location on the way), about our love lives (he was recently out of a relationship, particularly liked meeting travelers), and about our sex lives. Adam was a perfectly satisfactory dinner companion, if not a bit damp and blandly lecherous (he revealed he had looked at my Instagram before we met and "really liked the photos of me in a bathing suit.") And now, standing on the street corner, it was unclear how I was going to walk away from this without an awkward shutdown.
"You know," he said leaning in very close, brushing my cheek with the back of his hand, "if this were a date"--I'd been very clear that this was not--"if this were a date, at this point, after some nice drinks, a nice dinner, and you, a beautiful girl with your nice hotel room, I think this night would end with an invitation up."
I mumbled something about jetlag, early mornings, hairy legs that hadn't been shaved since September, whatever it took, and it took a lot.
"All right, well no romantic stuff, then? I don't need to do the gentlemanly thing and walk you back to your hotel?" Before I could respond, he offered me a quick farewell, hopped on his bike, and rode off into the rainy night.
On the flight over, an attractive drummer in a touring jazz band slid into the seat next to mine and immediately started flirting with me. "I hope you weren't planning on going to sleep anytime soon, you should stay up and keep me company," he said with a nudge. Getting picked up on the flight was sort of a Halley's Comet of travel stories, so I was flattered--though less flattered at around hour two of him telling me how pretty I was while hogging the armrest and tapping my headphones every time he wanted to speak to me, which was frequent. Was this--fending off mildly flattering, mostly annoying advancements from men who I really didn't want to sleep with--a sign of things to come?
My second day in London, after I added "Brooklyn writer in town for a few days. Looking for places to eat, bars to dance in, and non-homicidal tour guides," to my bio (normally, it reads "Looking for a partner in crime, you should be willing to help me hide the body." ( I know.)), it was raining notifications. I had hope.
I Tindered my way through a Pop Art exhibit at the Tate Modern, shopping at Dover Street Market, and afternoon tea at Rochelle Canteen, but it was really all for nothing. By 6 p.m., I had a list of restaurants to try from Hamish, a chef who couldn't meet, a follow-up from Adam ("I've never seen a room at the Ace...."), and an offer from Agoraphobic Paul to come over and "have a joint and a cuddle." I'd confirmed a walking tour of Greenwich from Max, who ghosted. And I'd been stood up by Amit, who had offered to show me the non-touristy gems of Covent Garden, which I didn't even want to do anyway, and so felt triply offended when he didn't bother to let me know he wasn't showing up. And then it happened. "Netflix and chill" happened. Someone asked me to Netflix and chill.
To save my evening, I took myself to a Hamish-recommended restaurant and then for drinks at the hotel bar, where I chatted with a middle-aged Irish businessman. Then, having taken myself on such a nice date, I decided to extend an invitation to myself to go back to my hotel room by myself to "Netflix and chill," with myself, when I got a message from Agoraphobic Paul letting me know he was off work. He offered to send an Uber to pick me up and deliver me to his "messy" apartment. I was mopey, but not that mopey, so I countered: "I'll send a car to you. Why waste a hotel room?" The result of my counteroffer is between me, that dude, God, and the housekeeper.
Awesome. I'd taken a transatlantic flight to discover that Tindering in the U.K. was exactly like Tindering in the U.S. except, like all things British vs American, it was slightly better mannered, and I didn't recognize all the slang.
But wait--some context.
Let me tell you a bit about my experience using dating apps here in Brooklyn, U.S.A., where I live. I use them all--Tinder, chiefly, but also Hinge, Bumble, Happn, Desperat*n ( I made that one up) 3nder, Flattr--and they are all swipes to nowhere. In boom times I experience a weak trickle of men; during drought, it's like I'm in the dating version of The Martian--except Matt Damon did eventually receive messages from humans.
And yes, while I said I wasn't interested in using Tinder solely to find some lovin' while I traveled, I obviously didn't want to feel exempt from the possibility of finding my very own whirlwind romance. I'm human and I watch rom-coms. In my non-nomadic life, I usually do feel exempt from the same sorts of romantic experiences I hear about from people I know. It just seems so much easier for other people, because despite meeting all the baseline requirements for datability--no extreme body odor, I don't kill small animals for fun and entertainment, I have great taste in music, know how to cook, am not a vegan--I barely date, even with every swipe-app in the app store loaded into my arsenal. Because in addition to all those things--clean, non-murderous, fun--I am a black woman, and here's the unfortunate truth about being a black woman dating in America right now: we are considered the most undatable demographic.
Related: 17 Reasons to Travel More
In 2009, OkCupid crunched their data and released a pretty eye-opening report on race and dating in the States. After looking at who receives the most messages on the site, it is evident that love is not colorblind, race really does matter when it comes to love and dating, and attraction is driven by an unconscious racial bias (or even racism). When given the choice, people still prefer to be in relationships with people from their racial group. They broke down the numbers and found that Asian and white women receive the most messages, while Asian men and black women (Hi! That's me!) receive the least messages of anybody, and practically nobody responds to their messages if they dare initiate a conversation. And it hasn't gotten any better. Recently, in 2014, OkCupid looked at 25 million accounts active from 2009 to 2014 and found that ethnic preference is even more of a factor now. In other words, it's actually gotten worse.
And I get that online dating, well, really all dating, offers some form of suck for every single person who choses to do it. I also know that perhaps the "black women are going to die alone" crisis is not so dire as we've been told--marriage rates are down regardless of race. But that's the prevalent narrative right now, the one that's beaten into my head every time I fire up Tinder. As a result, the more times I open my Tinder or OkCupid and see no matches or messages, the more messages I send that don't get a reply, the more dates I go on in which I'm offered a fetishistic overture or told I've been asked out to "complete the rainbow" (a thing I've heard because people are monsters) or "tap my big booty," (monsters), the more "undatable" becomes a core belief.
Last year, I read an article about this group Black Girls Travel that organizes trips for women of color to encourage them to visit different countries. There was a quote from the founder, pulled from a YouTube video in which she said, "I have done a lot of research and talked to a lot of women in this country, and what I'm hearing is: You can't find dates, you can't find mates, you can't find husbands."
She then encourages women to consider leaving the country to get a taste of love. (BGT even has a special tour of Italy, "Bella Italia," that was organized on the principle that Italian men love black women. Not exactly a hook-up tour, but not exactly not one either.) And there are a whole bunch of articles that support this idea--that "plenty of fish" only applies to international waters, all with headlines like "Finding the Swirl in Sweden," or "Is Europe the Promised Land For Black Women Looking for Love?"
At the time, I found this ridiculous, absurd, more depressing than uplifting. The fact that I am considered so undesirable that I have to flee my homeland just to find someone to date me was total bullshit, I thought. It can't really be so drastically different anywhere else. And then I went to Berlin.
When it rains, it pours.
In Berlin there were lunch conversations and walks around museums and late-night drinks and Afghani restaurants in dodgy parts of the city that will be very cool in five years. There were more Tinder messages than I'd seen in four years of usage from people who actually wanted to meet up within a reasonable amount of time. I don't think I spoke to anyone unless it was through my smartphone, and I definitely was getting "text neck" from stooping my head to read all of my incoming messages. And so many of them began with "You're gorgeous!" and other things I realize I love hearing. I'm not even bragging--I mean, I am, but leave me alone. This was a rare and delightful experience for me, don't ruin it.
Related: Best Beaches in Thailand
Because Berliners as a people are culturally nach unten zu ficken, there was Florian, who, in addition to recommending I go to the Helmut Newton museum, assured me he was "big for a German," (don't insult your people, Florian); a couple who propositioned me for a threesome; Philip, who could never meet but sent me a text every day to see if I was properly touring Berlin and make some suggestions about where to eat. He was like an on-demand travel guide--at one point his itinerary included mutual masturbation via iMessage, which I declined. This is going to sound weird, but none of it felt disrespectful or fetishizing. I got the sense that these guys would perv on anyone, and in some way, being included in all the brat-talk felt like the real definition of dating equality.
I met up with Simon, a carpenter who loved to skateboard and spoke very rusty English to complement my nonexistent German. When we arrived at the bar, the place was closed for a premiere party, to which I assumed he'd been invited. We exchanged hellos, then I charged the door. He assumed I was adventurous, and we spent 20 minutes with me trying to crash the party and him trying to get me to stop trying to crash the party.
It was a great icebreaker--because dating with a language barrier renders you almost personality-less. Maybe Simon was funny, maybe he was brilliant, but because he could only speak English at a second-grade level, it was hard to pick up on the nuances. This awkward moment was sort of like Esperanto; even without a common language, we could still have a few hours of fun in a smoky bar in Kreuzberg. Also, listing all the reasons you find someone attractive is a good way to bridge the gap between cultures--Simon had difficulty with a lot of words, but his English was just good enough that he could find several ways to compliment my looks. And, unfortunately offend me. At around beer number two, as I was telling Simon about my brothers, he asked if they "wore saggy pants, like thugs."
I tried to explain why I was leaving in anger.
"Allison, you're mad? I can fix, let me fix," he said.
He then held out his face waiting for me to kiss him, lips pursed, eyes open, nodding to indicate that I should put my face on his. While I was processing what the hell he was expecting, he went in for the kill, and then messaged me about eight times the next day, hoping we could meet again.
I would not consider Simon a success. But Kim was. I liked him for abstract reasons, like the way he got really, genuinely excited when he told me about swimming with sharks while working was a diving instructor in Indonesia before starting graduate school, his long messy hair, and his big broad smile that matched his big broad shoulders. We shared hours of great conversation and a lot of cheap beer, and when he walked me back to the Metro, it took about eight of my steps to match one of his long, serious strides. The next afternoon, he sent me a text apologizing for having to leave so early that morning--he was traveling--and reminded me to sample the local specialty, currywurst, which he meant literally and not in the Florian sense, I think, though I would have welcomed the innuendo.
Best date ever?
Maybe it was the residual shine of confidence from my Berlin experience, but I got my swirl on in Stockholm. It was like Stockholm was my own personal boyfriend store and it was stocked with Viking men available for me to pick off the shelves and take to various bars and restaurants.
I was, as Beyoncé says, feelin' myself in Sweden, which gave me the confidence to walk out on two shitty dates, because who has time for Merton, an obnoxiously wealthy banker who was obsessed with Southern hip-hop and asked me to twerk for him, and Omar, who didn't notice me notice him remove his wedding ring while I went to get our coffees. In international markets, my stock was a hot-seller--I wasn't letting just anyone buy in.
I wish I could explain what was going on, exactly. Part of it was me: my abundance of dates no longer made me the downtrodden singer of the can't-get-a-date blues--subconsciously, knowing you are wanted makes you behave in a different more appealing way. Also, I suspect traveling forces you to be freer and lighter and more willing to take risks in general.
And I know racism exists in Sweden and Germany, but it's a different sort of systemic racism, I guess. In a Buzzfeed article about Tinder and racial preference, Anne Helen Peterson notes that race is also seen as a marker for class, which also plays into rejection--that wasn't really a factor in Stockholm. Neither were the average and accepted American standards of beauty, even though Sweden is the origin point for the All-American Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes thing. It didn't seem to matter that I was several standard deviations away from that. Being black didn't have the same connation as it does back home. I never really felt fetishzed, I never got the "I've never seen a black woman, let me touch your hair" vibe, it was more just like, "Hi, attractive person, let's do this."
Whatever was in the water, it resulted in what I can say was the best date of my life. When I am old and boring, I will look back on this night and think: "I ruled." Odel*, a bassist in a band, invited me to get drinks and then come to his gig at Debaser, a popular venue in Hornstull. He failed to mention that his band was opening for a sold-out show for the famous indie darling Bob Hund, so the night which I assumed would be me pretending to like some crappy band at a dank music venue turned into drinking free beers backstage and making out with Odel in the wings. It was great. So great, in fact, that I almost missed my flight back to the States the next morning. If I had, no big deal. I was prepared to move to Stockholm anyway.
In conclusion: I am not invisible.
In the same way some travel to help inspire a creative bout, or to reassess their lives, or to get in touch with their spirituality, it turns out my week abroad unexpectedly turned into a sort of sexual sabbatical--a way to remind myself that I am fuckable--not invisible, not exempt from a narrative of desire just because OkCupid data indicated that I am in the least desirable group of daters.
After eleven dates in three cities over a week, I'm still e-mailing Odel and Kim and have stopped bothering to use dating apps in the U.S. It's nowhere near as magical. Though I fully intend to re-download it when I head to South America this spring.
*Name has been changed.
--By Allison P. Davis