What I Was Doing While You Were Reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

I sneered at travel memoirs where women found self-actualization through sex—because I didn’t want to admit I had lived one

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I was a bookseller when I first encountered Kristin Newman’s travel memoir nestled among the morning delivery. Squinting for a moment, I recognized the red blob beneath the title — What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding — as a lipstick kiss on an airplane window. The jacket copy not only summed up the countries she visited, but also the men she met: “Israeli bartenders, Finnish poker players, sexy Bedouins, and Argentinean priests.” My throat constricted, heartbeat erratic, as I slipped a copy in my bag. I chalked up this difficulty swallowing and sweaty palms to disagreeing with Newman’s central argument: that by traveling alone instead of settling down, she found herself, and only then could she walk off into the sunset she’d been destined for. I couldn’t read past the first chapter, instead wanting to take to the streets like an Evangelical grasping a paint paddle and duct tape sign: this book is a lie; that’s not how the story goes; repent! What I meant was: this is not how my story goes.

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

Five years ago, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, as do thousands of students every year. While there, I had a relationship with a man, M., who worked in my building. When the semester ended, he disappeared and I flew back to America. A year later, I returned alone to find him.

It’s not uncommon for narratives of women traveling solo, like mine and Newman’s, to run parallel to love stories. Just as often, those stories end with the woman gaining new insight into her truest self. Perhaps because I lived the former but was denied the latter, I resent women who claim to have both. The only salve: proving these neat, circular narratives false.

Essentially, the point of entry into the country she is visiting — providing that illuminating white space between life in the States and life abroad — is the man, the love story. I don’t mind love, nor do I mind casual sex. I do mind the implied assertion that foreignness of man and place are conditions necessary for a woman’s sexual liberation that is then equated to self-actualization. These contingencies weaken any feminist slant narratives like Newman’s might have, since self-discovery is seemingly accomplished only by fetishizing foreign men, an act both dependent upon the presence of a man and reducing him to his home country. Newman never acknowledged those Israeli bartenders, Finnish poker players, sexy Bedouins, and Argentinean priests for what they were: keys to cultural doors normally closed to Americans, doors that were pivotal in leading her to that inner self. How real are insights only won through men?

I’ve encountered iterations of this problematic trope in the obvious places: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, and Gayle Forman’s fictional young adult duology Just One Day, in which a shy college-aged girl falls in love with a European man who disappears. I’ve even picked up and put down Jessie Chaffee’s Florence in Ecstasy countless times. Once, I was able to work past my sympathetic nervous system’s immediate reaction to just the title, and saw there was a character who shared M.’s name. It’s a common Italian name, and Chaffee’s novel grapples primarily with other themes I’m interested in, but my stomach still rolled with nausea and I dropped the book like a heavy stone.

How real are insights only won through men?

Though I never admitted it, I hoped to find myself in these stories as much as I wanted rip the pages from their bindings. My whole life, I’ve believed the old adage that books have the power to reflect humanity back to their readers — making them feel less alone, seen — with ferocity. But when I needed those books most, just the weight of one in my hands seemed to take away something I felt to be mine.

Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project was the only woman-traveling-solo memoir I refrained from hurling across the room. She exists by herself through most of her time abroad, rather than just boarding the plane alone and finding someone the day she lands. Even so, she still asks herself: “Have I always done this, treated men like doors rather than partners? Seeing them for what kind of world they can take me out into, rather than their own particular qualities?”

I wrote this on a piece of paper and hung it above my bed.

If my story was jacket copy, it would go like this:

A series of fated accidents leads small-town Washington girl to study abroad in Italy’s most romantic city, where she dances on tables, kisses strange men — Brazilian bartenders, Swiss architects, Italian doctors! — and falls in love. When her foreign lover jilts her without explanation, she wanders lonely and lost, before ultimately flying back to Italy to find her love — and perhaps, even herself.

In reality, I did dance on tables and kiss Brazilian bartenders, Swiss architects, and Italian doctors during my semester abroad. This carefree flirt was a version of myself that didn’t exist in America, where I was known as bookish and quiet.

Then there was M.

The few things I knew about him starkly contrasted what I knew about myself: he wore black on black; I always wore pink. He was in his late twenties; I was twenty-one. He was Italian; I was American. He hated the students I lived with; he did not hate me. In fact, as days passed, he seemed to take an interest in me. My friends were trying to sleep with guys in the program, while I turned those same guys down, said I’d see them next year in America. I was different; I’d been selected.

I don’t remember telling anyone that I hoped M. would ask me to stay, unlike when I would come home from other dates gushing hyperbolic accounts of midnight cityscapes and Vespa rides. Our relationship unfolded without witnesses, early in the morning while my fellow students slept into the afternoon. I’d emerge from my bedroom with mussed hair and bare face, he made coffee, and we simply talked. Even when I woke up later than usual, he stopped cleaning the dining room to set out breakfast just for me, vinyl tablecloth sticky from the wet rag in his hand; he compiled lists of museums, restaurants, and bars he wanted me to visit and I carried them for days in my back pocket as harbingers of morning conversations to come.

Though my memory is blurred by what happens next, my few recollections of the time right before his disappearance reflect an emotion nothing short of awe-struck. M. saw a version of me that was at once true to but still larger than the original, quietly bookish girl. I was sure that if he didn’t ask me to stay, he would at least write. Our relationship was genuine; it would exist anywhere in the world. It couldn’t end, as the others inevitably would, with the program.

I was sure that if he didn’t ask me to stay, he would at least write. Our relationship was genuine; it would exist anywhere in the world.

But when the semester ended, he didn’t ask me to stay, nor did he write. He didn’t even say goodbye. I sent him frantic emails before my plane took off, and again when it landed. He didn’t answer. As months passed and added up into a year, M. — and the person I believed he saw me as — calcified into myth. I disappeared with him.

When I bought a plane ticket back, my motivation was not to reclaim our relationship, but to reclaim myself. Cue sunset.

M. learned of my return through a mutual friend before I could show up unannounced, as the heroine of my novel quite obviously would have done. Still, he gave me drama, left me waiting for hours at Ponte Alla Carraia — one bridge away from the famous Ponte Vecchio, the perfect place for a cinematic reunion. Even as he stood me up, I believed the multiple messages he sent pleading forgiveness. I gave in to the emotions vying for precedence over my anger and went to his apartment. I didn’t leave for seven days.

Eventually, I needed to pick up groceries for the room I was technically renting across the Arno. M. recommended the store with the best prices. I said that’s where I always went. I remember him saying something along the lines of: Right, sometimes I forget you’ve lived here, too. He kissed me goodbye, and disappeared again.

There’s an email address listed in the bottom right-hand corner of Jessa Crispin’s homepage, but the domain name belongs to a website she ran that closed in 2016. I write her only because I expect my message to sit in an inactive inbox.

She responds.

Despite my nerves, I try to make myself clear. Does she also see unaddressed problems in narratives of women discovering themselves while travelling alone — false autonomy, dehumanization of one’s partners, equating sex to self? I don’t know how to interrogate these stories without being misunderstood for attacking the part I agree with — a woman’s sexual freedom.

Crispin tells me, “Male travel writers have done this sex traveling thing for years . . . I don’t think women doing the same things men have been doing is any sort of progress.”

What would constitute progress? I don’t know. I’d reclaimed neither the relationship nor myself. M.’s second disappearance only planted more questions, this time not of the motivation behind his repetitive abandonment, but rather the shelf life of memory: when he will forget me, when I will forget him, who will accomplish this Sisyphean task first. My bet is on him.

I buy What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding again.

When I finally finish, I email Newman, this time because I actually want a response. I want to burrow my pain into her pithy insights; I want to denounce her narrative with my own. But more than anything, I want my arguments against her to be flawless.

And Newman answers.

“It wasn’t the sex that made the difference for me; it was getting to be brought into the local culture by a local,” she tells me. I bristle, hoping she’ll address what I feel to be the subtext of this statement: trading sex for cultural acceptance. I ask Newman if she thinks women traveling alone can access this local culture without sleeping with a local. She mentions signing up for day trips, volunteering, asking people you don’t want to sleep with to have a drink — but ends by saying, “People are much less motivated to make a foreign friend than they are to have sex with a foreigner.”

Despite myself, I tell her that I agree.

Eventually I ask about her trip to Israel, the only chapter that ends with the men as “just an endnote.” She says, “I was going out of my way to meet [people] because I was doing research. But only as I’m saying it to you right now am I thinking to myself, ‘That’s how I should be going on every single trip’ . . . I wasn’t avoiding sex, but I was going for a different reason.”

My heart begins its familiarly erratic dance as I realize that I’m not angry at Kristin Newman; I’m angry at myself. I didn’t find a mirror in Gilbert, Mayes, Forman, or even Crispin. I found a mirror in Newman, and immediately looked away when I saw what was reflected.

I saw myself as worldly because men from other countries wanted to sleep with me, not because I actually spoke a different language or understood a culture.

Newman refers to her abroad self as “Kristin-Adjacent”; my adjacent self was also won through sexual liberation. I saw male attention as proof that I wasn’t a small-town Washington girl, freshly twenty-one and always dressed in pink. Instead, I was the woman who danced on tables and kissed strangers. Reducing the partners I had in addition to M. served this developing self-conception. I saw myself as worldly because men from other countries wanted to sleep with me, not because I actually spoke a different language or understood a culture.

Then there’s the question of M.: was my belief that our relationship would exist anywhere in the world accurate? Both times that we ended occurred simultaneously with my departure from Florence, and so the two losses not only compounded, but also became synonymous in my mind. After his first disappearance, I confused wanting answers from him with missing the identity I formed while abroad. He was woven into its foundations, its stability contingent upon his presence. The immediate relief provided by my return — to the city, to him, and therefore to myself — only tightened the braid further.
So then, how does this story end?

I could have stayed alone in Florence; I could have taught English while becoming fluent in Italian by myself. Those choices might have resulted in self-discovery, free from the qualifier of men providing entry.

Instead, I left.

Now it’s four years later and I live in New York; my life — professional and personal — is about proving books to be both mirrors and doors; I’ve loved the same aspiring lawyer for two years. I mentally list off these facts while standing in a bookstore where I don’t work, the weight of Florence in Ecstasy in my hands. I’m a version of myself that’s at once true to but still larger than who I was before, and it’s a version that doesn’t belong to any memoirist, novelist, or even M. It belongs only to me.

My copy of What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is tucked next to The Dead Ladies Project in my bookshelf. I open the latter, dog-eared beyond recognition, and run across a line I marked before, “I must take this city back from him.”

I buy another plane ticket.

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