I recently found myself facing a nine-hour bus journey across three countries to get home from a weekend trip to the Netherlands.
It wasn’t by choice but by force. UK air traffic control went down cancelling thousands of flights and leaving 200,000 travellers in chaos.
Although initially caught up in the commotion, after sorting the practicalities of an alternative journey, I found myself excited about the trip. “How romantic” was the first thought that popped into my head. Although almost immediately, I started to grapple with this musing. I struggled to pinpoint what exactly made this impending journey “romantic.”
On the face of it, not much.
I mean sure, there are always lingering hopes of being seated next to a hunky Dutch man travelling to London. But rather, my idea of “romance” here had little to do with any external person and everything to do with my inner state of mind and the way I like to serenade my everyday life.
Firstly, the journey itself was quite mysterious. I knew we would need to crisscross several countries as well as cross a body of water, yet the exact route was entirely illusive to me and that alone excited me.
What also sprung to mind was endless hours quiescently staring out the window while listening to a melancholic playlist featuring Fred again and Joep Beving. If there are songs that tug on the heartstrings, whether it is emotional electronica or classical piano, they feature as soundtracks to the many long journeys I’ve taken over the course of my life.
It reminds me of voyages traversing the desertscapes of the Atacama, or the windy costal paths of the Australian great Ocean Road. Countless hours to sit and do nothing but stare out the window and think. To mull things over, to work things through. It’s what the Italians refer to as the “Dolce far niente“—the sweetness of doing nothing.
Meanwhile Oxford Languages states that to “romanticise” is to “make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is,” and perhaps it’s this quality that I’m most appealing to. I want to make my life that bit better, to make it sparkle. To turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, a bit of magic amongst that everyday monotony. Whilst not relying on another person to be the source of that magic.
And my mind casts back to the different ways I’ve been romanticising my own life over the past two years after the end of a decade-long relationship.
It makes me think of the sexy hotel room I stayed in this past weekend. You know the kind, complete with upmarket but totally inoperable espresso machine and industrial-style lights that decorate the ceiling. Teal-shaded walls that add a backdrop to the huge king-sized bed inviting me to blithesomely starfish while the soft cotton sheets hug my skin. A reminder of the space I am now both permitted and invited, to take up.
I recall my ritual of taking a slow shower, scrubbing myself with the loofah and a pump or two of lemongrass-scented soap. I think about how nice it is to take the time to lather the jasmine body lotion on every inch of my body until I’m as buttery as a French croissant.
A bit later, I’ll awake from my two-hour slumber, drape the hotel robe around me, and climb back into bed. I’ll eat a cheese sandwich and some salt and vinegar crisps whilst slowly sipping on a cup of earl grey tea. I’ll flick through the many TV chanels several times over before landing on a Dutch dubbed version of Scrubs. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, but the American characters miming out of sync to a Dutch voiceover is simultaneously confusing and entertaining.
When it’s time for lights out, I set up the Egyptian cotton pillows so I can sleep hugging one and with my knee placed over another. Aside from mimicking what it would be like to spoon another actual human, note this sleeping position is both practical and soothing if you suffer with lower back pain.
It is these reflections from my most recent trip that have encouraged me to examine my own notions of what I mean when I’m talking about what it means to “romance” my own life.
Traditionally, I associate romance with a honeymoon period of starting a new relationship that requires two people, seemingly infatuated with one another, to do really nice things for each other. Think cooked breakfast in bed and bouquets of flowers delivered to the door. Holding hands while you cry at a sad movie in the cinema. On the morning of your anniversary being presented with a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates from under the bed before you’ve even had a chance to remove your eye mask.
But I realise most of us are not caught up in the intense throws of a honeymoon period. We are either single by choice or force, we might be casually dating, or we could be in long-term partnerships in the myriad of forms that they take. But even for those of us who are in long-term relationships, how many of us take the time to actually romance ourselves or our partner in the background of the everyday humdrum of life?
You know the score: we get a cute haircut and get dressed up all nice only to come home and get ignored. We return after working a 12-hour day and have to take care of the family, the dog, cook dinner, and clean the house. The 3 a.m. gremlins show up because we just don’t know how we are going to afford to pay the bills. Life is a lot, it’s constant, and mostly, tedious as f*ck. Romance is sometimes as far from our minds as is a long summer’s evening upon the winter solstice.
So how can we inject a bit more flavour into our lives when life is so incredibly mundane? How can we self-romance in the absence of a lover or when our significant other just won’t even notice us let alone romance us? What can we do when we so desperately want romancing, but there is just no one there or we don’t have the time or money for the kind of self-care that modern capitalist culture idealises (spa day anyone?)?
I reflect further on what it means to make the ordinary extraordinary and decide that it is just as much a mindset as it is something material. I think of taking moments out of my day to simply watch natural phenomena like the sunset and the various shifting phases of the moon. Just like I taught my three-year old niece, “It’s a sunset and it’s free and we don’t need money.”
It’s long walks with the dog through wildflower meadows watching her bunny hop through the long grass. It’s lighting a candle to illuminate the dark hallways at night instead of switching on the light. It’s stopping at the local rose garden to smell each and every rose. Yup every single one. It might be a trope, but it’s one worth paying attention to. Did you know that cut roses (those very roses that feature so highly on Valentine’s Day) don’t actually have a scent? Or that each different colour rose that is grown from the ground has its own unique fragrance? The next time you walk past a rose garden, I invite you to take time to stop, inhale, and repeat.
I guess the essence of what I’m saying is if there are romantic partners present in our lives then here’s an invitation to be extra nice to them—just because. Because we are lucky enough to have found another human who wants to spend their time in partnership with us. It doesn’t have to involve lavish gifts or grandiose gestures; it can be as simple as the four-word sentence “You look nice today” or “I admire your brain.” Share the view of a sunset with someone. Or sit outside and watch the moon as it rises.
And when we find ourselves alone, then we need to be extra nice to ourselves. To caress ourselves. To give ourselves hugs. Starfish on that sexy hotel room bed. Take up space. Take the time to lather up the suds and shave our legs with care. Yes, especially around the knee area because we’ve all rushed that sh*t and paid dearly for it, am I right?
And I cast my mind back to all those long bus journeys, and I ponder again on what makes it so romantic. And I think about the power of the liminal space that we enter when we are journeying from one place to another, moving through time and space physically but also the metaphysical we encounter. I find when I am in this state of journeying, I am given the permission to let my mind wander. The unstable Wi-Fi connection that prevents me from working or distracting myself with my phone and the motion sickness from reading ends up being a gift. It forces me to sit and stare aimlessly out the window sometimes in silence, other times listening to music—to really embody the “dolce far niente.”
And when provided with that permission, my mind often wanders to what is most urgent. It goes to what is missing, what’s wrong, what needs fixing, what I am most yearning for. Bucolic landscapes rush by and I see the cows in the green pastures and am reminded of the origins of the word “ruminate.” Derived from Latin “rumen,” it also describes the stomach compartment of ruminant animals like cows. These animals that need to churn and chew their cud slowly before it can be fully digested. Just like my thoughts.
I land on the melancholy of knowing what it is that I want but not knowing quite how to get it or feeling like it is just that bit out of reach. I ride the wave of melancholy whether it’s evoked by views of the ocean, ruminating cows, or the rhythmic beating of the wheels on tarmac.
I find a space of introspection and reflection. I let the journey, something otherwise mundane, serenade me, hold me, romance me, and show me what it is I’m yearning for.