July 2017, newly single and having just quit my full-time job to go freelance, I book a week-long Roman holiday with a guy I meet at a friend’s wedding. “James is nice, isn’t he?” I say to my friend the morning after the wedding. “Erm, I think his name was Sam,” she replies. Later that day, our flights are booked.
For the first time in my adult life, I feel unmoored from everyday responsibility – I am, I think to myself, absolutely free. And what better way to exploit that freedom than to spend six days in a new city with man who’s name I wasn’t sure of six hours ago. “It’ll be funny,” he says to me. We both take it on absolute face value that a quick jaunt to Europe with a relative stranger will, at worst, be a hilarious story to tell our friends.
It takes approximately 13 hours for us to realise that we might, actually, hate each other.
We set out to Rome. In the 38 degree heat we amble between the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountains, the Galleria Borghese, the Vatican. We hit two museums and a castle and some other stuff I can’t really remember. By evening, I am sweating profusely. In fact, I remember that I hate sightseeing. I have resorted to reticent nods and shrugs; I am palpably angry when he suggests another landmark.
He turns to me: “I’m not doing this for myself, you know, I’ve seen Rome before.” He was last here with his ex, he’d told me gleefully on the plane. I sit down heavily on a bench and roll my eyes. He throws his hands up; “if you’re not interested then I’m not going to waste any more energy dragging you around. I really didn’t think I’d meet someone who was even lazier than me.” He scampers off across the road, dodging two speeding taxis. “Arsehole,” I mutter under my breath.
That night I realise that he has brought 17 shirts. “Why did you bring so many shirts?” I ask. I have, if anything, not enough clothes (one dress, one pair of shorts, two t-shirts, a jacket). “Packed quickly,” he shrugs. But ahead of dinner he tries on three before settling on one that he likes. “You look at yourself in the mirror a lot,” I tell him from the bed.
At each meal, we eat round after round of pasta. It’s all uniformly excellent; and generally washed down with two bottles of wine. Sam, I realise, eats tiramisu at any available interval. Even after breakfast. “Sweet tooth,” he says, offering me a bit of creamy dessert at 9am. By the time we leave Rome (“I want to go somewhere with water,” I say. So we drive to the nearest body of water), we’re both suffering from semi-existential hangovers.
Bracciano is 45 minutes outside of Rome and, it turns out, so romantic that it gives me a stomach ache. There’s a castle overlooking the town, which overlooks a vast glittering lake and rolling golden hillsides, dotted with other cookie-cutter villages. “Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise got married here,” Sam tells me as we sit in the square googling for somewhere to stay. “Huh.” I reply.
“There don’t seem to be any hotels available…” he looks at his phone in concern.
“Probably should have booked somewhere…” I say into my fourth Aperol spritz.
He looks up at me, “I hate you so much I might actually cry.” And then he gets up and walks away. Drunk and sad that I’m on holiday with a man who (there’s no question about it) absolutely does hate me, I do start to cry. He comes back. “Oh god, don’t cry.” He pats my hand, which makes me cry even more loudly. “Fuck. You.” I whisper.
“Oh god, OK sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. You’re just…a… a handful,” he hugs me.
“Why can’t you be nice?” I ask sulkily.
“Ok. I will be extra nice, if you please stop crying.” I am placated. We find a sweet Airbnb half an hour later, with a view of the glittering lake. And have, actually, quite a nice time for the two days that we’re there.
There aren’t many tourists, but the ones that are there seem to be on honeymoon. Every so often, walking down a higgledy cobbled street with flowers erupting from hanging baskets above our heads and little, fat Italian grandpas shooting the breeze over coffee and cigarettes, we look at each other, confused. Why did two strangers come here together?
Six months on, Alex and Sam are still together, and happy.