February 13, 2019

On a train from Budapest, two strangers meet—Jesse, an American lad on his way to Vienna to catch a flight back home, and Celine, a French lady en route to Paris where she studies. They catch each other’s eyes in a quiet cabin (save for a bickering couple) and start to chat. When the train arrives at Vienna, he persuades her to leave with him and they embark on a spontaneous adventure. What soon follows is every girl’s ideal romantic fantasy—long strolls in the city, kisses at the top of a Ferris wheel, roadside poetry, vulnerable heart-to-hearts, the works.

Fans of Richard Linklater might have realised by now that this is the story of Before Sunrise, one of the most romantic films ever made about finding love in a foreign land—which probably never happens in real life, right? Well, not necessarily.

According to Dr Arthur Aron from the Stony Brook University, couples might be more likely to fall in love while travelling. The research professor, who is also responsible for the famous 36 questions to fall in love, said, “Many years ago, we did a study that showed if you were to meet someone on a scary suspension bridge, you were more likely to have an attraction to that person than if you were to meet that same person on a safer, less scarier bridge.”

Home is where you feel a safe and familiar sense of comfort; it’s where you’ve established routines and friendships. Exploring a foreign destination can be a daunting affair because of the unknown and uncertainties. Yet, it can be also a thrilling adventure to gain new experiences. We tend to be more open to talking to strangers when we’re overseas. Most of the time, it is to ask for directions once we get lost, which can lead to an unexpected conversation. For others, the idea of being ‘John/Jane Doe’ gives them the licence to assume a new persona.

“In some cases, it could be obvious that you’re stirred by the circumstances. But if there is any level of ambiguity, such as when you’re travelling with someone, and that person is reasonably appropriate and attractive to you, you could also misattribute this romantic attraction,” Dr Aron added.

On an average day, if you met someone relatively attractive, the most you’d do is a double take before getting on with your plans. However, if you are abroad, you will more likely to be engaged in a tourist activity, which stimulates both physiological and psychological states. These biological reactions, coupled with the sight of a potential mate might intensify your emotional responses, mistaking adrenalin for love.

In fact, many couples take long trips or weekend getaways to reignite the flames of their relationship. “That sense of novelty, excitement and challenge is associated with the person you’re around and doing these new activities with, so it strengthens your relationship. It’s almost like recreating the excitement of first falling in love when you both first met each other,” explained Dr Aron.

For new lovebirds, being in an exotic environment might spark something deeper, but they may face the pressure to maintain a high level of excitement back home—creating unhealthy expectations that kill a relationship. How do you know if it’s true love or adrenaline masquerading as affection? What if Jesse and Celine discover that they’re not so compatible after a night together?

Singles might believe that they have found The One, but he or she could just be looking for a summer fling in a foreign land. It’s easy to make romantic gestures when you know you’ll never see them again.