When Clara Bensen arranged to go on a date with a man she met online, she couldn't have envisaged that just a few weeks later, she'd be jumping on a plane to visit eight countries with nothing but the clothes on her back and the man she'd just met.
Two years down the line and with a book on her experiences released this month, Bensen, writing for Stylist.co.uk, discusses the realities of a romance less ordinary, and explains why there's no better way than extreme adventure dating to test a budding relationship.
For most of us, the modern dating process looks vastly different than it did for our parents (who never experienced the joy of swiping left or stretching the truth on their online dating profiles).
Still, just because our romantic relationships are more likely to be moderated by a digital screen, doesn’t mean we can skip the process of getting to know someone in person. There are loads of ways to see if the digital sparks translate when the two of you are face-to-face: dinner and a movie, cocktails in a dim bar, Netflix and chill.
Or, if you’re a bit adventurous and in a hurry to discover whether or not the relationship has legs, you can do what I did and jump on a plane to the other side of the world with nothing but the clothes on your back.
To be clear, I didn’t intend to pioneer the extreme dating genre when I joined OkCupid, a US online dating site, back in 2013. I just wanted to add a little excitement to my otherwise quiet life after emerging from a rough patch in my early twenties. I didn’t expect to meet Jeff – an eccentric environmental scientist and sixth-generation Texan – or to form such an intense bond the first time we met, at sunset, under the giant dome of the Texas State Capitol building in Austin.
An hour into our first date, over shots of tequila, Jeff mentioned he had an upcoming trip, a low-budget travel experiment of sorts: into Istanbul, out of London, with zero reservations, plans or hotels in between.
As he described the adventure, I had a strange premonition that I’d be sitting beside him on the flight. Sure enough, two weeks later he invited me to join, saying the fact that we didn’t really know each other would be another dimension of the experiment. I giddily agreed.
Of course, he waited until after I’d bought a ticket to call and say he still didn’t feel our experiment was challenging enough. He had a new scheme. What if we just walked onto the plane with nothing but what we were wearing?
I protested but a week later I found myself at the Houston international airport nervously preparing to board our flight to Istanbul with nothing but a green cotton dress, a floral scarf and a little black purse stuffed with a passport, a spare pair of underwear and a stick of deodorant.
Beside me, Jeff was vibrating with excitement in his one outfit: fiery red chinos, a striped shirt and his grandfather’s Stetson cowboy hat. We looked at each other, clearly both wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.
Two people spontaneously moving through a series of unpredictable events sounds like a Zen haiku, but the combination of jet lag, customs lines, and unwashed clothing is more akin to a ruthless speed date. For better or for worse, we were about to get to know each other – and not just the proper, sanitized versions of ourselves, either. It was going to be nitty gritty with no place to hide. Our compatibility (or lack thereof) would be rapidly evident.
Appearances were the first thing to go. While traveling without baggage didn’t turn out to be the hygienic apocalypse I’d originally predicted, we both had to give up any notion of maintaining the early, always-look-hot phase of dating. Over the course of our trip across Turkey, Eastern Europe and the UK, we’d witness each other in various states of dishevelment and disarray.
He saw me greasy-haired, with dark moons under my eyes after an overnight ferry from Turkey to Greece and, later, on a 23-hour bus ride from Athens to Budapest. I saw him swaddled in bed sheets and towels while our only outfits were hanging to dry at night. There was no candlelight to soften reality.
Still, the issue of appearance paled compared to the real test: learning how to combine our rhythms as we spontaneously navigated world cities, ancient ruins, crowded markets, train schedules, ferry docks, and an ever-changing line-up of strangers and friends.
As the baggage-less adventure unfolded, the differences in our personalities began to appear in stark contrast to each other. He was loud, extroverted, and magnetically drawn to chaos. I was quietly reserved and craved alone time to recharge. He liked to explore the city before dawn. I preferred to sleep in. He liked to bathe once (maybe twice) a week. I didn’t feel on point without my daily shower routine.
In a less easy-going pair, the differences might have spelled dating Armageddon – particularly when we were lost in Istanbul, swerving through rush hour traffic in Athens, and hitchhiking through rural Croatia – but we were lucky that the curiosity, playfulness and respect we did share in common balanced out our radical extremes.
By the time we reached London, our final destination, we realized that by some miracle our bond was actually stronger than when we’d started.
Sure, we could have discovered we were well-suited for each other via a more traditional dating process, but instead we discovered it right away – by traveling through eight countries in the same clothes for 21 days straight (believe me, you really get to know someone when they only have one pair of knickers).
Do I recommend everyone run away with some internet stranger sans bags? No, not exactly. But I do think introducing a bit of spontaneous adventure is an excellent way of testing a budding relationship. You might save yourself time by discovering you can’t stand the sight of each other when reality strikes, but if you’re lucky you also might find yourself in the middle of an unforgettable journey. Just take it from me and don’t forget toothpaste.