Affairs to Remember—On-Screen and Off

Speaker's Corner: From "Roman Holiday" to "Before Sunrise," Hollywood has understood the appeal of the overseas fling. Eva Holland explains the staying power of the big screen Euro-romance.

07.31.08 | 10:48 AM ET

Roman Holiday movie posterI am standing on the Charles Bridge. It is early October, a crisp, cool night, and the castle glows above me. Couples line the bridge, smudged by the dim lighting, and gaze dreamily down at the Vltava flowing below. I look intently up at the young Australian standing beside me, waiting as he shifts his weight nervously, and there’s a long, charged silence. Then:

“I’m sorry!” he says. “There’s just so much pressure. It’s Prague!”

Someone once said that there are only two stories in the world: the one with a happy ending and the one with a sad ending. I might add that there is a third story, retold regularly by Hollywood scriptwriters for decades: the one where a young man and a young woman meet in Europe and fall instantly, madly, inexplicably in love.

These love stories have piled up one after another over the years in the collective filmgoers’ memory, combining to create the all-powerful myth of the European holiday romance. That myth, in turn, has infused countless travelers with the expectation or hope that their fairy-tale surroundings will live up to the legend as it’s been imagined. In other words, fingers are crossed that the frog in the train seat next to them will suddenly turn into a prince.

I rarely take a trip without considering the idea of meeting someone en route. And even when I don’t think of it, it’s certain that my friends will. “Pay close attention,” offered one friend just before I left for England, “to anyone who offers to help with your luggage at King’s Cross.” She wasn’t worried about theft, she was looking out for my love life—a friend of a friend had met her future husband under those very circumstances.

There’s a certain logic in the notion of meeting that special someone while abroad. After all, in our day-to-day lives, we go to the same places and do the same things with the same people, on loop. Surely if your soul mate worked in the office down the hall, wouldn’t you have noticed by now?

And I understand the appeal of the story to Hollywood executives who do, after all, make a living by selling people’s fantasies back to them. “Roman Holiday,” one of the original Euro-romances, was promoted under the tagline: “When all the things happen that you’d always hoped for, on the happiest day of your life.”

Snappy enough for today’s marketing standards? Certainly not. But it’s the idea behind it that counts: By combining mythologized locations with classic love stories, movie producers have stumbled onto a particularly potent fantasy formula.

“Lived, loved and filmed in Rome.” This was another tagline for “Roman Holiday,” which stars Audrey Hepburn as a runaway princess and Gregory Peck as the American journalist who shows her around Rome. Their story is interspersed with lingering shots of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, sidewalk cafés and streets bustling with Vespas and vendors, until the viewer is no longer sure if she’s supposed to be fantasizing about meeting her own Peck or Hepburn, or about the city itself. The location is a vital part of the story: It’s clear that the sparks between the princess and the journalist, while genuine, could not have been kindled without the magic of the Eternal City.

“Roman Holiday” created a model—the overseas runaway and the rescuer—most recently recycled in 2004’s “Chasing Liberty,” where Mandy Moore plays a rebellious First Daughter who escapes an official function in Prague by hopping on the back of a motorbike with a handsome British photographer. Together they make their way from the narrow streets of Prague’s old town to a gondola in Venice and the Love Parade in Berlin, with secret service agents in hot pursuit.

The not-so-suspenseful question is, will they be caught? And even more importantly, will either of them make what Moore’s character calls “the big gesture,” allowing them to be together even after the holiday ends? The chase is punctuated by Moore’s declarations about the liberating qualities of travel: “I’m tired of living my life in theory,” and “I want to find passion.”

“Roman Holiday,” “Chasing Liberty” and others have no doubt played their role in the maintenance of this movie myth. The Euro-romance was perfected, however, by a pair of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: “Before Sunrise” and its sequel, “Before Sunset.” In the first installment, Jesse and Celine meet on a train in Europe: She’s heading home to Paris; he’s heading to Vienna for a flight home to the U.S. the next morning.

They click; in Vienna they disembark the train together, spend the night wandering around, and the city works its inevitable magic. It’s a simple story, but one that has left a generation of backpackers casting thoughtful glances around train stations across Europe. Between shots of Hofburg Palace, the grounds of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Riesenrad Ferris wheel and the archetypal Viennese coffeehouse, the movie captures that raw honesty and sense of possibility between strangers who meet and connect far from home.

“Before Sunset” catches up with Jesse and Celine nine years later, when they meet again in Paris. This second movie is all about the big question, the one that other films try their best to avoid: Can a Euro-romance survive the flight home? Do people ever really take that chance, make “the big gesture” and uproot their lives for a stranger who may not seem as enticing once they’re no longer strolling together alongside the Seine?

The secret to the Euro-romance’s success is that most of us really, truly hope the answer to that big question is “yes.” The point is that it doesn’t really matter what people actually do. All that matters is what we hope they will do. So long as that hope exists, it won’t be long before Paramount or Warner Brothers rolls out the next tale of young love in a European capital.

As for my own Euro-romance? I never made the big gesture—the Australian and I made our way from Prague to Vienna, Florence, Madrid and Granada before saying goodbye. But don’t count us out yet—if I’ve learned anything from the movies, it’s that this sad ending can still turn into a happy one. Check back in with me at a Parisian café in about seven and a half years.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

8 Comments for Affairs to Remember—On-Screen and Off

Julia 08.01.08 | 11:19 AM ET

Nice essay, Eva. And I love the quote from your Australian.

Kate 08.06.08 | 4:34 PM ET

I just saw Roman Holiday last weekend and your essay articulates the wistfulness of both the movie and real life overseas romances. Thanks!

Claire Walter 08.18.08 | 4:35 PM ET

There’s always “A Light in the Piazza,” with its poignant revelation and its happy ending.

Claire @

Tim Patterson 09.01.08 | 4:11 AM ET

Great essay, Eva, really tightly written.  I wonder if there’s room in the romance genre for a SE Asian or South American travel fling?  Finding true love on Walking Street in Pattaya…hmmm..

vidyo 10.15.08 | 5:39 PM ET

thank you very much

Torah 10.20.08 | 7:30 AM ET

Excellent article. I personally think that finding the “one true love” can happen anywhere and at any time. You can bump into him/her while traveling, or it could just be your friend whom you’ve known since the age of 10. You just never know, so watch out!

MiGrant 10.23.08 | 12:02 PM ET

Can the romance survive? The answer is yes—my Euro-bride (whom I actually did meet on a train while I was living in Prague) and I have been happily married 15 years now.

Essays 11.19.08 | 11:15 AM ET

Eva, thanks for this sweet piece of hope. Together or not we must be happy if that was true love. I think that’s the moral of Euro Roman movies.

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