Travelling is about meeting new people and collecting different life experiences from all over the world to enrich our minds and lives. Rachel, a writer from Taiwan, made her own temporary tattoos with the Mandarin character for ‘love’ (愛), in order to exchange them for sixty fantastic love stories. Gathered from all over Europe, the stories enhanced her adventure more than sightseeing ever could have.
In winter 2012, I was accepted to the student exchange program in Switzerland, which would be my first journey to Europe. The word ‘souvenir’ came to my mind: what should I bring to ensure the people I met remembered me and Taiwan? I wanted to connect Europe with Taiwan, but I could only think of… soccer. I’d seen a lot of soccer players with Chinese character tattoos. I thought why not make one myself as a souvenir for them?
I questioned what character to choose and in the end I chose ‘Love’, because it is so universal. No matter someone’s age, gender or language, love can touch them and last a lifetime. I wanted to connect people’s hearts with love wherever I went. Also, the way I speak and write is, I think, like a love letter—though the words are not beautiful or flowery, they all come from my soul, from the depth of my heart.
I love writing, and I wanted to write something during this trip, so I decided to integrate it into my idea. I would trade each love tattoo for a love story. Exchanges aren’t only made with money; people exchange emotions with each other every day, all over the world.
My friend and I designed four different characters and printed several of each. I named my writing project ‘LovExchanges’. I wanted it to represent all the work I completed in the last period of my life at university.
Before I began my travels, I expected to exchange my currency-like tattoos for stories, but it didn’t end up exactly like that. Eventually, I got much more than that: sixty stories, forty nights’ accommodation, food, beer, a Norwegian flag, two paintings from street artists, and a quill from a host in Milan who encouraged me to keep writing. I made countless good friends from all over the world.
Finally, I arrived in Europe, settled down and began my life as an exchange student. On the 14th February, I saw a girl in a bar with the Chinese character for ‘Love’ tattooed on her arm. What a coincidence! It took all the courage I had to talk to her, but I did. I decided to start my project with her story. I asked her why she got her tattoo.
“Because love is the most important thing in life.” She smiled, feeling embarrassed that there was no special meaning behind the tattoo.
“No, yours is true love.” I insisted.
When she was an exchange student in Asia, she had to do homework for her Chinese language class every week. She thought it would be boring, even annoying. But she didn’t feel that. On the contrary, she ended up loving her class and learning about Chinese characters. When she was travelling, she had a chance to get a tattoo in a stand, so she decided to get one. She said she missed the time spent in Taiwan, where she met her ex-boyfriend. Though now she can’t always recognise all the Chinese characters she was taught, she will always remember that one on her body, the one for love.
My conversations always began in the same spontaneous way. Sometimes people would come up to me to talk when I was waiting on a train platform or on the street. I even interviewed an ex-sex worker who was a walking tour guide in Amsterdam. Couchsurfing.com was a useful tool as well. I posted my exchange idea on the website and received many replies. Most people I contacted were couples, because I thought that would be the best way to get stories and experience the city. I also met someone who rejected my tattoo. In Budapest, my host brought me to an open-air bar, where I ordered a small cup of beer, but the waiter gave me a big one. I was really excited, thus I took out my tattoo to show my appreciation. He had a real tattoo deeply embedded on his neck.
“What’s this?” he asked. He rejected me without hesitation. He had a Chinese girlfriend a few years before, but they ended up separating. Feeling heartbroken, he stopped believing in love. He gave me a smile, but left the tattoo on the table.
After my courses ended, I grabbed my backpack and started traveling. In front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome, a red-faced man named Yassir asked me to translate a note he had written to his friend into Mandarin.
“Dear Laurie—I’m traveling in Rome and I’m sitting in the beautiful sunshine. How are you?” He told me they had been pen pals for six years after meeting in Paris two years before.Their love was a platonic one. He decided to send a postcard to her wherever he travelled and have a foreigner write it in their native language for him. He did this so that when she received it, she would have to ask someone who knew the language to translate it for her. He knew Laurie was shy, so he thought this would help her make new friends and become more outgoing.
Though I immersed myself in so many love stories, I didn’t fall in love. It was nice, however, to think only about the present and not the future. I simply focused on the moment. Once, in Königssee, I waited on a train while I peacefully drank a beer. In that moment, I felt as though my life was transitioning, and I knew which direction I wanted to go in. My dream was to travel alone and I held onto it.
I took a thirty-two-hour sailing trip from Athens to Santorini, which was one of the toughest times during my trip. I didn’t even know where I could buy a ticket before departure. It was my first time floating on the vast and limitless ocean, with no sense of direction. After that, nothing could scare me—I knew I could get through any difficulty and pain. Love would always help me that way. We are too young to be afraid, because this world is full of love, really.
I saw myself as an interviewer, writer, traveler, and most simply, a listener. My friends asked me which story was my favourite. They thought I was a novelty-hunter after they read my unbelievable life experiences. However, though some love stories are as colourful as fairy tales, some of them are actually quite plain. Love is real and reality doesn’t always go well. It’s composed of ups and downs, as was my trip.
Before I travelled I was the person who always planned everything ahead, that changed. I lost my life’s sense of direction in Europe. Most of the time, I followed my instincts because I realised that plans always end up changing. Sometimes it’s just best to let go; people come and go and that’s okay. You cannot control everything, and nothing and no one is forever. I don’t care about insignificant details and failure as much as before, as I know I did my best and I hold no regrets.
Now those sixty stories feed my life. They have never slipped from my mind. They accompany and inspire me, just like the people I love in my life. For example, my friend’s ex-girlfriend was going to get married, which caused him a lot of pain. I thought of this story: Having just arrived in Nürnberg, I was sitting under a tree with a confused face reading a map, when a weak voice said, “What…are you …searching…for?” The weak voice belonged to an old man called Ralf, who was a psychologist. When I told him I was from Taiwan, he answered, “One of my ex-girlfriends studied in Taiwan!” I started to feel curious.
“How many girlfriends have you had?” I asked. He shook his head, smiling, “I don’t remember, but at least a hundred.”
Oh my god!
“Which one of your girlfriends did you love the most?” He said that when he was twenty-eight, he met a girl in Paris who always talked about heaven, dreams and everything with him.
“It’s the most beautiful memory that I have in my life.” Years and years later, the girl started to appear in his dreams.
“But I didn’t contact her,” he smiled, “She was just one of my girlfriends, and I was just one of her boyfriends.”
I couldn’t understand at first. People are always hurt by the end of a relationship, but as life goes on the feeling dissipates. Now Ralf is seventy-six years old, and all the strenght of the positive and negative emotions from his past relationships have left him. Memories eventually become smooth like a lake with no ripple. So I told my friend whose ex was getting married that no relationship ends without any love left, and as time passes by, he will appreciate that sentiment. Sometimes we miss not him or her, but whoever we were when we were in our relationships.
I hope to give strength to readers and those who received tattoos, no matter if they’re in love or not. One Turkish girl made a declaration of love to the boy she loved after getting my tattoo. After a few months, she told me that things between them hadn’t worked out, but that I had given her the power to pursue what she loves. I suddenly realised that the world could be different because of me, even it was just a tiny influence.
I’m glad that I did something I really enjoyed, and at the same time gave people power. After my journey ‘on a shoestring’ with not much money or food, I finally understood the meaning of ‘the self-actualised theory. Doing what you really care about, to a certain degree, is self-actualisation. And for me, that is making people communicate and exchange love.