What I Learned Traveling Internationally with My Fiance
by Matt Lardie
A special dispatch for Issue 4: Journeys
Matt Lardie and Harper Hornaday are the founders of Vinotopia Imports, a North Carolina–based wine importing company that focuses on the wines of Croatia and the Balkan region. They’re also engaged to be married! In today’s Jarry Briefs, Matt describes his experiences traveling for work internationally, as a gay couple.
It can be a tricky thing, traveling as a gay couple. Whether you’re in Massachusetts or Macedonia, there’s always that nagging question in the back of your mind: Will we be accepted?
When my then-partner, now-fiance Harper and I set out to open our own wine importing company a little over a year ago, we found ourselves asking this question more than once. Our focus, we decided, would be on Eastern European wines, specifically wines from Croatia and the Balkan region—an area most known in the Western world as a region of war, rife with deep-seated religious tradition.
I spent that entire first flight fretting. I was nervous to hold Harper’s hand and to show any explicit display of affection. This caused a bit of friction between us, but in my mind the priority was to not get accosted by some Eastern European cop with a homophobic streak. Landing in Zagreb and going through Customs was probably one of the more stressful travel moments of my life. I was expecting to be questioned as to who we were and why we were traveling together. Instead our passports were stamped and we were waved along without a second glance. The worry, it turns out, had been all in my head.
From our first visit, we were welcomed into Croatia with open arms, immediately becoming part of a network that embraces the entirety of the human experience—LGBTQ, straight, old, young, Balkan, expat, you name it. It’s been almost a year since this journey began and never once have we felt discriminated against or even in danger because of our relationship.
One moment in particular stands out. We were meeting with a winemaker in a small town outside of Split, a coastal Croatian city. This was our third time meeting him. We really liked him and his wine, and he liked us. He’s a classic Balkan old-timer, bordering on stereotypical: big, gregarious, with a few broken fingers and a penchant for guzzling wine. Ivan is his name, of course.
After talking and drinking—and talking and drinking some more—he invited us to his home for dinner. He cooked at least a dozen whole fish on the grill, invited one of his daughters and two of his friends, and plied us with far too much grappa. Halfway through dinner, talk turned to relationships. He looked at us and asked, “Where are your girlfriends? Do you have anyone?”
I froze. Even through a wine- and grappa-fueled haze I knew we were entering tricky territory. He barely spoke English, our Croatian is kindergarten level at best, and I wasn’t sure how to navigate this. Harper dove in and in a mixture of broken Croatian and English pointed at me, then himself, and then back at me.
“Actually, we are together. Mi smo zajedno.”
There was the agonizing, pregnant pause that always accompanies these sorts of things. Then he gave a giant shrug, clapped his hand onto Harper’s shoulder, and said, “If you are happy, I am happy.” That was that.
We’ve now traveled five times throughout most of the Balkan region, meeting with dozens of winemakers and finding ourselves in places few Americans, let alone gay Americans, have ever traveled. Bosnia and Herzegovina. Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo. In some places we’ve been met with indifference, in others mere curiosity. Among a subset of young, up-and-coming Croatian winemakers we’ve been welcomed into the fold. We’ve observed that generational acceptance is truly alive in the Balkans, and winemakers and friends our age count us among their peers. And after attending Zagreb Pride, we’ve found a circle of locally based queer friends.
I’m writing this dispatch, as it were, from a patio at our rental apartment on the Bay of Kotor here in Montenegro. We’ve been in Europe for a little over three weeks, and we’ve got about three more to go. This time when we checked into our apartment I didn’t worry about what the woman would say when she saw two men show up to share a studio with one bed. I didn’t worry about it when we checked into our hotel in Skopje, Macedonia, the other day, either, or when we went out to lunch in Niš, a gritty industrial city in far eastern Serbia. While many of our interactions involve an international crowd, and as Americans abroad for business we bring a certain privilege along with us, my perspective has still come to be that in the Balkans, much like my native New England, the attitude is very much to live and let live.
These journeys we take, both physical and emotional, all send us down a path for a reason. For Harper and I, it’s been about proving to ourselves and others that we can build a successful business and learning how we as a couple work together professionally. It’s also meant building lasting friendships half a world away, experiencing incredible cultures and regions, and pushing ourselves to go outside of our comfort zones.
It’s also led me to realize that people everywhere are just that: People. They all love and cry and laugh and hurt essentially the same way. The best thing I, as a gay man, can do in this life is approach people as they deserve to be approached, which is as fellow human beings. It may sound like corny, Oprah mumbo-jumbo, but if the lesson I keep returning to. And what more important lesson can any journey teach you?