Travel: Erotic thoughts from abroad

ACCORDING TO research from the Health Education Authority, one in six "young and single Britons" will have a sexual encounter with a new partner while abroad. The HEA's very understandable worry is whether or not they are using condoms. My worry is whether or not they are planning to write about their experiences.

Because what a relief it is, in the age of Aids, to find out that there can still be room for a book of short stories about romance, love and sex with perfect strangers while abroad.

When I first glanced at Brief Encounters (published by Lonely Planet), I expected to find a dreary, naive catalogue of fumblings and gropings in dormitories and closed train compartments, from the isn't-it-sad-that- I-never-copped-off-with-that-large-breasted-Italian-girl-in-my-youth school of travel literature. In fact, there is some superb writing here, and not just from the big names like Lisa St Aubin de Tern and Paul Theroux.

As the book's foreword points out, we do have very place-specific notions of love and sex, from the delicacy of a brush of drizzle-soaked skin on a Japanese hillside to the sweaty menace of illicit sex in the backstreets of Palermo. Travel is so obviously a metaphor for sex, even if its practitioners do not always realise it.

By the way, why does Italy keep cropping up here? In fact, I have just received details of another survey (conducted not by the HEA but by an Italian food company, Principe di San Daniele), which alleges that 36 per cent of female tourists from Europe and the United States cite hopes of "passion" as their number one reason for visiting Italy, pushing enjoying the local food into second place.

Though, just to prove that the old cliches can never be taken for granted, the survey goes on to reveal that it is now the "shy" but rich northern Italian man who is currently the preferred model, as opposed to the swarthy, and unemployed, southern Italian.

Anyway, the colourful reality of this diversity only begins to dawn as you read Brief Encounters. In a world of nearly 200 countries, and even more nationalities, the potential for cross-cultural relationships is indeed vast. We travel to sample international cuisine - so how about international erotica? Accordingly, the 20 stories used here range from delicate erotica to good hard sex - with liberal use of the F-word - in countries ranging from Mexico to Egypt to China to Greece (though, once again, I detected a slight but inevitable bias in favour of the Latin countries).

Naivety, I am pleased to say, is not a feature of the book. In fact I was the one who felt naive reading it ("My boyfriend and I met at a sex-party" is the opening sentence of one of the stories; other devices to avert suspicions of naivety include an author's boasting on the first page that he has read Catcher in the Rye a total of 2,000 times).

Hard truth of the kind demanded by Clinton-hounders is obviously not what you read this stuff for either, even if a lot of it does purport to be more or less factual. I might as well admit that I found aspects of Stanley Stewart's affair with a Chinese woman, for example, annoyingly implausible. How, I troubled myself, could the vast inequalities that existed between them not be a divisive element? But the story was beautifully written and I was prepared to forgive the writer anything for that.

Meanwhile, back to the hard stuff: Club 18-30, which uses the promise of free sex in its promotional literature, has been providing free condoms to its clients since 1991. That should please the HEA. Eventually, hopefully, it may also help the cause of erotic travel literature.