You know how when you're single, you think that every guy you meet might be your new boyfriend? It's the typical (mostly female) Unwitting Romance Fantasy - unwitting because most of the time it happens without any effort at all.
That poor guy standing at the bus stop was probably just trying to be pleasant when he struck up a conversation about the damn rain. But before you knew it, you had fantasized him into your life, imagining how he would fit in with your friends, the way he would cook with you in your apartment and how charming he would be to your mother.
Lisa Napoli did the same thing. The Los Angeles-based journalist was in New York, her home town, when she was invited to a party. In a crush of people, she locked eyes with a handsome man named Sebastian. It was a thunderbolt of emotion. "This was a beautiful, instant intensity I'd never, ever experienced," she writes in her new memoir, Radio Shangri-la: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.
But the lesson, which she learns by the end of her book, was that nothing is as simple as we would like or, more important, as Hollywood scripts would have us believe. This would not have as perfect a romantic ending as Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, another story of an adventure-seeking woman in transition.
Having been a guide in Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China, Sebastian put her in touch with people who were setting up a youth radio station, Kuzoo FM 90, in the formerly media-free country. They needed a volunteer. Ms. Napoli took the leap, embarking on a six-week experiment with thoughts of Sebastian dancing in her head.
At the age of 43, she was in the midst of a midlife crisis. It wasn't just the fact that she was divorced and childless - she knew a husband and child wouldn't necessarily be the solution to her life - she was tired of her career. Having worked for CNN, The New York Times and MSNBC, among other media outlets, she was employed at the time on Marketplace, a public radio show.
But she felt that she worked on the assembly line in a word factory.
When she arrived in Bhutan in 2007, "a collision of feelings happened," she says in an interview from her car in Colorado, where she is on book tour. It wasn't just that she found herself living in a country known for measuring gross national happiness rather than gross domestic product. Ms. Napoli loved the locals, the foreign customs and being there at a time of change - the country, the last to introduce television, was opening itself up to the world - but it was the expats who fascinated her the most, perhaps because she saw her own restlessness, and need for meaning, in their choices.
"These were people who had realized that the value of life was … getting out from behind your comfort zone and going places and doing something to help people," she says. "When you're sitting in a newsroom in L.A. with people who are dealing with commutes and mortgages and 'Oh my God, I don't have a baby and I don't have a boyfriend' it's easy to forget."
In writing the book, she also had to process some of the hardships of her life. The most traumatic was being raped by a man who broke into her apartment at night. That incident propelled her into an early first marriage. She wanted to prove to herself that she was healed, but "I wasn't ready to be married," she says now.
In Bhutan, while immersed in the local community, it dawned on her how love was present in her life in many ways. "Romance is wonderful and partnerships are great. But that's not all there is. Community can be just as nourishing as a marriage."
Near the end of the book, in a chapter she calls The Thunderbolt, Part Two, she describes a rendezvous with Sebastian, whom she hadn't seen since the party in New York. They had kept in touch but because they lived on opposite sides of the country, they hadn't been able to get together. This time, after her stint in Bhutan, she had a chance to take him up on an invitation to visit his family's cabin in New England. Other friends were supposed to join them but, at the last moment, they bowed out. The two were left alone with wine, food, deer, turtles and a view of a lake.
There was a long, passionate kiss, but also a thunderbolt of a revelation. Sebastian was the One all right, but in a different, unexpected way. His role was as the person who had introduced her to Bhutan. Their intense connection, she realized, was not about true romantic love. It was about friendship. "I think that's a far better story than if we'd ridden off into the sunset together," she says with a laugh. "It's more interesting and it's more real."
In the years following her first visit to Bhutan, Ms. Napoli, now 47, has returned five more times to stay in touch with people she met there. Living in L.A., she is composing a life of myriad interests. She is promoting her book. She has ideas for other ones. She is raising money to build a library in eastern Bhutan. She volunteers at a homeless shelter. And she has become known for her ritual potluck Friday parties, which she started to enhance her sense of community.
The uncertainty doesn't faze her. "Am I a perfect enlightened being? No. Am I always thrilled? No. But the last few years a switch has been flipped, and I feel like my default is looking at my life with a sense of abundance rather than a sense of lack."
Oh, and by complete happenstance, there is love in the form of a man, even though the story never made it into her book.
About two years ago, as the last draft of her memoir was being completed, she had arranged to volunteer for six months to a year in an orphanage in Thailand. That's when she met Ted, a 42-year-old Ethiopian-Palestinian.
He asked her to interview an author for a speaker's series at a public library in Los Angeles. "I almost said no," she recalls. She was still finalizing the manuscript. But she changed her mind at the last minute.
Her story is not so much Eat Pray Love as Live and Love Follows.
The two are now living together. "I decided to be flexible," she says of her decision to delay her overseas volunteering. "I needed to see how our relationship would evolve."