I hunkered down this past Friday night with the agonizingly romantic classic movie, “Before Sunrise”. Just in case you need your long-term memory jogged, an American student played by Ethan Hawke plucks a young French woman played by Julie Delpy off a European train and they embark on one remarkable evening in Vienna. If you’ve ever fallen head over heels in love even once, and recall knowing your way around a Europass and a backpack, this film will wreck you, in the best of ways.
My marriage is in nice shape, in no small part because we live 773 air miles apart. Sure, Celine and Jessie’s impossible romance sparked youthful feelings of falling off a cliff. But oddly, this 1995 walkabout also cued a different emotional response.
The star-crossed couple meet at a time before cell phones. They speak – a lot! – of things that mattered when you were in your 20s. They wander through crowded streets, unshackled by anything. As the long night wears on, they meander through gaslit alleyways and sit at close quarters in cafés and nightclubs. They fall in love with life, and one another, under the purest of conceits. A one-to-one relationship with unbridled hope. They were kids back then and that film was shot 25 years ago.
When Zoom was something you did on a Vespa
I first traveled to France around that time and like every other American, fell stupid in love, visited the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, got drunk on the other-ness of Europe, and watched the dawn break, stumbling out of a café as the sky grew crinkly and pink over the Eiffel Tower. You couldn’t help but be enamored of everything. Those feelings of optimism molded my life then and to this very day. What can we hope for when these surreal times segue into whatever comes next?
The current climes ensure that no American is going to stroll – in person – through the streets of a European capital for a good long time.
I gawk at my European Insta-friends’ feeds and feel myself growing numb. Celine and Jessie would have traded emails and become Instagram buddies. Life lived through a digital glass screen all of a sudden doesn’t feel like life at all. But in this, the age of safe distance, it might be all we’ve got.
The final message of “Before Sunrise”, to me, seemed to be: trust your instincts and show up for life.
Paris of our dreams
It made me think of a long-ago meal I shared with my best friend in the 17th. I had just gone through a painful divorce and carted my two young boys over to France for emotional resuscitation for me, and a soupçon of summer escape for them. We had been strolling around the streets of Paris with the boys and when we noticed it was dinnertime, we found ourselves at L’Entrecôte.
We queued up on the line and when we finally got seated, the place was packed, the roving platters of meat an orgiastic feast to my hungry eyes. We ate slabs of rare beef and dipped our frites in the salty blood juices, as my boys fell asleep, heads on the table in the smoky Parisienne din.
Memory needs no safe distance
I, like so many Americans, crave a return to Paris the way it used to be. I know that is not possible. There’ll be no smoke. The tables will be populated by devices competing with meaningful dialogue. We’ll wash down a statin with our last glass of red. Age and time can play cruel tricks, but memory can be a clear, dear friend. They say you can’t go back, but I will.
Je me souviens. It was sweet back then, and it will be again.
Steak-Frites Américain Recipe
I cook by memory muscle. This is my simple recipe to capture the flavor and feel of a time carved long ago in my culinary past.
- 1-lb/450g or so cut of flank steak
- 1 bag of skinny-cut frozen French fries
- 2 T. butter
- Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste (a lot of taste!)
- Generously salt and pepper the flank steak at least one hour before cooking.
- Heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit/230 degrees Celsius.
- Lay out a single layer of fries and cook for 20 minutes in oven at high heat, flipping once. Be sure to not let them burn.