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June 13 2013 9:35 AM

My Summer of Before Sunrise

I traveled across Europe looking for my own Ethan Hawke. Turned out I was no Julie Delpy.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise"
Julia Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This week, Richard Linklater’s indie hit Before Midnight expands to theaters around the country, including in my Midwestern city. I have pre-purchased my ticket to a noon matinee on opening day, as I did with 2004’s Before Sunset—and, as in 2004, I’ll be attending alone, so that I may afford my wistful nostalgia the pensive solitude it deserves.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

I affected a similar pensive solitude back in 1995, the year Céline and Jesse first hit the screen, and the year I, too, Eurailed my way across the former Eastern Bloc. Rather pathologically inspired by the first film in Linklater’s series, Before Sunrise, I spent my own European journey dead-set on finding a Jesse of my own. Given that real life is not the movies, when I met a bookish American boy that summer 18 years ago, I didn’t get quite as lucky as Julie Delpy. As I watch Céline and Jesse this weekend, I’ll be thinking fondly of their awkward, 1990s selves—and somewhat less fondly of foolish, beyond-awkward 1990s me.

The film scholar Steve Vineburg has written that for many, Before Sunrise was so affecting that “you wanted to carry it around with you as long as you could, like a dream seeping into the morning hours that you try desperately to hold onto.” Eighteen-year-old me wasn’t one for subtlety; I not only cleaved onto that dream, I also attempted to pummel it into the literal. Jesse wasn’t a “callow, motormouthed man-boy,” as some thought; he was the ’90s archetype of my romantic ideal, and I would find him—or at least an approximation thereof.

During my just-ended study-abroad program in Germany, I’d made sure to acquire several charming affectations: a pack-a-day habit, “cool European” hair bleached a brassy shade of straw, and, most importantly, the utterly sincere expectation that I would soon spend 24 hours with the love of my life after meeting him on a train. This guy would display a cynical exterior that belied a shy but somehow also preternaturally expressive core, which he would reveal only to me, and haltingly at that. If I asked if he’d ever been in love—as Céline asked Jesse, in an early conversation in the back of a teetering Vienna Straßenbahn—he would answer, as Jesse did: “Love … I mean, I don’t know. You know?” Oh, I knew.

My desire for such profundity at such an impressionable age turned my three-week Eurail trip to both tragedy and farce, as I pathologically anticipated—and obviously failed to find—deep, meaningful connections on every train, bus, U-Bahn, S-Bahn, or Straßenbahn I rode.

By the trip’s second week, I was getting exasperated. I’d made lots of cool friends to smoke cigarettes and be cynical with, but alas, there had been nary the prospect of erudite sex. But then, outside of Franz Kafka’s childhood home in Prague, I spied a scruffy young gentleman I knew I’d seen four days earlier in Berlin. The coincidence was acceptably serendipitous, and so, with the fervor of a director, I began to contrive a wrenching filmic scenario. Things began auspiciously: Early in our own aimless walk, my paramour—I’ll call him Clive—actually remarked that we were having “such a Before Sunrise moment.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I lied, not wanting to let on how achingly sincere my desire was for exactly that. Looking back on this moment, I realize that not only was my refusal to share in the interaction’s meta-aspect borderline psychopathic, but also, in attempting to force the conceit while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge its existence, I managed to preclude what could have been an actual moment of connection. After all, his remark suggested that he, too, was searching for something or someone, that he’d been moved the same way I had.

Clive and I made our way through the narrow, winding streets of the Old Town on a sweltering day, my shapeless spaghetti-strap dress sticking to my backpack (a stark contrast to Delpy’s alluring display of similar ’90s vestments). And aside from the requisite amorphous haircut, Clive didn’t resemble Ethan Hawke—but it wasn’t about Jesse’s looks. I wanted a guy who would be attracted to literature—specifically, the prose of Kafka, whose haunts and grave I was in Prague to visit with the zealotry of a religious pilgrim. So I didn’t care about what Clive looked like—I needed to know what he read.

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And what he read, it turns out, was not something cool like Klaus Kinski’s autobiography. It was Middlemarch. “Ugh,” he said (appropriately) upon reading a few pages of my journal—the sharing of which was an activity more intimate to me than sucking face atop a giant Ferris wheel, as Jesse and Céline do in Vienna—“that was soooo Kafkaesque. You should only read the Victorians.”

In Before Sunrise, Jesse has a similarly condescending moment, after Céline attracts the attention of a palm reader outside the Kleines Café. “I hope you don’t take that more seriously than some horoscope in a daily syndicated newspaper,” he scoffs, as if Céline, a graduate student at the Sorbonne, needed a lesson in Important Reality Stuff. But Céline pushes back, showing a hint of the philosophical stubbornness that will crest in their passionate fight 18 years later. I, on the other hand, was too dedicated to the project of transforming my so-far textbook day of tourism into a transcendent experience, so when after his masterful literary “neg” Clive maneuvered an arm around my shoulder, I responded in kind.

Jesse and Céline’s sex scene takes place outside the film’s narrative space, so its marvelous details are left to the imagination. (Nine years later, they disagree about them, in fact.) However, I can pretty much guarantee that even in Linklater’s quirky mind, it didn’t go down like this:

EXT. PARK. NIGHT.

JESSE
This is the slowest hook-up ever.

CELINE
All right! Jeez.

The two engage in 75 seconds of spasmodic communion.

CELINE
Uh … did you, you know …

JESSE
Yeah! I was trying to again.

CELINE
I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.

Despite this palpable lack of chemistry, something about our single day of interaction made Clive invite me along to Budapest. Having achieved my contrivance with as much success as I really deserved, I demurred—at which Clive was visibly saddened. While I had spent the past day attempting to force a moment, in his understated Victorian way he had the nerve to develop something sincere. Downcast, he asked if I knew Bob Dylan’s “(Don’t Think Twice) It’s Alright”—and then sang it to me, the whole thing, a cappella. No longer concerned with diverting from the script, I gave Clive my college P.O. box, and we said goodbye on a crowded Prague metro a few hours later.

So why, other than the fact that I was an idiot in the way 18-year-olds are idiots, did I think this was a good idea? Why didn’t I understand that Before Sunrise was a movie, and thus by nature unrealistic? I mean, Jesse “can’t afford a hotel,” but he and Céline drink like 17 Viennese coffees, the combined price of which could put him up at the Sacher. But Linklater’s genius (and that of his co-writer Kim Krizan, plus Delpy and Hawke) is for generating the kind of off-the-cuff authenticity that makes viewers long, unapologetically, for the act of longing itself.

Clive and I did not meet six months later, and did not indulge in what was at the time the exciting new medium of email. But that winter I did receive a postcard from the U.K., where he was still studying abroad. It described, in admirably deft prose, an afternoon spent watching a street musician, and ended in the phrase “swirling about the unsayable.” I didn’t answer it.

I’m 36 now, sometimes put in charge of actually teaching Kafka to a new generation of angst-ridden 18-year-olds. I’m in a relationship with a terrific guy I met seven years ago in graduate school. He’s never seen Before Sunrise (“… and I never will!”), and he leaves me to my own literary choices, but I must admit: He’s also never lamented anything as “swirling about the unsayable.”

And this is the real reason why I will attend Before Midnight alone, as I did with Before Sunset back in 2004. Back then, nine years after Before Sunrise, and once again tottering through Prague’s winding streets (I lived there at the time!), I was already nostalgic for my quasi-intellectual youthful contrivances. And then, as now, I couldn’t help but wonder where Clive ended up. I imagine in his intimate life he has gained some experience and stamina. And perhaps he, too, sighs about the summer of 1995 with mingled humiliation and sadness. But most likely, he’s forgotten all about it—and will maybe sit through Before Midnight, if his wife drags him to it.

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