I was there, and he was there...

Stephansdom, long after midnight

Stephansdom, long after midnight

I managed to get through nearly the entire cold, wet summer without getting a cold, and even held out through our short but sweet honeymoon in Vienna last week. But at last, as often happens when you are trying so hard not to get sick, your body finally succumbs, and you find yourself waking up sniffly, groany, and grumbly (not the new names of the seven dwarves) in a way that not even a good cup of coffee with foamed milk, a glass of blood orange juice, and soft-boiled eggs can cure. As is very often the case when I am sick, while my body is busy keeping me in, my mind is soaring to new heights of restless creativity. Perhaps because I am so obsessed with being productive, it is on those days when I have the least energy that I always regret the things I could be doing. I should just spend the entire day in bed watching movies (the last time I was sick I re-watched Inglourious Basterds and found it to be even better than it was the first time I saw it, nearly three years ago and right after my first Berlin visit).

As it is, I did in fact watch a movie—two really, but they are so closely connected they should be counted as one—in preparation for my second trip to Vienna: the subtle, beautiful, and romantic twin slices of life called Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. These films can be quite polarizing I suppose, with half the crowd full of appreciation for their honest look at young love and what happens to it as we grow older, and for their gorgeous portrayals of two European capitals in which it seems inevitable that one will fall in love. I saw these two films by chance and strangely: the second one first, when it came out in theaters during my first year of college, and the first one several months later, encouraged by the friend who had originally dragged me to the theater, promising I would still enjoy and understand it, really just wanting a companion in the dark, nearly-empty theater. I don’t think I quite got the point of “Sunset,” and “Sunrise” was hard to watch because I knew just what was going to happen to the two star-crossed lovers. Yet seven years and many, many experiences later, I find myself watching them with renewed interest, appreciating the directness and simplicity of their approach.

What it comes down to, in the end, is just how much of our lives—the pain and hardship we suffer and complain fervently about, the good fortune we so often overlook—comes down to just a few chance circumstances that could have been entirely different. As I take stock of my life right now, sitting down at last to write wedding thank you notes to old friends who have known me far longer than I have known my husband, I find myself shocked and surprised and confused and pleased by the unexpected twists and turns I have taken. How different I am from who I was in 2003, when I first started taking my writing seriously, first started college, first fell in love, soon after first had my heart broken. And how many small details, the significance of which I could not have possibly comprehended, have led me to me, here, now.

In 2003 I met someone, and that meeting blossomed into a serious relationship. At some point within the first year, I was asked, perhaps pressured, to move in with him. I agonized over what to do and say, and perhaps fumbled my approach to the unexpected situation I found myself in, but eventually I told him I couldn’t do it. I was already feeling detached from new friends and my college work, and perhaps that simple “no” set a pattern in motion that led me down one path instead of another. In order to assert my independence and to have an adventure when I felt it might be my only chance (it had become clear that my relationship with him would make it impossible for me to study abroad), I took a year off from school during which I worked in the “real world” (an arts organization with an office in Times Square) and at last, with the money I had accumulated from this rare, well-paid job, took three months to travel across Europe on my own. I am convinced that my decision to do so had two far-reaching consequences: first, by physically distancing myself from my then-boyfriend, I gave him the room he needed to do what neither of us had the courage or foresight to do when we were together—to break up with me. Second, by throwing myself headfirst into a frightening and new situation (traveling alone to a number of countries I had never been to before where I did not speak the language), I laid the foundation for my first trip to Berlin a few years later. Had I stayed at home like he wanted me to, we may have never broken up, or at least, not broken up in time for me to realize that my best choice was to stay in New York City at the university I had worked so hard to get into, instead of dropping it all for an unknown future at a smaller school in the middle of nowhere, the desire for which had consumed me the entire year. Newly single, and (I thought) hopelessly so, I threw myself into my studies and had two great years at Columbia which I look back on fondly and perhaps nostalgically, and which still influence me today.

My last year at Columbia, I became somewhat infatuated with a professor of mine twice my age, verbally sparring with him in a class of over one hundred people, becoming inspired, and doing what was probably my best work. Who knows in the end what he thought of me, but our conversations were intensely inspiring in that way that only intellectual exchanges between brilliant professors and enraptured students can and should be. He encouraged me to apply to a Master’s programme at Oxford, wrote one of my recommendations at the last minute, and repeatedly asserted that I was a shoe-in. I was rejected from the program. Had I been accepted I would have spent one or two years in England, perhaps finding out that academia was not for me, or perhaps going on to earn a Ph.D, which I would still be toiling over today as I write this. Perhaps all my love of reading for the sake of it and my dreams of being a writer would have been banished from my head, or stuffed in a bottom drawer to make more space for the seemingly grander thoughts of literary or post-colonial theory. I might have even decided to stay in England. I might have met someone there that would have made leaving unthinkable.

Instead, this very same professor listened to my outpourings of disappointment and then, very matter-of-factly, as if it were always the Plan B he recommended to rejected Oxford candidates, told me to learn German. German, he said, was the most important language for those studying literature, and surely any Ph.D programs I applied to in the future would take note of a small but concerted effort on my part to learn this perplexing language. I was confused as to how to go about it, but because I took everything this professor said seriously, I decided I would do it. A chance conversation with another friend, who had dated a German boy and briefly considered going to Berlin to take lessons before they broke up, nudged me in the direction of the capital. I had already signed up for lessons at the Goethe Institut when a bit of internet research and trolling around message boards gave me an idea of what I was in for. If I hadn’t taken the leap to travel on my own three years earlier, I might never have had the nerve to go to a city where I knew no one. Berlin may have been destined for me, but it took a long time for me to arrive.

Finally and most amusingly, a series of chance meetings led me to where I sit now, in an old house in the middle of Berlin on a hidden street with a garden, married (married?!) to a crazy jazz musician whom I love more than anything. About six months after moving to Berlin, my mother got in touch with me, as she often does, with the name and email address of a girl who had just moved there. In typical mother fashion, she told me she didn’t actually expect me to write to this girl or ever to get in touch with her, but she would do her duty in passing on the information anyway. To her (and my) surprise, I did write to her, we met up, and we became fast friends. She invited me along to a large brunch that a fellow American (who she too had been put in touch with through her mother) was organizing. I was rewarded for showing up by a meeting with him and and an introduction to a whole series of his friends. The links continued. One fantastic summer and a three-week sojourn in New York later, I was back in Berlin in early September, trying to stave off boredom and jetlag. I received an email from this friend which contained a forwarded message: his upstairs neighbor, a jazz musician, had invited him to attend an art opening at a gallery at which he was playing. Might I want to come along? Jumping at the chance to have a reason not to fall asleep in the mid-afternoon (pathetic, even when you’ve been on a plane from the US less than 24 hours earlier) and realizing that the hotel was close by, I went. And there he was. The moment I saw him my shyness took over, but my friend grabbed me, forcing me to speak to him, and I felt my stomach do several back flips. I feel it again as I write this. Our first interaction might have lasted thirty seconds.

Now, here I sit. That friend who introduced us is now my downstairs neighbor, and I share a small flat in Berlin with a German man and grand piano, both with very large personalities. My mind reels at all the chance encounters that had to happen in order for me end up here. If my mother hadn’t encouraged me to get in touch with H, she never would have introduced me to M. If I had never met M, he would never have invited me to the gallery where I met J, and J would never have been my J. If I had been accepted to the Masters programme at Oxford University I would never have come to my professor nearly in tears, imploring him to give me advice on what do to now, and he would never have recommended German, and perhaps I would have never made it to Berlin. What would I be doing, had I stayed in New York City? Where would I be living, and with whom? The languages I would not have learned; would they feel like a missing space in my psyche? The places that had gone unseen by me; would I come across pictures in magazines and gaze at them longingly?

Towards the end of “Before Sunset,” when Jesse and Celine are sailing down the Seine on one of those “ridiculous tourist boats” as they call them, captured in time for just a moment as they were nine years previously for one night in Vienna, Jesse lets out a sigh that is part exasperation at the path they didn’t take, part wonder at just how much one decision can matter. “Oh God, why weren’t you there?” he asks, referring to the pact they made to meet again. “Our lives might have been so much different.” The film rewards repeated viewings over a number of years, but it also speaks some truths that are hard not to grasp the first time. For them, the connection was most certainly real, but the timing was off, and that can be the great tragedy of so many love stories. If one of those stories finally goes right, however, you start to see everything else as another arrow pointing you along, just one in a happy series of coincidences that led you to exactly where you are supposed to be. I was there, and he was there, and my life is so much different.

(Image: Wien Stephansdom at 3am)