It’s probably time I tell you how I met my indulgent husband, because a conversation he and I had twenty-four years ago is the inspiration for the topic I want to tackle this week.
As I headed towards the end of high school in 1996, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life; I only knew that I wanted to finally grow up. I had a lovely upbringing on the shores of Lake Erie, in a smallish suburb of Cleveland. I was surrounded by wonderful people: young people and grown-ups alike. In our upper middle-class village, we enjoyed activities and opportunities that none of us really deserved, and that many of us, now that we are adults having to navigate the world, many of us parents now, too, are only now starting to realize were privileged.
So really, that my only sure goal in life be to finally grow up is something that I shamefully admit comes from a place of privilege. I had absolutely no idea what it would mean to grow up, but I suspected that it would mean I would be less sensitive, less emotional, less caught up in the millions of ideas that constantly swirled in my head. I probably thought it would mean I would learn to stop interrupting when people talked and would be able to not feel like the success of every conversation rested solely on my shoulders.
Yes, I was insufferable. That word is not one anyone ever called me. It was one I picked up from a Jane Austen novel and had to look up. Here. Enjoy. (Reading is dangerous to your self-esteem, people. Don’t do it. Wait…wait. No. Keep reading. I can’t publish my novels if people stop reading altogether.)
I felt like, in order to grow up, I needed to get as far away from home as I possibly could. One idea was to go to Hawaii. The other was to go to France. I went to France.
For some reason, I was always good at French. The only possible explanation I have for this is that my sister Poppy started studying French when she was in sixth grade, as one does in a charming lakeside village in Northeastern Ohio. Hearing her spout off little French phrases here and there was irresistible to eight year-old me.
She went to France in high school with a trip organized by Mademoiselle Sands, her French teacher. This was too much for little me. I came to fantasize about the day I would get to go to France, too.
So when the opportunity arose to participate in a competition through the AP, I did. I was selected to study for one year in France at a university, as if I were a French student, with zero amenities for young women who think they can speak French simply because they studied it for a few years in school.
My mother still asks herself how she could let her eighteen year-old daughter cross the Atlantic by herself. She didn’t even have a passport! But she did.
And that is how I ended up in Montpellier, France, at a bus stop in January of 1997, twenty years to the day before my youngest child was born.
There is so much to tell about the time between September of 1996 and January of 1997, but I know I need to streamline my thoughts, so bear with me while I swallow back a mess of circuitousness and anecdotes about discovering minimalism, my obsession with an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical which referenced the Montpellier train station, thereby going out of my way to use the bus stop there, and having peacocks for neighbors.
Up until that night in January of 1997, I had never attended a movie alone. I went to go see “The Truth about Cats and Dogs.” I felt so urban, so grown up. I felt beautiful that night, too. I was wearing a red check skirt and a turtleneck sweater. By the time the movie let out, the buses had switched over to their night schedule, which meant that all the sprawling university housing complexes were served by the Rabelais, the nighttime bus line which took three times as long to get anywhere because it stopped everywhere.
I waited alone at the bus stop in front of the train station for a while. Then, a young man with longish dark hair and big heavy glasses arrived and began studying the timetables.
“Puis-je vous aider à trouver quelque chose?” I asked. May I help you find something? Because, long before I worked at Walt Disney World, I was already practicing being in Guest Relations.
He was looking to get back to one of the university housing complexes, one called Triolet. I lived at Vert Bois. I knew that the Triolet stop was well before the Vert Bois stop, and I, ever the tour guide and secret bus stop stalker, told him so. I told him that if he sat near me on the bus, I would let him know when to get off.
This young man, as I said, had longish dark hair which he regularly blew out of his eyes with a rather exasperated sigh. It was a strange tic. I kept my distance.
When the Rabelais finally rolled up in front of the train station, the bus was full but for one seat. I ended up sitting next to the young man with the sigh and the glasses.
We made conversation. He thought I was Swiss, which I found to be compliment, because at least, given my accent, he didn’t immediately think I was American. I had been trying very very hard to cover my American accent with bits and bobs of other regional accents and was secretly pleased to have pulled one over on a real French person.
Although I found him strange, with that tic and the glasses and the fact that he had to take off his coat in the bus because he apparently would get motion sickness if he got too warm, he said one thing that intrigued me: He was a philosophy student and would soon become a philosophy teacher.
This naturally changed my attitude. I had ideas, you see, and I wanted to, nay, was compelled to share them with anyone who would listen.
However, the bus trip proved shorter than I expected, I guess because I finally found someone who would listen to me spout my ideas. We vaguely shared building numbers (There were no cell phones back then. None of us had phones in our room. We had building numbers.)
A few weeks later I was having lunch at Triolet, because their cafeteria had a fresh pasta bar…like, you made your own pasta in their machines and cooked it yourself. It was fun. I’m sure this kind of thing would be illegal now, but this was 1997. Hygiene was just a buzz word.
Since I was at Triolet, I decided to stop by the building where the philosopher lived.
He happened to be home. He also happened to have gotten a haircut.
He also happened to have lovely brown eyes and when he spoke French I understood him.
Thus began a friendship of ideas. Of philosophizing and arguing logic and playing Mastermind late into the night.
A Theory on Everything
Before you start thinking “How romantic…”, let me just stop you right there. There was nothing romantic about this friendship. We were both poor students who liked to do free things (there was a free zoo just outside my window, thus the peacocks. There were free concerts offered by the university music department. We were cheap. Very very cheap)
The thing we liked to do most, though, was talk. I trademarked a phrase during that time: “J’ai une théorie sur ça.” I have a theory about that. This phrase has stayed with us for twenty-four years. I still have a theory on everything. Thus why I am exhausting on a good day, mindbendingly infuriating on a bad day.
He had theories on everything, too, but was a much better listener than I will ever be. In the end, there are two theories from that first year that I remember.
His theory which I still remember: “Why would you want to grow up, when being childlike is what makes you so fun to be around?” This, my friends, is why I would end up marrying this man a few years later. It was not a reason to fall in love with him, something I didn’t do until much, much, much, much, much later. But it made me feel understood. And to feel understood was a soul-shifting feeling. It may not have been reason enough to fall in love with him, but it was reason enough to marry him.
My theory which I still remember: “Women become old and men become distinguished.” Truly, at nineteen years-old, I believed this to be true. I believed that there was certain age at which women stopped being beautiful, stopped being interesting, stopped being credible. Whereas a man, he would go from distinguishment to distinguishment until the day he died.
Well now. As I have more than doubled my age since I developed that little gem of a theory, I have, as you might imagine, come to change my perspective a bit. I have a theory as to why, as I’m sure you do, too.
So this week, I would like to dismantle the wisdom of my youth in a series called, “Letters to Twenty Year-old Me.”
I would love to hear from you on the subject, as well. Do you have theories about ageing? About youth? Join me on Facebook and Instagram and let’s talk about it. I promise I’ll try to be a good listener.
In the meantime, please enjoy this article about an eighty year-old woman who gave herself a tattoo instead of a facelift for her birthday. Because she isn’t done sparkling yet, either.