I was a haunted child – haunted by the translucent shadows of dreams that darken the corners of the waking world. When the hours of the day had climbed to their highest height and lamplight glowed like ethereal beams I would sit wide awake at my desk writing stories and binding them into books and then making lists of all the places I would someday go and all the languages I would learn.
I am now a haunted woman. I sit awake late night in the dim light of one too few florescent bulbs, plagued by the ghosts of wild hopes and youthful dreams. On the wall above me hangs a poster sized picture of the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower shines golden bright from behind clumps of fog while streetlights line up along the Seine, all balls of orange, all reflecting a rippled picture of light and France upon the water’s surface. I took that picture myself. I kneeled down in the muddy grass between bits of melting snow, rested my shamefully cheap camera upon the cement wall beside the river and took that picture on the third to last night of December.
Then, it was just a picture. Just a pretty sight that, honestly, I didn’t love as much as other pretty sights I’d seen in past weeks in Innsbruck or Istanbul or Edinburgh. I said then that I thought people love France because France is easy to love. France speaks the language of love and boasts a phallic symbol of romance that reaches high up into the sky, above Notre Dame and the Saint Chappell, high enough to be seen and photographed with amazing clarity from Montmartre, even on a day thick with fog. France – like love itself - is timeless, with movie characters and vacationers alike all strolling along the banks of the Seine, whether in black and white or HD. France is outdoor cafes and a glass of wine with lunch, whether in 1812 or 2012. France is art and bonne nourriture. It is as iconic as its reigning queen of tragedy and excess, Marie Antoinette. France lets you eat cake and you like it.
We all know how to love France. We’ve all seen enough movies to know to say “Oui” and “Non,” “Bonjour” and “Au revoir.” It’s easy to swoon for the Eiffel Tower, because we can buy a black, white and red poster of the perfect Eiffel Tower swoon at any Urban Outfitters. We all know that wine is romantic and we can easily love a place that lets us spend a two hour lunch sipping Cabernet Sauvignon in a charming café while we read Madame Bovary.
Yet I didn’t love France. My heart preferred a challenge. It preferred to smooth the rough edges of Turkey or soften the harsh tones of the German shouted in bars in Innsbruck. My heart preferred to love that which is loveable in spite of its dark corners and tough exterior. Not that I’m saying Turkey or Austria are difficult to love or unsavory places. They’re not, but they’re also not France. A place like Turkey is the boy in rock’n’roll band who smokes a joint while undressing you with his eyes; it’s rough around the edges but that’s part of its allure. France, however, knows romance by heart and it effortlessly courts you with flowers and chocolates.
When I was in France it was near the end of a very long journey across countries and months and Easy Jet terminals. I had friends who had gone to Europe and been captivated by an Italian boy or a summer romance in the Alps. They’d described to me the kind moments that busted at the seams with fireworks and trumpeting fanfare, white horses and sunsets. But I had said (not to them, but to others) that the kind of people who find moments like that are the kind of people who need such moments, the kind of people who are not yet happy enough, who are looking for a sign or for themselves. I said that I did not need trumpets or fireworks, white horses or sunsets. I didn’t need France. I wasn’t looking for a sign or for myself. I was finding quiet paradise in lonely cemeteries in the Austrian Alps and in warm pubs along the Cornish coast.
Yet it is not a picture of the Alps or of the Cornish coast that I ordered an oversized print of and hung upon my wall; it is France. When I first hung that picture on the wall beside my bed I thought I was doing so simply because it was a stunningly beautiful image. Now, I realize I was doing it as a reminder to myself of all the beauty the world holds, all the romance, all the dreams that can come true. Years ago, as I sat at my desk listing the languages I wanted to learn, French was at the top of the list. And for all the years that would follow, French remained at the top of the list. And I am proud to say I did it. I learned the language of love. I also learned French.
I donned a black beret and rode a carousel in front of the Eiffel Tower while holding hands and smiling at person I love. I skated figure-eights beneath the silvery shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I waved at the camera while the man I loved waved back at me from behind the lens. I made a reality the dreams that my relentlessly hopeful heart had first wished to come true. And that’s what France is for. France is for dreamers. And later, if you’re lucky and your dreams come true, France is for remembering the dreamer you used to be. And then, even later, when those dreams that came true have come to seem like vague memories of someone else’s life, the picture of the Eiffel Tower is so you never forget to remember the dreamer – to remember how to dream.