Amazing Ain’t Always Amazing
I’ve had the fairytale romance. Foie gras from Fauchon. Elegant French chocolate. The most stunning and sophisticated bouquet of flowers I have ever seen. Unfortunately, I was just not in love with the man who gave them to me.
Have you ever bitten into a shiny and perfect Red Delicious apple only to find that the inside is mushy and tasteless? Or perhaps you’ve fallen victim to a picture-perfect gourmet meal that left you feeling hungry and unsatisfied.
After years of dating and tasting from many menus, I’ve come to realize that the ideal relationship (if there is such a thing) doesn’t always come in the perfect package. Perhaps it wasn’t for nothing that my mom occasionally called me Snow White when I was a little girl (although as a blonde child, Rapunzel or Cinderella would have been more logical, but I think it had to do with my fair skin). Snow White was enticed by the perfection of the red apple offered by the witch but found it was not what she had hoped. Yet, without eating the apple and going through what some might call a “rough patch,” she may never have met her Prince.
When I first met Jon I was living in Paris and studying French Cultural Studies at the Columbia University campus in the Latin Quarter. He was living in London and working in business. (It already sounds like a fairytale, don’t you think?) Mutual friends threw a Thanksgiving dinner at their flat in London and invited all their Ex-Pat friends. A bit homesick, I decided to hop on the “Chunnel” train and join my friends for the holiday. Jon and I only spoke a few times that evening, and I didn’t think about him again for many months.
Later that year, gearing up to take the Eurostar to London again, this time for a friend’s wedding near Hampstead Heath, I toyed with the idea of contacting the friendly guy I’d met at Thanksgiving. This, however, was short lived since I couldn’t remember his name. But Fate has a way of intervening... Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from Jon (Oh, yes. That was his name!) who was looking for a language school in Paris. When his contract ended in London, he planned to spend the summer in Paris studying French before heading to Harvard Business School in the fall (what a fairytale, huh?). I wrote back and told him about my upcoming trip across the Channel.
Other guys might suggest meeting at the pub or perhaps a coffee shop in Covent Garden. Jon, however, was not like most men. He took me to the Savoy Hotel for high tea and dancing. (Starting to get the picture?) We ate cucumber sandwiches, drank Earl Grey, and did our best not to embarrass ourselves dancing. While the string quartet played, elegant and refined British couples glided across the dance floor, and I put more clotted cream and strawberry jam on my scone.
A month or two later, Jon moved to Paris. And thus begins our summer romance worthy of a Nicolas Sparks novel; however, we did not have the happily-ever-after ending of fairytales and romance novels. The summer of 2001 was an odyssey filled with amazing meals and romantic getaways, yet not without some ambivalence (from me…he knew what he wanted).
For our first official date, Jon told me to be prepared to be gone all day. Having no idea where we were going or what we were doing, I fretted with my roommate over what to wear but finally settled on something casual. Jon arrived at 9 am…in a car! I hadn’t ridden in a car in months (except for the taxis my parents insisted on subsidizing to keep me from walking home from clubs late at night). With handwritten directions neatly folded in his left hand, Jon adroitly maneuvered the rental car out of the city and onto the autoroute.
A few hours later we arrived in the beautiful Loire Valley. We picked up provisions at a local market and then made our way to Château de Chambord while belting out the words to one of my favorite French songs, “Cette Année Là,” which has the same tune as “Oh, What a Night.” (If you grew up in the 80s and 90s as I did, you know what I’m talking about. It was a favorite at slumber parties and on roadtrips with girlfriends.) Not only did Jon have this song on a mix CD, he knew the words! “Je chantais pour la première fois…” Although I still didn’t feel a strong attraction to Jon despite the amazingness of the day, I thought that perhaps I could fall in love with him if I gave it enough time. Who but a prince surprises you with a trip to a castle AND likes the same music?!
On a patch of lawn next to a meandering creek on the castle grounds, we laid out our picnic: fresh baguette, aromatic cheese, sausage, and a crisp French rosé wine. When we toured Chambord, one of the largest and most impressive of the Loire Valley Châteaux, I had the ever-so-unsexy idea of spitting into the courtyard from the balcony. I don’t know what possessed me to suggest such a thing, but Jon wasn’t deterred and joined in my vulgarity. (This I’m afraid would quickly have been edited from a Nicolas Sparks novel, and Disney fairytales are too squeaky-clean for spitting, but this is my fairytale and unfortunately, mine involves hocking loogies.)
After touring a number of other châteaux and enjoying a delicious dinner in the town of Amboise, we returned to Paris at 2 am and Jon kissed me goodnight at the door to my 7th floor walk-up apartment. The longest (and arguably most romantic) first date on record came to a close, and I mounted the stairs with a combination of giddy excitement, fatigue, and confusion. Kissing Jon in the wee hours of the night on a dark street in Paris was thrilling, yet I was still uncertain, and I worried about my lack of affection for this Lancelot. I hoped my feelings for Jon would continue to grow because who doesn’t want to live out a real-life fairytale love affair in Paris!
As the days grew longer, we strolled the streets of Paris hand in hand, watched the sunset while lounging in the Luxembourg Gardens, went hiking in the Fontainbleau forest much loved by the French Romantic poets, dined in classic bistros, and ate coucous and chicken side-by-side in my tiny apartment. We did crossword puzzles in the Bois de Bologna, watched the Bastille Day fireworks from underneath the Eiffel Tower (though in retrospect I think metaphorical fireworks are much more romantic), and admired the City of Lights from the deck of a riverboat. On a hot and sticky summer day, we ate popsicles before entering the Catacombs but once inside, wished we’d stayed in the sun away from the piles of forlorn bones.
Except for the bones, it sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it? It was…and it wasn’t. Mario Cuomo once said, "You know, if the moment is right, the candles are just right and the drink is just right and the music is just right and you're just right and she's just right, and you lean over and touch her hand, it's magic. If the moment is wrong, it's your clammy hand on the back of her sweaty hand, and it doesn't work." Our relationship had the potential to be magnificent and on the outside it was, but you can’t make yourself love someone, even if he’s really nice, does everything just right, and takes you to beautiful places. Can you? I was going to try.
One weekend, Jon and I went to Normandy for a rain-filled romantic getaway. We explored the chalk cliffs and imagined seeing the Allies storming the beach. We ate pungent Camembert in the car, admired the beautiful jewelry in boutiques in Deauville and Trouville, agreed that Calvados was disgusting, and devoured raw seafood in Honfleur. Until I met Jon I had reviled raw oysters but under his tutelage, I learned to love them, and now they rank among my all-time favorite foods. From him, I learned many things and had some of the most amazing experiences of my life. For that, I am eternally grateful.
To celebrate the completion of my master’s thesis, Jon took me to Les Ambassadeurs, a restaurant in the heart of Paris with two Michelin stars. My menu didn’t even have prices! On our way home that evening, we stopped at the Roue de Paris in the Tuileries gardens. From the top of the massive Ferris wheel, we admired the illuminated monuments below. Can you get any more romantic?
Love unfortunately has to be a two-way street, even in Paris. No matter how hard I tried and how much I willed myself to fall for him, I just wasn’t in love. Unfortunately, love doesn’t always make sense and despite how much I liked and admired Jon, I couldn’t reciprocate his feelings. (What was wrong with me?) When Jon said, “I love you”… I couldn’t say it back. After a long pause I said, “Thank you.” (I know…I’m one of them, the ones who can’t say “I love you”! But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to say it if it’s not true.)
A few years later, I did fall in love. This man was very different from Jon. If Jon was the gourmet meal (or the ruby red apple), Aidan was fish tacos from a street vendor in Baja or a good bowl of hearty stew on a cold day. Our relationship wasn’t particularly romantic and it certainly wasn’t elegant, but somehow it worked. But that’s a story for another day…
So, I’ve eaten from the perfect apple, and I’ve had experiences that have forever changed me. Like Snow White, if I wait long enough (preferably not in a deep sleep), will my prince come? I think he might be on his way…we have a date Sunday.
Recipe for a Romantic Picnic(preferably with someone you’re madly in love with or at least think that you might one day fall for…)
1 Beautiful blanket
(I’m a fan of Provençal patterns—the guy won’t give a hoot what kind of blanket you choose because he’ll be looking at you, but I always like to set a beautiful table even if no one notices. Ambiance and presentation make the food taste better.)
1 Picnic basket
(The more retro, the better. If you can get your hands on the kind that Yogi Bear would steal from unsuspecting campers in the Saturday morning cartoon, even better! Once again, the guy won’t care, but it will help set the scene. Plus, when you use the pictures of the picnic in the photo-montage at your wedding, it will look really authentic!)
(I prefer using ceramic, glass, or sturdy plastic instead of paper plates. You’ll be helping the environment and when you try to cut something on the plate, it won’t fold in half or break in two.)
1 Sharp knife for cutting meat and cheese
(This way you’ll have to share…)
2 Wine glasses
(If you’re concerned about the glass breaking, there are great non-breakable acrylic wine glasses available at places like Target.)
1 Bottle of wine
(I especially like chilled, crisp dry French rosé for picnics, but anything you like is a good choice. If it’s a hot day, you might consider Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier or if you prefer red, try Pinot Noir. Added bonus: If you get a bit buzzed, the kiss might come sooner!)
1 Fresh French baguette
An assortment of cured meats
(Salami, Prosciutto, Serrano ham, sausage, ham, etc. If you don’t eat red meat, try smoked salmon.)
An assortment of cheeses
(Brie, Camembert, Gorgonzola, Blue, Chèvre, Parmesan, etc. There are far too many to choose from.)
(Mmm…Who doesn’t love a good olive?!)
(Carrot sticks, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes…there are far too many to list. This will make you feel a bit healthier after all the cheese and salami.)
(Choose something seasonal and sexy. Strawberries can be fed to one another, and pomegranates are fun and messy to eat but also kind of erotic. Grapes and fresh figs are also great choices. I will never turn down sweet cherries, and pears and apples go well with cheese.)
(If I have any male readers who might be planning this picnic for me or for their own true love, do not forget the chocolate. Women love chocolate. I think dark chocolate is more romantic, but that’s just me…)
1 String Quartet
(This is optional, of course!)
•Mario Cuomo quotation from a 1990 interview in American Heritage