Spending my first Valentine’s Day single in a decade made me realize something. I never dated.
I had two long-term boyfriends in high school: one incredibly sweet, one definitely insane. Then I moved to New York City and met zero eligible bachelors at fashion school. Shocking.
In my first year of college, the only man I saw on a regular basis was the one behind the register at Magnolia Bakery. In my second, I met my husband. I was 19 when we started dated, I got married at 25, and found myself divorced at 30.
Suddenly like so many other areas of my life; when it came to dating I was terrified. Due to my age, I may appear intermediate, but I was a beginner. I didn’t know the codes, the etiquette, the social cues of going out on dates. I didn’t even really want to start dating, or fully feel ready to, but the fear of being behind the game was somehow worse than just jumping in and seeing how I played.
But I had to face the facts: I’m a freelance, travel writer who doesn’t go out at night and has the girliest hobbies of all time. My chances of meeting someone in the wild were rare. I’d have to go on the apps, but it was all foreign to me. I didn’t know which ones to download, let alone how to fill out the prompts and choose photos to show who I am. My mind raced with questions…
Do I come out and admit my obsession with Disney princesses, or hide that fact?
Do I need to have photo in a swimsuit? (According to my male friends, yes.)
Must my profile say I’m divorced, or do I just slide that into the conversation at some point?
I felt stupid asking these to anyone, but in the end, my guy friend and I swapped phones at brunch one day, and he made the final edits on my fresh profile while I offered constructive criticism to his veteran one.
When it was all said and done, I felt like an advertisement and I hated it. I scanned through profiles like I would scan the cereal aisle of a grocery store; intrigued by the colors or label on the box for a moment, but ultimately deciding it was all the same, fake, junk that probably wasn’t good for me.
Upon hearing my woes after going on a few dates in Manhattan, my English best friend had a revelation over afternoon tea. (Clarity can apparently come from mass amounts of clotted cream.) I didn’t belong with an American man! I never could! I needed the kind of wit, and charm, and romance that only exists on my favorite continent: Europe. I needed to be with someone whose name I couldn’t pronounce and whose tiny village I’d probably visited.
In France, suddenly the apps were way more fun. Names popped up like Thibault, Rodolophe, Francois, and Jean-Baptiste. In their photos, their hair was long and dark, and their eyes darker. They wore smart, cashmere sweaters and tailored trousers and pointy-toed shoes. They looked just the right amount of unshaven, and listed hobbies like cooking, reading poetry, and practicing the viola. Not one man had a picture showing off an enormous fish. I was giddy.
Perhaps to them, I wondered, I would also appear a novelty; posing with a homemade pie, or against a white-picket-fence in Ohio, or road-tripping America in Daisy Dukes. Maybe I was Europe’s idea of exotic?
In America, after matching, I was expected to spend days texting a stranger before they might, maybe propose an actual meeting. And that always came in the form of, “what do you want to do?”
This question began to infuriate me.
What I want to do, is go on date with someone who can just plan a date instead of asking me to figure it out! I knew I was new to this world – but was it so unheard of for someone to just take charge and tell you where to be, when? I wanted to hear “I’ll pick you at seven, I hope you like live music,” not “so what should we do?”
As this continuously happened I began to wonder – is old-fashioned romance totally dead?
Apparently, yes. At least in the United States.
But in France, I found it alive and well. After matching – things happen quite quickly. It’s not uncommon to be out for un verre that same evening! As someone who is certifiably horrible at texting people back, this was the most welcome change. I barely have time to communicate with the people I do know and like – the last thing I want to do is spend hours messaging strangers.
One conversation with suitor x actually began with a phone call. I declined, thinking it must be a mistake – but then I got a voice memo, and our entire conversation proceeded that way.
Why? He wanted to hear my American accent.
Merde, I thought at first. Here’s where he realizes I don’t speak French very well…
But apparently, an American accent is very cute.
I’m still not convinced, but I’ll take what I can get.
My voice may work in my favor – but eventually, the language barrier is a barrier. While I’ve studied French my whole life – I admit my expertise lies in ordering crepes and asking if those shoes are available in size 39?
Flirting requires quick wit, and wit requires expansive knowledge of a language. Slang, idioms, sarcasm, and irony are immensely hard to master and missing from my current dictionary. I start off strong, but as conversation picks up, I’m quickly defeated.
While I can often think of the perfect response in my mother tongue, I don’t always know the translation. Large gaps in time where I consult Google are often present in my text chains with friends or dates, but in-person no such thing is possible. You have to have the words at the ready.
It was this that really made me face my lack of fluency, and want it more than anything. Not so I could date, but so that when I speak French, I can still sound like me.
I became committed to learning. I did verbal courses on an app twice daily, took French class at a charming French school in New York called Coucou, and watched movies in French at night to learn. But the best knowledge, of course, comes right directly from the source: the Parisiens. And now that I’m here, spending time with French friends and going out on dates – my vocabulary and comprehension is expanding rapidly every day.
What I love most about learning French is understanding the way sentences are strung together. The choice of words, like everything here, is simply more romantic.
While planning our date, rather than asking me, “what do you want to do” – what the French boy says translates to, “What tempts you tonight?”
What tempts me, is you asking me what tempts me.
He might also ask, “tu as prevenu quelque chose beau pour ce soir?“
This is how we Americans would simply say, “do you have plans” but in French, it literally translates to “have you already planned something beautiful for this evening?”
When you want to say that you miss someone the way the phrase is constructed is tu me manque – you are missing to me; like an actual part of you is incomplete without them. It gives such profound emotion to an over-used phrase.
And when a French boy proposes a date, I’ve learned he’ll often suggest – on peut faire une ballade. Let’s take a walk.
The evening does not revolve around where and how much you will drink, but rather around walking the streets of the city of lights. On this stroll, accordion players provide a soundtrack as you talk. He won’t ask you about your job or how many siblings you have – he wants to know your passions, your favorite artist, what song you love more than any other. You should be prepared that he might even ask you to dance – yes I said dance – in the street. Especially if it starts raining (it’s happened to me.) And when you’ve found the perfect corner – in plain view of absolutely everyone – he’ll kiss you. Not a peck, not a smooch, but a kiss. Like in a movie.
Perhaps then you will sit, side by side in a cafe, and share a bottle of good, red wine. And you’ll be desperately trying to suppress the world’s largest smile because everything that just happened, actually happened. It’s every cliche in the French book, but you don’t care, because this book is one you’ve never read, and it feels like a fairytale.
Romance is engrained in the French; it pumps through their blood the way enthusiasm does Americans. Maybe I’m naive – but these words, actions, and moments which would seem so terribly cheesy everywhere else seem genuine here.
Even if you never meet again after that first date, (which often, you don’t) you still believe in the authenticity of everything that passed. He really did want to know what you thought of the Greco exhibit at the Grand Palais, he really did want to dance with you on on the bridge, he meant the compliment he paid you – he does find you ravissante. And the kiss you shared in front of the sparkling Eiffel Tower actually did stop time – just for a second.
It’s sad, but divorce makes you cynical. I always believed in fairytale endings: Disney movies, The Notebook, the season finale of Sex & the City where Big finally realizes that Carrie is the one and flys to Paris to tell her!
I thought that I had my fairytale, but it didn’t end happily ever after. Now I sometimes wonder how I could ever get married again. I don’t think I could walk down an aisle, the way I did once, and believe that the person I was walking toward would stay forever. While dating in Paris feels novel right now, my girlfriends here all tell me soon it will get old. The French are infamous for loving you one day, and disappearing the next.
But maybe for me, right now, that’s perfect. I’m not trying to find a boyfriend. Now that I’ve finally put myself back together, the thought of giving even a little piece of me to someone seems crazy.
I’m not really looking for someone to fall in love with – I just want to take a walk. I want to feel a little romance; see if a few butterflies are capable are floating in my stomach. I want to be kissed in the street, I want to interlace my fingers with someone’s else’s, I want someone to ask me what painting I linger longest over in the Musee D’Orsay. And if, or when, they disappear afterward, I suppose it won’t surprise me. I have already learned it is rare for someone to see that you are special enough to stay, no matter what country you’re in.
But maybe there’s a tiny part of me that wants to believe I’ll find someone when I’m not really looking. Someone whose love wouldn’t take any part of me away – it would leave me completely intact. Because part of me wants a man in my life to bake a homemade pie for. Part of me wants to one day hold my baby. Part of me hopes I could hear vows again and believe them. And if there’s anywhere to try to believe in romance; if there’s any place that could convince me that love can last and is real, and the risk of heartbreak is worth taking – it’s Paris.