14 February 2007

A boy, a girl, a castle

Disclaimer: it's Valentine's Day today, so I'm allowed to be mushy.

Ironically, although this might have been the first year of our nearly six-year relationship that we would have been together on the holiday, the Mr. is in Strasbourg this week and won't be here until Thursday. Not that it's so terribly important, because I'm as fed up as anyone with the whole overabundance of red and hearts (although Brussels is nicely low-key on the subject). But it's still nice to have a day for recognizing the importance of love (and loved ones) in our lives, and a day that prompts us to tell each other just that. And to eat chocolate.

So I thought it would be a good time to get down on paper (as it were) the story of how I met the Mister. This story is what some of my friends at the time called "a real life fairy tale." You know, in the end it's just a boy and a girl who love each other (eew, am I quoting a Julia Roberts movie?), but some of the elements--a castle, the Mediterranean, midnight by the lake, lost and found letters, even 9/11--have a fairy tale flavor.

It was March of 2001, and I was working in Salzburg as an intern at a place that puts on week-long seminars for participants from around the world on a variety of topics (arts, sciences, education, politics...). It's unlike any other seminar-type place, though, because everyone stays on site at a luxurious Austrian castle overlooking a lake with a view of the Monchsberg. There's a pub in the basement where the real bonding happens, a gilded dining hall, and every participant ("fellow") and lecturer ("faculty") comes away with a list of forty new best friends.

I suppose you can see where this is going. I was an intern, and I remember putting together the "welcome" bulletin board for that week's European Democracy session with everybody's photos and, as I usually did, noting who were the Spaniards (so I could practice my Spanish). This curly-haired guy, however, caught my attention from the first. Although he remembers that I passed out the programs at the very first lecture and that he said hello in German (thinking I was Austrian), I don't remember that moment.

Instead, I remember hanging out in the Bierstube (and pouring beers, as was also sort of part of our job description as interns) one evening during the week, and talking to some Russian dude. But out of the corner of my eye I saw the curly-haired Spanish guy and saw him approach. I don't remember what we said at the first, but I do remember that was when he found out I spoke Spanish, and that the Russian dude was forced to drift away in the face of our jabbering away (and blatant ignoring of him). That night, we stayed in the Bierstube talking until the wee hours of the morning. About what, I only remember vaguely: archeology (he had studied and worked as an archeologist), Spanish vocabulary, and opera (his favorite was Lucia di Lammermoor).

The following nights, more of the same. The night before the last day of the session, I attended a lecture and lingered afterwards, deliberately started a conversation with one of the other Spanish fellows in hopes that my curly-haired fellow would come find us. And find us he did. We spent another night not wanting to leave each other's side. I remember I tripped back to my room and could barely fall asleep.

It was the night of the farewell banquet, where everyone gets dolled up, and I was wearing my best velvet dress. As I walked towards the sweeping staircase between the cocktail reception and the dining hall, there he was, coming in the opposite direction. He said "Qué tal?" and I didn't know what to say, because of regular shyness compounded by language. "Bien?" he said, and I nodded. I found out later he had deliberately turned around and walked towards me in hopes of sitting at the same table. As an employee, however, I held back with the others until all the participants had been seated, and only then joined a table. The table I joined? Was his, of course, but with a cushion of some other people between us.

After the banquet, there was a dance, and when he finally found me sitting in a corner, we got up to go downstairs to the Bierstube, which we thought would be quiet while everyone was dancing upstairs. But someone else had had the same idea: a cadre of Russian fellows had brought their personal supply of vodka down to the Bierstube, and a large woman with smeary lipstick and a strange knit checkerboard skirt suit was drunkenly warbling Russian at the top of her lungs. We sat there and watched this bizarre scene, aware that in a few short hours, his early-morning flight would depart. I think we even played ping pong, not knowing what else to do.

Eventually, everybody else came down to the Bierstube to continue the party, and we danced. We danced like we had never danced before, and never since. It was kind of Spanishy music, and it was the sort of thing where everybody else stopped dancing and watched us: he took my hands, and told me just to look at him, and the music took hold and I followed his lead. Normally, I would have been dying of embarrasment to dance in front of others, but in that moment, the others hardly existed. Later, someone (a co-worker, I think) told me that he had never seen anything like it.

The night went on, others continued dancing, and we went outside, where the weather was frosty, and sat on a bench overlooking the lake. The lake was ringed with lights, sending a magical glow towards us, with mist coming off the warmer water in the cold air. We kissed and were quiet, at a loss for words. Then, without warning, I got up and ran away. Yes, RAN, as in full speed towards the buildings and my room. I didn't even know why. I didn't say good night, I just ran. Before he knew what I was doing, I was gone.

In retrospect, I think it was a combination of things. I didn't want to say goodbye. I thought that the most likely scenario was that I was falling for a typical Latin lothario, a guy to whom I was just a little fling. For me, all of this was a Very Big Deal, really the first time I had ever experienced something like it. And it was just this inexperience that made my right brain tell my left brain that this instinctive trust was risky. I was sure that he would depart for Barcelona and that would be the end of that. So in order to not have to say farewell, in order to avoid facing any false hopes, I ran.

And sure enough, I didn't hear from him after he left early the next morning. I consoled myself, thinking he didn't have my contact information. Maybe my logical brain was right and he had already forgotten about me. But two days later I discovered, nearly simultaneously, that he had written profusely to my unchecked non-work e-mail account (an address had been published, unremembered by me, in the session facebook), AND that he had left a handwritten letter the very morning he had departed. It had been in my mailbox the whole time, hidden under a pile of work mail. Enclosed in the letter was a calling card. He wanted me to call. He wanted me to come to Barcelona.

Overwhelmed, I didn't respond right away. I remember agonizing over what to say to him. I felt that as much as we had talked during the previous week, there was still so much he didn't know about me, or I about him. Did we share the same religious faith? Importance of family? Is he in this for the short haul or the long haul?

After writing that message and sending it, I thought that I would never hear from him again. That he would consider this all too intense, that these questions would send him away. But the opposite happened. He wrote back nearly immediately, reassuring my doubts, affirming that his fundamental beliefs squared with mine, and continuing to want to see me as soon as possible.

At this point we began to talk on the telephone, and I would regularly return to the office after dark (as I had no phone in my room) to talk to him for long stretches at a time. And always he would ask when I would come to Barcelona. Finally, knowing that with this act I was potentially changing my life, I bought tickets to fly to Barcelona for Easter week.

{to be continued}

1 comment:

Amanda said...

I already knew this love story, but not in such a nice narrative form...it warms my heart!