In the film Before Sunrise Ethan Hawke plays Jesse, an unbearably earnest American collegiate who, while on a trip in Europe, falls intensely in love with an accented French girl called Celine, played by Julie Delpy, who he meets on a train. Jesse convinces Celine to disembark the carriage in Vienna to spend time in the city overnight, where they walk and talk philosophically about life, love and relationships. They share an intense overnight walk together, which involves a smooch on a ferris wheel, a poem written for the couple by a bum on a canal, and a fumble in a park. The next morning, Hawke pretentiously quotes Dylan Thomas reading W.H. Auden in the soft post-coital dawn. Reality calls. Their liaison must end. Jesse and Celine must get back to their real lives. They make a pact to meet six months later in the same Viennese train station.
I first watched Richard Linklater’s film when I was 16 during a summer spent devouring the local Chartbusters’ surprisingly discerning collection of world cinema. To anyone over the age of 25 watching it for the first time, the film is filled with dialogue that would make you cringe, as the twosome fudge their way through articulating their grand ideas of life. For eternal optimists (or anyone under 25), the film is a romantic fantasy, an homage to thee naiveté of youth. It’s young love on a Euro-rail pass at its most panty-sopping. The film struck a chord with my 16 year-old self, who was prone to romantic aspirations which led me to have my own train journey involving a girl.
This train went to Cork’s Kent Station. I was 14. I travelled there to visit Alison, who I’d talked to mostly online. It was the nineties. There were no social networks, avatars or one-line bios, there was only “a/s/l” (age / sex / location) typed out on clattery keyboards and sent via text-line chatrooms. Alison was from Midleton. In the chatroom we bonded over our love of Oasis. Online communication led to a real-world pen pal correspondence. Like the conversations between Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, we shared our hopes and aspirations for our lives to come. It was decided I would visit for an overnight stay in her family house in Cork. So one summer morning I made the journey.
Our actual time together was awkward. We hung out and watched a movie with our respective friends in the house. The next day, we walked around Cork city before my departure. There may have been a peck on the cheek at some point, but a real romantic relationship was only a desire for both of us.
That desire for romance led me to make some questionable moves growing up and my sense of courting didn’t always work in my favour. When I was 16 I was paired off with the best friend of the girl my mate wanted to shift. Rather than take the opportunity (or her) with both hands, I actually told the girl that “We should get to know each other first.” Her mouth was agape. She patiently asked me some rudimentary questions so we could get to the kissing. I was too idealistic - a romantic sap.
A few years prior to this, I rang the house of a girl I went to primary school with. I saw her in her secondary school uniform one day and I decided a romantic walk down by the river in the local park was the key to her heart.
When I made the phone call her mother answered, but passed the phone pretty quickly, as if used to these adolescent advances. I had idealised and idolised the idea of asking her out for weeks. The question came out of my mouth and into the receiver (it was still the Nineties) and it was met with confusion.
“Who’s this?” she said. I said my name... Awkward silence. “We were in the same class in Scoil Mhuire...” More silence. Then hesitation. She did not remember who her suitor was. A crushing rejection
We met years later at a house party in Dublin. In my lucid late-night state, I reminded her of the phone call. She remembered, and said she thought it was sweet. I felt a long way from the kid who made that from that bathetic and pathetic phone call.
Two years after the infatuation with the redhead, I had my first girlfriend. I’d moved from Dublin to Kildare. It was 45 minutes down the motorway but everything was different, including me. Local kids would ask me to say, “Go and shite,” so they could get a laugh out of my Dublin accent. The Commitments had just come out. In an act of utter coolness, I started to slick the sides of my hair with wet-look gel, and wear a regular t-shirt over a long sleeve one. It was 1994, I had seen Nirvana’s Lithium video and I thought I was cool as fuck. This grungy Dublin exoticness was obviously an attractive proposition to the girl next door, Lisa.
Lisa and I had a summer romance that involved grand gestures like holding hands during Batman Returns in the local cinema and kissing in the long grass in the field behind the housing estate. Our family were staying temporarily in the house for the summer while we looked for our permanent house. We moved 15 minutes down the road at the end of the summer. Her family helped us move into the house, a former B&B that had a sauna installed in the bathroom. It was where we shared our last kiss. When I visited her house the following week, it was like it had all never happened. Lisa had a new boyfriend, a local boy who I was friends with. She didn’t want to see me anymore.I was devastated. My romantic summer ended abruptly.
Some years later, aged 25, I went to The Hub. The place stank of shit and sewage which infiltrated the dance-floor via the pipes overhead. Sitting against a wall near the DJ booth, as far away from the smell as possible, I struck up a conversation with the girl beside me. Her name was Aoife. Her accent was distinctive: a combination of having grown up in Saudi Arabia, having gone to an American school, and having a family from Monaghan. She seemed familiar. We hit it off. We talked about avocados. I pretended to her friend I was a Belgian called Hans. As we talked, the familiarity hit me. I recognised her voice. She had a radio show on a local station interviewing indie bands and my friends’ band had been on-air with her only a few weeks before. She thought it was sweet that I recognised her.
We walked home together since our respective houses were in the same general direction. On Camden Street, Aoife broke up a fight between two stumbling drunks in the middle of the road as taxi cabs beeped their horns and swerved to avoid the melee. She later confessed that she broke up the fight to impress me. It wasn’t a romantic gesture. Like my own romantic displays, it was a misguided (and definitely inebriated) idea that some form of late night bravado would endear me to her.
We kept in touch through a message conver-sation conducted through Myspace that included sharing references to kitsch Daniel O’Donnell souvenirs, shitty job interviews, and watching The Last Waltz for the first time. I have the transcripts of our digital conversations from Myspace. They are as cringey as anything in Before Sunrise. Like Linklater’s film, they are filled with small moments that strengthened the attraction growing between us. Gestures like surprise phone calls or stopping a scrap in the street weren’t needed. Eight years later, Aoife and I are still walking home together.