I re-watched ‘Before Sunrise’ recently. It’s the first in a trilogy of films by Richard Linklater, each set (and filmed) ten years apart. In the first film (set in the mid-nineties), a young couple meet on a train and, in a spontaneous gesture of youthful foolishness and adventure, disembark at Vienna and stay up all night wandering the streets and talking. She, Céline (Julie Delpy), is French and he, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), is American. They are introspective, idealistic, and wide-eyed. Revisiting it, I found it didn’t affect me as it did 25 years ago. I think because when I first saw it four of us (myself and three girls – all of whose names began with A.) had not long returned from inter-railing across Europe.
Our starting point was Rotterdam, because my brother lived there. From there we took the train to Prague. We arrived late with nowhere to stay, but an angel appeared at the station, whisking us to an apartment that seemed to be an early, unregulated, and much cheaper form of Airbnb – £5 a night for the four of us. “Just put the keys on the table and pull the door when you leave” she instructed, after taking the money; very trusting. She told us Prague was how Paris was 25 years before. Now, 25 years later, I wonder what city is left to discover: underdeveloped, the old ways intact, preserved.
Leaving Prague, we routed through Northern Italy, spending a few days in a campsite on the outer fringes of Trieste. Needless to say, the whole trip was made on a shoestring, so when our new friend Claudio (for whom the campsite was home) offered to share his chicken with us we were delighted. A. no. 3 was suspicious of his hospitality and stayed in her tent eating crisps. It was July 1992. The campsite was one mile from the border with Slovenia, the outer-edge of the Bosnian war. Julie Delpy’s character makes mention of it in the film; how guilty she feels to be living free with war on the doorstep. Plus ça change….. I remember a man at the campsite offering to take us across the border to a market where we could buy meat for one third of Italian prices. Although penniless, none of us were clamouring at his offer.
Memory is a hazy thing, and looking at the map of Europe now, I wonder at our zig-zagging route, but I’m pretty sure from there we took a train through Austria, setting down at Vienna just for the day. A. no. 1 thought it was Venice and wondered where the canals were. Back on the train, someone had placed an embargo on me bringing my espadrilles into our carriage, so it had become my habit to leave my pungent footwear in the corridor. Somewhere in Austria, they disappeared, jettisoned, no doubt, by someone who could no longer bear the smell. By the time we got to Paris by some means I had acquired shoes, and, in a feat of unplanned perfection, we arrived on July 14th: Bastille Day. We found two rooms in what was generously called a ‘hôtel’ on the Rue Des Trois Frères, a narrow street on a hill running up to the Sacré Cœur. At the nearby Place du Tertre tourists were having their caricatures sketched. A. no. 2 managed to cobble together money enough to commission her own. The artist said he would do everyone’s for free if I would stay with him. A. no.1 (the boss) seemed to consider this as a reasonable exchange. In the end I wasn’t traded. Much as we wanted to eat on the terraces of the bistros of Place du Tertre, we had no money. We lived off cheese, baguettes, pâté, tuna, and 80p plastic bottles of wine. When the tuna was eaten we would rinse the cans and use them as wine tumblers – yuk! One person’s clever improvisation is another person’s re-enactment of George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’.
Our hotel room had a small balcony and from about 9pm, as the darkness intensified, more and more revellers, celebrating Bastille Night, made their way to the vantage point of the Sacré Cœur. That’s when we were beckoned down by Valéry and Xavier. “Venez, les filles!” they called up to us. Two of us joined them and we walked up to the Sacré Cœur to watch the fireworks. A. no. 1 spoke no French and her companion no English, but they found common ground, bizarrely, in a shared love of the script of ‘Gone With the Wind’, firing Scarlett and Rhett lines at one another.“As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again, ……Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,….. tomorrow is another day.” Like Jesse and Céline in the film, the four of us pretty much stayed up all night wandering round the 18th arrondissement just for the fun of it. When we left them in the early dawn, suddenly Xavier had better command of English. He took A.’s had, kissed it and bid her farewell with, “Just as I was getting to know you, kiddo.” “Is that from ‘Gone With The Wind’?” I asked her. She just blushed.
Today is Bastille Day, and I’m quite certain that young people in France, and beyond, are staying up all night creating memories of summer adventures that they will look back on fondly in 25 years to come.
‘Not To Sleep’, Robert Graves
‘Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
Counting no sheep and careless of chimes
Welcoming the dawn confabulation
Of birch, her children, who discuss idly
Fanciful details of the promised coming –
Will she be wearing red, or russet, or blue,
Or pure white? – whatever she wears, glorious:
Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
This is given to few but at last to me,
So that when 1 laugh and stretch and leap from bed
I shall glide downstairs, my feet brushing the carpet
In courtesy to civilized progression,
Though, did 1 wish, I could soar through the open window
And perch on a branch above, acceptable ally
Of the birds still alert, grumbling gently together.’