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Before Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight: Reclaiming memories

A caveat: None of this will make sense to you if you have no memories attached to the movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. If that is the case, skip this post, and run – don’t walk, run! – to your nearest video club (uhm, Netflix) to watch them before you return to this page.

Before Sunset in Beirut, Lebanon

I did not set foot on an airplane until I was 13 years old. I was not one of those traveling babies, looking all cute in their cosmopolitan strollers, being photographed in front of the Eiffel Tower. I discovered the beauty of the road as an early teenager – a perfect era for discovery, in many senses. My relatively stationary childhood did not adequately foreshadow the endless years of nomadism to come in my twenties. I remember only one childhood home with clarity, the site I call home in Greece to this day, and have only one faded memory of the apartment that preceded it, which involves my being a fat toddler who was afraid of the Christmas tree. The word ‘wanderlust’ did not enter my lexicon until college, nor did the more wistfully nostalgic and elegant concept of ‘saudade.’ Both describe a sense of deep longing, of yearning for places and people far away, the kind that now feels innate in me but I know I once lived without experiencing.

I have kneeled by the side of mass graves in Guatemala, and I have yet to go to Italy. I have worked in Sudan, and I have yet to see Madrid. Therein lies a paradox of my life and work as a conflict management professional: I have called many places home, I have commuted by airplane, but I have failed to tick the boxes of some of the most traditional traveling experiences for a young European girl. This is where Before Sunrise became central to my imagination. The plot is simple: Boy meets girl on a train through Europe, and they spend the day walking through Vienna together, making memories. The movie came out in 1995 and cemented in the younger version of me a vision of travel, Europe, and youth that was synonymous to spontaneity and affection, spiced with wit.

Before Sunrise was not the first movie to romanticize Europe or travel and I was not the first to be susceptible to that image. The reason it stuck, the reason I succumbed to it despite my hints of cynicism at the time, was that it was attached to memories of early, young love, untainted by cynicism. By the time the sequel Before Sunset came out, I had left Europe to make my first home on a US campus. Watching the movie required squeezing me and him on a twin extra long mattress that barely fit two sets of hips and a giant laptop whose fan was so loud that it overshadowed the soundtrack.

Those movies were more important to him than to me; he was always the one who insisted that we watch them, and the one to remind me we always failed to finish them. When that affair started falling apart spectacularly, he would send quotes to my Hotmail account reminding me of the movie, of what Celine and Jesse would say. Would they make these choices? What if they had chosen differently, unsentimentally, unromantically? Which memories would they now carry?

It has been nearly a decade since both that chapter of life and Before Sunset. To play with our heartstrings, another sequel is out, Before Midnight, and it takes place in Greece (with the fitting irony much appreciated). I ‘get’ those movies now much better than I did when I was first exposed to them. I have met strangers on planes and trains. I have walked through new cities with these strangers and have allowed some of them to become friends and the cities to become homes. I understand what there is to love about this kind of life, I have decrypted the allure of wander and wonder and instant infatuation and leaps of faith. I have even given in to some of those. That boy from the Before Sunrise epoch has loved again, and so have I, and the era of twin extra long beds and oversized laptops with noisy fans is almost un-nostalgically behind us. And still, that era and those images haunt this movie series, leaving me entirely paralyzed in the face of Before Midnight. 

Any time I have met someone during my travels who references these movies, I know they are ‘my people.’ I know they have graduated from ‘stranger’. It is an arbitrary graduation, and it comes with the knowledge that these movies are part of the vocabulary of my sentimental education. Finding others who recognize that language, who have held on to it as a token of their own precious memory, is a ritual of finding kinship. I have subjected every lover since then to the movies. Most have sat patiently through them, shoving popcorn into their mouth through the corny parts. Some have failed to grasp what there is to love about Celine, Jesse, and their conversations, and I can even feel their judgment: “Do we really have to watch a cheesy 1995 movie about Eurotripping?” I have asked myself if I would be equally patient with a romantic companion who made me sit through a vampire flick or a supernatural movie about aliens who procreate with Godzilla to save the world from ending because those movies were  important to said companion — would I cast my own skepticism aside? Why does it matter to me that someone peer into the annals of my sentimental memory?

There comes a terror with facing the sequel, and it’s not the usual fear of “is it going to be good enough?” and “will it disappoint?” and “ugh, I knew it, they really should have stopped at two movies.” It’s the fear of having grown up with Celine and Jesse and allowed them to leave an imprint on my impression of a wandering kind of love. They have aged; 9 years passed between the making of each sequel. We have had time to board our own trains, get lost, get found, fall in love, be heartbroken, make homes, leave homes, leave loves, leave whole selves behind. Revisiting the movies, watching Before Midnight, comes with a fear that those other selves will come crawling out of the dust to remind us of the dreams we once carried. We have moved on. I want to know what happens to Jesse and Celine’s love, but I fear the regression to the girl I once was: to being 13 and dreaming of travel, to being 17 and dreaming of love.

I have never been good at replacing or deleting memories, perhaps because I have never earnestly willed that to happen. At best, I hope to complement them, to change their coloring by adding the new hues. I will watch Before Midnight, with equal parts apprehension and anticipation, in the hope that I can make some space on the shelf of my memories for the 20-something girl I now am and the dreams I now inhabit.

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