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Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Secretaire
At last, a post that is not about 1.) packing; 2.) moving; 3.) saying goodbye to people or places; 4.) anything on my Big To-Do List; or 5.) anything related to academia. This is a post inspired by one of my favorite memories.

As I mentioned before, I'm rereading one of my favorite novels, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. While we were driving home from New Town on Monday evening, I reached one of the passages that always strikes me as beautifully romantic: in this passage, Levin (aristocratic farmer) and Kitty (a princess, and the love of Levin's life) see each other at a dinner party. Months earlier, Levin had asked Kitty to marry him but she refused him because she thought she was going to be asked by the dashing Count Vronsky; that offer of marriage never materialized. Levin still loved Kitty, though, and Kitty realized that she actually did love him back, but Levin was too ashamed to ask her to marry him again after being refused the first time. Anyway, Kitty and Levin sit down together in a moment that is nearly exploding with romantic possibilities and play a game of Secretaire. In this "game," one person writes the first letter of a sentence or phrase, and the other tries to guess what the phrase is. So, "I love you" would be written down as "I l y." It is an intimate game.

Tolstoy recounts the game so beautifully. The passage is one of those that makes your heart flutter when you read it, transporting you back to a time when, perhaps, you felt as caught up in romance as Kitty and Levin did. As I was reading this passage, I remembered one of the most romantic periods of my short life.

When I was 20, I studied abroad in Central Europe for seven months. I lived with a family while I was there, a delightful family who truly made me feel like I belonged there and had always been there. I was invited to family events (e.g., birthday parties, anniversary dinners) and knew the extended family very well. Even though it was a decade ago, I still keep in touch with many members of this family.

In my second month abroad, I met the 19-year old nephew of my host family. His name was Peter, and he was positively dashing. He knew all about poetry, could speak English almost fluently, could waltz and polka effortlessly, knew all of the Alpine trails like the back of his hand, and was enrolled in medical school to be a surgeon. He had dark brown hair and beautiful brown eyes, dressed sharply, and was kind to everyone he met. Everyone in the family always raved about Peter, and they were very excited for me to meet him.

When we met, the attraction was instantaneous and so obvious that my host mother pulled me aside to tell me to be careful with her favorite nephew. Peter and I met at a family dinner, and after dinner we took a long walk through narrow European city streets to get to know each other better. We didn't return until after 3:00am, both chilled to the bone after a frosty February night.

Peter, who was from a small town about two hours away from where my host family lived, decided that night to stay with my host family for a few weeks. He did that because of me, and I loved it. We spent all of our time together: innumerable long walks, operas, plays, movies, lazy dinners. I remember that it was a treat just to be next to him in a chair reading; we would read poems in English and in German, then talk about different novels, then talk about politics... it was fantastic. After a few weeks he built up the courage to kiss me. My goodness.

To say that I was in love with him is a vast understatement. I was in awe of him. I adored him. And I can safely say that he adored me. He thought I was pretty, loved that we could talk about anything and in two different languages, and loved that I broke all of the stereotypes about American women he'd been taught. When he eventually had to return home, we both cried. We were miserable. He sent me a letter or postcard every day, letters and postcards I've kept all these years because they are too beautiful to throw away. Letters and postcards I've never shared with T because they are only mine.

During my sixth month in Europe, we were again at a family function, but this time in his hometown. By this time we'd had thousands of adventures together and could finish each other's sentences, no matter the language. One night, the family (host family plus grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins) settled in to watch a special program on television, something they rarely did. Peter and I sat together to watch the program, too, at the very back of the room. Peter had a pencil and a piece of paper on his lap.

"Do you know this game?" he asked me. "Secretaire?"

I didn't know it, and didn't remember it from Anna Karenina. He explained it to me and I was intrigued. I remember how the game progressed just as if I had the sheet of paper in front of me now (I still have the paper somewhere, perhaps tucked in with his letters).

D n g b t A, he wrote in his clear block letters. I knew what that was. I didn't have to say it out loud. "Do not go back to America." I responded with Y k I m. "You know I must."

B I l y, he wrote again. I k, I responded. I w t m y, he scribbled quickly. A I y, I wrote. W y m m? he asked, writing faster than I could think. ("But I love you." "I know." "I want to marry you." "And I you." "Would you marry me?") I remember that I could feel my heart beating in my throat, and that I didn't know how to respond. I t I w, I wrote. ("I think I would.")

Thinking about this moment brings tears to my eyes because it was so lovely, so romantic. Here we were, two people madly in love in the shadow of the Alps, surrounded by family members who loved us both but who had no idea what we were "talking" about in the corner. I wasn't sure if I should take this written proposal as an actual one; in the days that followed, however, Peter assured me of his intentions, saying that I had to find a way to stay in Europe for a few more years while he finished school. We didn't tell anyone about anything. I didn't know what to do. I was only 2o years old -- was I ready for marriage? And a marriage that would require that I live abroad for the rest of my life?

I pondered the entire situation for several weeks, right up until the week my visa expired. After a tearful goodbye to the family who had virtually adopted me, I boarded a plane and returned to the United States. Sitting on that plane, I honestly thought my heart was shattering into a million pieces. I didn't know where I belonged.

As I think back on that time of my life, I cannot remember how Peter and I lost contact. He is the only member of that family I have no connections with today, and no one speaks to me about him. A few months after I returned to the U.S. and started my final year of college, I met T. T is nothing like Peter at all, aside from the fact that T is also very handsome and intelligent. I often feel like I was meant for T all of my life, but that God granted me the extraordinary romance of Peter just for me to keep in my memory, sweet and perfect for the rest of my life. And that is why as I read the Secretaire passage in Anna Karenina and blushed and smiled as the memories of Peter flooded my brain, I could in the next moment reach over and squeeze my husband's hand as he drove our little family safely home.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 7/19/2006 09:35:00 PM  
6 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 11:06 PM, Blogger phd me said…

    This is such a sweet story, PM. Thanks for sharing.

     
  • At 11:27 PM, Blogger Leah said…

    Thanks for sharing such romance (which is sometimes a bit hard to find) - y m m c

     
  • At 1:04 AM, Blogger trillwing said…

    Thanks for such a lovely post.

     
  • At 1:44 AM, Blogger betty said…

    oh my gosh! This reminds me of a boyfriend I had one summer + one year in college. The same instant attraction and the same purity. We broke up not because I had to leave but becuase I was young and confused. Sometime I'm sad about not still knowing him (he's married now) but this post made me remember to be thankful for the amazing parts of that relationship too.

    What a great story, thanks Prof Me!

     
  • At 4:58 PM, Blogger Lilian said…

    Oh, what a beautiful, romantic, almost heart-breaking story (just like Before Sunrise, and Before Sunset some of my favorite movies)!!! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I really want to have the time to read Anna Karenina and some other great Russian novels someday...

    I don't have any past relationships that can quite compare to this one, only one "almost boyfriend" who unfortunately has been unhappy in his marriage, which makes me very sad.

    You know what I think of these events that happen in our lives - it's as if you were "living your own novel or short-story" - some people's lives are so uneventful that they never go through a truly "literary" or "artistic" experience, which is kind of sad. It's wonderful that you have these memories to treasure all your life, like a beautiful film in which you were the main actress... (OK, I'm really getting carried away, so I'll stop!)

     
  • At 12:43 PM, Blogger ArticulateDad said…

    A beautiful reminiscence. Thanks. I've often thought that I have lead many lives, each episode encapsulated. This is one you can cherish.

     
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