My "Before" Moment
Caleb Hamilton · August 2, 2023
10 min read
When I saw Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise for the first time, I felt a deep desire to travel wash over me. This desire was not to merely go on vacation, but to be someone else who is confident enough to strike up a conversation with a beautiful person and ask them to spend the day together. Since that first viewing, I’ve been on a few trips where I could have easily had that seemingly elusive boy-meets-girl moment. But I got in my own way. Earlier this year, I went to Leeds to spend New Year’s Eve with my book club. One of my best friends, Tim, gave me a directive: leave my usual self at home, be someone else entirely and talk to people I thought were hot… or else. When I asked what “or else” meant, he gleefully told me that I was to not come back home without completing my task. If I tried to, he’d call in a bomb threat to the airline using my name.
While I’d love to spend some extended time in England, I wasn’t prepared to do so this time. I went to Leeds and really tried my best: I managed to talk to one person. Tim was not happy and I’m no longer allowed to fly on British Airways. I have this tendency to be shy. But more so than shy, I’m honestly afraid. Afraid of the feelings of inadequacy and the pain of rejection. So I don’t try that hard to put myself out there. I seriously needed to get over this or else I’d never meet anyone.
I’d get another chance to travel and potentially meet my Céline when I got an invite to the wedding of a friend who I used to work with on Capitol Hill in DC. Tim once again challenged (read: threatened) me to be someone else or else this time he would kill me with his bare hands. I had assurances that there’d be plenty of single women at the wedding, so with that in mind I once again set out on a grand international adventure with a mission. I was excited and felt that this time I could actually do it. Perhaps it was the thought that I was going to one of the most romantic countries in the world: Italy.
At the happy hour between the wedding and the reception, I noticed a stunning young woman with red hair across the room. I’d seen her the night before at a dinner party, but I didn’t get a chance to speak to her. I was three drinks in at this point and I approached her with my fourth — an aperol spritz — in hand. I introduced myself and as soon as she told me her name, she stuck her phone camera in my face and said, “Say your name and this is my first drink of the night.” It was not my first drink of the night though, I told her. This smirk crept across her lips and she looked at me, the setting sun catching the brown of her eyes. Her name was Valeria.
That moment began a night I will never forget. And though she had a boyfriend back home, we drank and we danced leaving no room for the Lord. The reception did not end until 5 AM. As we left the villa, she turned to me and told me how much fun she had and I returned the feeling. She gave me a kiss on the cheek, we hugged good-bye, and I stood and watched her walk off. It was bitter-sweet, but that night fully broke the shell I’d been so comfortable in.
A few hours later, I’d be on a train heading back to Rome. I thought about Valeria a lot in those five hours. I realize that what we shared was just a fun night, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if there wasn’t a guy waiting for her back at home. I was flirting hard and heavy and she flirted right back. For the longest time I thought maybe there was something wrong with me, that I was unattractive. But for the first time I seriously thought to myself, “Am I… hot?” The train reached Rome and I knew I needed to answer that question before my trip was over.
The night before I was to go home, I wanted to have one more night out wandering the streets of Rome. I’d spotted a bar with €5 drinks earlier in the day while walking around the Pantheon. I’d start there, get a few drinks in me, then go explore and finally have dinner by myself. I sat down at my table, ordered an aperol spritz, and watched as people walked by. Locals, groups of friends, couples. I felt the loneliness creeping back in. As I downed the last of my drink, a young woman was seated at the table ahead of me. Surely she was waiting for someone to join her, but a few minutes passed and no one came. I ordered another spritz and ate some chips and olives, contemplating my move.
My drink came, I took a couple of sips and stood. I was so nervous, there were people all around and though they were carrying on their own conversations, it felt like all eyes were on me. Was this creepy? Just because it happens in the movies doesn’t mean it’s meant to happen in real life. Too late, I was at her table. “Scusi, parla inglese?” I asked. I’d gotten into the habit of speaking in Italian first, using the little I knew to go a long way - that is, to get to speak in english. “English please,” she replied, but I picked up an accent. “I’m not sure if you are waiting for someone, but I was wondering if I could join you?” She blushed. “Sure you can, I’m not waiting for anyone.”
Juliet and I sat at that restaurant for an hour just talking. She was from France, and like me, was in Rome for the first time, but she was going home in the morning. We shared the favorite parts of our trips so far. I told her about the insane wedding I’d just been to. I learned that we’re both photographers. At one point in the conversation, two girls were seated at the table beside us and Juliet immediately clocked that they were also French. As we continued talking, Juliet would giggle and I asked what was up. The girls were talking about us in French and Juliet was picking up everything they were saying. They were way more invested in us than they were each other. Juliet mentioned that she wanted to see the Colosseum one last time and I wanted to keep talking to her, so we paid our bills and began walking.
Not long into our walk, Juliet asked me what I was looking for because she had a boyfriend. I laughed - how could this keep happening to me when I’m finally putting myself out there for real? I told her the truth, that I was hoping to meet another single person and just see where things went. She told me she was happy I asked to sit with her because she’d been a bit lonely since her friend was busy studying. We could continue hanging out, but she just made me promise not to kill her. “As long as you don’t kill me, too,” I said.
Finally arriving at the Colosseum, we whipped out our phones and snapped away. I thought about the scene in Before Sunset where, after stealing glances at each other in a listening booth, Céline and Jesse explored the city of Vienna, visiting historical sites. Juliet and I found a spot to sit, facing one of the Wonders of the World. I asked her if she had any upcoming trips. She told me she’d be going to Germany to see Harry Styles and her boyfriend; they’re long distance. “You’re dating Harry Styles?” I asked. I’d missed him on his last US tour, but we talked about his last album, Harry’s House, which we both like. Juliet asked me if I wanted to have another drink before she needed to go, and we went to a cafe across the street.
She was impressed with my Italian. “How do you know so much?” She asked. I’d just asked the host for a table for two, which I’d searched on Google Translate. “I know just enough to get by,” I said. We both drank Jack and Cokes and when it was time to leave we asked for separate checks. I walked Juliet to the subway and we said our goodbyes. We exchanged Instagrams, hugged and then she was through the gate. I turned and began walking back to my flat. And in the blink of an eye, my plane was taking off. “Arrividerci, Roma,” I said to myself.
There was no kiss at a famous landmark. No dramatic promise to meet again at the same location a few months later. I’m not at all upset that these two experiences did not end exactly as it did for Jesse and Céline in Before Sunrise. I’m grateful to Valeria and Juliet for sharing their time with me. Especially Juliet who didn’t have to let some strange man sit with her. Spending time with them both gave me an incredible boost to my confidence. It was as if that voice in my head that for years was telling me that there was something seriously wrong with me was suddenly gone. There was nothing wrong with me at all. I wasn’t broken. I wasn’t ugly. I could be charming and funny and interesting. I was hot. I no longer feel like I have to go halfway around the world or be a different person. When I told Tim about all this, he was overjoyed and even called British Airways to try to get me off their no-fly list. It didn’t work out.
My trip lasted a week and in that time I’d taken six planes, two five-hour train rides across Italy, and two trains back and forth from Rome to Naples. In any of those instances, I could have had an encounter with a beautiful woman who would change the course of my trip — and perhaps my life — but she wasn’t there. Not in the skies above Germany on the way to Rome. Not in the third car of the train from the Adriatic Coast, winding through the Italian countryside and mountains. No, embracing your inner Jesse won’t work out all the time. In fact, most of the time you’ll probably just make a nice friend to have a long conversation with as you look at ancient ruins. I’m hopeful that one day I will find the Céline for my Jesse. Whether it be at a bar at home in DC, on a boat in the Mediterranean, or maybe on a train going to Vienna. She’s out there and all I have to do is stay out of my shell, be confident, take a chance and ask “Do you have any idea what they were arguing about?”
All pictures in this piece were taken by the author.
Caleb Hamilton is a photographer and proud cat dad from Washington, DC. When he’s not taking photos, you can find him at the movie theater, the ramen shop or the airport boarding yet another flight. Follow him on Instagram @darthgroudon.
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