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The Man of the Woods
Alicia writes beautifully and humorously about the things we probably all take too seriously. In this delightful essay she offers a thought-provoking view of how our expectations and understanding of love might change as we become older and, one hopes, wiser.
I spent my 20s crying over Frenchmen on street corners in San Francisco. It started with the Parisian lawyer I dated long-distance. He struggled with his career and keeping his phone charged so I instead fell in love with a ski instructor from the Southern Alps who broke my heart at the corner of Sutter and Mission. Things fell apart with the Burgundian biker in Haight-Ashbury. He kept a scraggly beard that looked a little unkempt — so much so that when I traipsed him into my favorite wine bar outside Chinatown the Norman manager asked whether I’d found him in the woods. From thereon out we referred to him as l’homme des bois — but, to me, at least, he looked scraggly in an amorous, sophisticated way.
e.g. He might disappear into the woods and re-appear with truffles.
For all the negative things I say about it, San Francisco is actually quite a cosmopolitan and — to wit — Francophone city. It attracts European men drawn to gastronomy and architecture who simultaneously see the beauty in 1s and 0s and for the time I called California home I found myself falling for them in
rapid succession turn. I liked their penchant for literature over self-help books. When I broke off my love affair with the Parisian, he didn’t inundate me with second-hand wisdom gleamed from Dan Savage or Esther Perel; he left me instead at the edge of the Presidio with a collection of gold jewelry and a French translation of Anna Karénine.
In a shadow box at the back of my closet, I still have a poem the barman texted the night I left sobbing on the MUNI 1 California:
Tu auras été une superbe passion,
un rêve qui pourrait être une vie
tellement il est sublime1
The problem with dreams — even French ones — is, of course, you eventually wake up. Now that I’m approaching 40, with the benefit of accumulated wisdom and hindsight, I’ve come to accept a healthy love isn’t defined by dramatic departures and accents aigus. I better recognize the importance of big picture compatibility: do we repair well after an argument, do we agree on finances, do we want to live on the same continent?
Still, in the same way James Salter —- one of the most masterful writers in the English language and a prominent francophile — once declared style is the writer, so, too, does a part of me still believe love is the fantasy as rendered through detail, carefully considered action and poetry. That a life well-lived bears at least some resemblance to the dream-like world the writer brings to life in one of my all-time favorite novels, A Sport and a Pastime, a chef d’oeuvre the New York Times once declared “lyricizes the flesh and France with the same intensity.”
Give me imaginary Autun in autumn, give me “thin, reflecting sliver[s[ which somehow keep catching the light”, give me a character as “contrary, seasoned and unknowable as any human can be.”
Is this too much to ask?
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You will have been a superb passion, a dream that could be a lifetime, so much it is sublime.