It’s been 25 years since Jesse and Celine wandered a dreamlike Vienna in Before Sunrise. Would the city dance for us as it had danced for them?
We chose Vienna for a pre-Christmas break because we’d heard it was a city that shines in December. The days, typically clouded and dank, draw visitors to the cafes and the museums, while the Christmas markets warm the chilly nights and cast a soft light that evokes an old world romance. I’d reserved for my wife Uzma and I a private waltz lesson at the Palais am Beethovenplatz, and tickets to a Mozart recital at a church with a classical pedigree. I planned to linger in the coffeehouses, eating Sachertorte and imagining myself an inheritor of Stefan Zweig’s cosmopolitan ideal, a century on from its heyday.
It was only once the trip was booked that I became aware, with a prickling self-consciousness, of another motive for our visit. I realized that we intended to recreate the path a pair of fictional lovers had trodden through the streets of Vienna, and, by doing so, test the join between our romantic reality and the fantasy their journey described.
The fictional lovers are Jesse and Celine, and the movie in which they first appear—and which has become, since its release in 1995, a cult favorite among hopeless romantics, spawning two sequels to date—is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. For anyone not familiar with the film: Jesse, an American aspiring documentary filmmaker (Ethan Hawke), and Celine, a French college student (Julie Delpy) meet on a train. Jesse is returning from an ill-fated vacation in Madrid, and will disembark at Vienna, from where he’ll fly back to the US the next morning. Celine has come from a visit with her grandmother in Budapest, and is heading back to school in Paris. They start talking. A spark of attraction is ignited. Jesse persuades Celine to get off the train with him, and they spend the rest of the day and night wandering Vienna, talking—about themselves, about the world, about love—until sunrise breaks the spell and Jesse must leave to catch his flight. It’s a film light on incident and rich with the drama of two strangers connecting. Beautiful and naïve they may both be, and yet, despite their earnestness, or perhaps because of it, we root for them. Every conversation between the pair is charged with a heady wonder and jeopardy peculiar to young love.
How real or how fanciful it all feels will depend largely on the viewer’s circumstances and disposition: how old they were when they first saw the movie, how loved or how lonely, how inclined to believe in the notion of soulmates. For my own part, I’d always interpreted my love of the movie as solid proof of my romantic credentials. It should be noted that I first discovered the film when I was a young man still waiting to find someone special, and still burdened by expectations of romance that were shaped more by Hollywood mythology than by real world experience. It should be noted, too, that at the time of our visit Uzma and I had two decades on Jesse and Celine. The casual circumstances of their meeting and the languid ease of their courtship don’t tally with the experience Uzma and I recall, eight years into our relationship.
Though we met in a manner that might befit a fictional retelling—we were friends at school from the age of five, who reconnected in adulthood after 25 years apart and were married within a year of our reunion—the fact of our differing faiths and races presented certain challenges from which Jesse and Celine were exempted. Because the odds had been against us from the beginning, we’d always recognized a rareness in our love, though we never dwelt on it. Perhaps another reason for taking the Before Sunrise tour was to compare ourselves to our young alter egos, and see just how rare we were.
Before we left for Vienna, we watched the movie again. I’d seen it maybe half a dozen times already; Uzma only once previously. What initially struck me was the distance I now felt from those 23-year-olds, with their youthful sincerity and their callow ideas about love. I realized that I identified more with the versions of Jesse and Celine as they appear in Before Sunset, the second entry in the trilogy: nine years older and wiser, seasoned and rounded out by the regrets and compromises of the intervening years; in short, grown-ups to the first film’s adolescents. This was to be expected, of course. I’m 42 years old. And yet I worried that this might impair my ability to enjoy our trip for the thing I suspected it would become: a dance with the ghosts of my youth and theirs.
Between us we decided on a number of locations from the movie which we’d visit if our schedule allowed. We had some help in identifying them: an internet search quickly yielded a number of walking tours, lovingly assembled by fans of the movie who’ve reconnoitred the city on behalf of those who wish to follow in Jesse and Celine’s footsteps. The locations we chose were all within a walk or a short tram or U-Bahn ride of our hotel in the central Leopoldstadt district. Our approach to them, or so we thought in those days of planning, would be much the same as to those stops on our itinerary which were unrelated to the movie: a new place to visit, to wander, to take a picture. A place to be a tourist, and not much else. But what is tourism if not an examination of oneself under new conditions?
We arrived in Vienna in the early evening, a week before Christmas, after a two-hour flight from London. The sky was already dark and the city’s lights twinkled, illuminating the bridges that span the Danube canal, separating Leopoldstadt from the Innere Stadt, the historical hub, and strung as baubles along the Rotenturmstrasse, one of the main shopping streets leading to Stephansplatz. Dominating the square, the Gothic-Romanesque marvel of the Stephansdom, the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral (sponsored by the watchmaker Breitling if the giant advertising banners scaling its walls were anything to go by) and surrounding this the glowing chalets of a Christmas market, selling tree ornaments and costume jewelry and würstels and punsch, and marzipan truffles bearing Mozart’s portrait on their wrapping. But these attractions didn’t delay us for long; having taken an acclimatizing stroll through inner streets clogged with sightseers, we were eager to begin our private pilgrimage. First stop: Vienna’s iconic Riesenrad, the 19th-century Ferris wheel situated in the Prater amusement park, a half-hour walk away, back across the river in Leopoldstadt.
In the movie, the Ferris wheel is the setting for Jesse and Celine’s first kiss. They have a cabin to themselves, and a sunset to inspire amorous feelings. We arrived too late for the sunset, of course, and we shared a cabin with a group of teenage girls taking selfies and a grey-haired husband and wife who softly teased each other in German throughout the wheel’s slow revolution. Any hope that we might somehow capture the movie’s magic on our first attempt seemed suddenly foolish. As we gazed out of the cabin’s window, Vienna’s skyline submerged in night, the features of the amusement park diminishing below us, I felt a sense of trespass: I’d sought to impose my mawkish agenda on the city and the city had responded with rightful disdain.
And then the older couple began to dance. The husband took his wife’s hand and waltzed her, flushed and giggling, around the cabin. The young girls made room for them by shuffling to the bench in the center of the floating room. When they caught our eyes the couple smiled with coy mischief and self-deprecation, as if to confide to us that this wasn’t how they usually behaved, but that some erroneous, playful impulse had momentarily seized them.
Then, just like that, they spun to a stop. The husband recovered his former timidity, and sat down in silence, his smile fading to all but a shadow. But the wife wasn’t yet ready to denounce the quiet splendor of the moment, and she fumbled a compact camera from the pocket of her coat and began goading her husband into posing for a selfie, her free arm lifting him abruptly to his feet and then hooking him by the neck so that they stood shoulder to shoulder. The husband was having none of it, squirming from his wife’s grasp. Instead she gestured to Uzma and I, and dutifully Uzma handed her phone to the wife and she snapped us as we posed in a series of easy embraces.
She seemed pleased to have done this favor for us, and we were pleased to have shared in her fleeting return to a younger iteration of herself. As we disembarked and wandered through the giftshop at the wheel’s base and back out into the park, we felt a small sense of achievement. We’d reminded the night of its duty to lovers, to gallantly provide us with memories fit for snow globes.
In the Prater’s main square a stage had been erected, and a young girl and a boy with a guitar were performing enthusiastic covers of German-language pop songs. Before them a small crowd had gathered, clapping along, most of them pie-eyed and swaying, their cockles warmed by punsch in plastic cups. A foursome of local revelers, two married couples of spry middle age, were drunkenly dancing. Spying us as we stood on the periphery, they beckoned us to join them, and before we knew it we were part of a circle, the six of us linked by hands, spinning to the music; first solemnly as strangers do, but quickly loosening as we relaxed into each other’s company. When one song ended and the next, a ballad, began, we broke into mixed pairs and lurched into a knock-kneed waltz.
Uzma and I are gregarious travelers. Not only is it in our nature to actively seek connections and friendships with the people we meet on our holidays; since the Brexit vote we feel an extra obligation to assure our European hosts, with our conviviality and our openness, that we still think of them as brethren. To be recognized as such by our kindly dancing partners—lubricated as they were by alcohol and by the flamboyant mood of the season—stoked in us the belief that Vienna might indeed be a city with romance in its blood, with or without an American movie to emblemize it. Being accepted as kindred spirits, based only on an assumption of a shared grace—something deep down and unexamined, as dim and significant as a desire to move as one to the stirring chimes of a guitar played by a boy with red cheeks—isn’t that as romantic as things get in this fractured, troubled world?
It was past ten when we walked back to our hotel, and the streets were empty. Alone for the first time since we’d arrived, we allowed ourselves to voice the speculations we’d been privately indulging: speculations on what Vienna might offer or withhold from us through the rest of our stay, and on the shape Jesse and Celine’s second day together might have taken had the world of the trilogy adhered to a narrower path. Before Sunrise ends with the couple agreeing to reconvene in Vienna, six months to the day after their first encounter. Today was that day: December 16th. Our trip had accidentally coincided with this anniversary, heightening the sense that we were somehow enacting an alternative sequel, embodying the characters of Jesse and Celine as they revisited a city that, while colder, still remembered them clearly and with a fondness. Perhaps we could guide them on their first winter walk, as we ourselves, in our years together, had navigated many and knew where the ice was thinnest.
Day two began with a tram ride around the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard encircling the Innere Stadt, which is lined with many of Vienna’s most important public buildings. At the Kunsthistorisches the line for tickets to the Bruegel exhibition moved slowly, and Uzma left me queueing to take pictures of the statue of Empress Maria Theresa which presides over the square outside the museum, and which appears briefly in the movie, Jesse and Celine wandering past en route to another tram stop and a ride to a cemetery for young suicides washed up on the banks of the Danube. We’d already decided that even in daylight it was too dark and cold to venture down to the water’s edge, and so we omitted from our itinerary the scenes in which the river takes a prominent role. These deviations from the movie’s route were necessary if we were to maintain a pretense of autonomy about our days; we were not here as interlopers into another couple’s history, but as curators of our own. It just so happens that our history consists in good part of the fictions that console us.
It was later that afternoon—having fled the Kunsthistorisches on finding that the Bruegel tickets had sold out, and gone instead to tread the imperial apartments of the Schönbrunn Palace, so opulent and storied and sterile behind Perspex barriers—that fiction and reality became most stubbornly conjoined.
To the uninitiated, the upper terrace of the Albertina museum, which overlooks both the opera house and the historic Hotel Sacher, birthplace of the torte which bears its name, is just another patch of Innere Stadt real estate; unexceptionally ornate and surprisingly quiet, its only other visitors, when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, a young and pretty couple of indeterminate European stock and a small group of Chinese twenty-somethings who took turns to pose daringly for pictures on its concrete balustrades, while Uzma and I fretted like disapproving elders over the 20-foot drop to the pavement below. If they were aware of the provenance of the place then they made no outward show of it. Perhaps they were simply too cool to flaunt it.
I, on the other hand, found myself on the verge of tears as I took in the view across the railings and out towards the intersection of Operngasse and Philharmoniker Strasse, an aspect forever aligned in my mind’s eye with its corresponding shot in the movie. Jesse and Celine pay two visits to this spot, in what are two of the film’s pivotal moments. In the first, it is night, and they’re moved to acknowledge the weight of time pressing down on them. In a few short hours their time together will be at an end, and they’re not quite ready to confront the implications of it.It just so happens that our history consists in good part of the fictions that console us.
“I feel like this is some dream world we’re in,” Jesse says.
“It’s like our time together is ours,” Celine says. “It’s our own creation. It shouldn’t officially be happening, and that’s why it feels so otherworldly.”
They’ll turn into pumpkins before long.
Later, when they return, dawn has come and they’re almost out of time. On the steps of the statue of Archduke Albrecht that overlooks the terrace, our young lovers recline. Awareness of their impending separation has stolen their words, and so Jesse, earnestly and with winsome schmaltziness, begins to recite Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
It’s an obvious choice of poem to denote a mood of bittersweet fatality. And yet, as we sat down on those same steps—shuffling and shifting and testing the sightlines until we were convinced we had the right spot—Uzma and I were both mindful of having conquered Time. Officially, we shouldn’t have made it this far.
When Uzma, a Muslim of Pakistani extraction, first told her family about me, a white Brit of no particular faith, we’d already been secretly dating for five months. For several months following her revelation, it was touch and go whether we’d be permitted to stay together. Her family’s concerns ranged from the irrational to the pragmatic, and rather than risk ostracism by defying them we worked hard to win them over. I’d always wanted a love that felt true to the movies on which I’d based my romantic ideals. A love worth fighting for, and worth changing for. Here it was, and it had come without my bidding or invitation. Now I had to earn it. We both did.