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May 18, 2023

What French Cafés can Teach us about True Love.

The first time I visited France many years ago, one particular thing stood out for me: whenever I saw a café with outside seating, I noticed the seats were placed side by side and aimed at the street, rather than directly facing each other as we do in America. This meant the couple could look out at the world around them together.

At first, I figured it was for a somewhat shallow reason—they just wanted to give their patrons a “show” to watch while dining: the passers-by on the street. (Which I admit does make for splendid viewing.)

But I soon learned it was about something else.

Something much deeper.

Because the French have a little more life experience under their belts than we Americans do. And as a result, they have a deeper understanding of what true romantic connection is all about.

And what exactly is that idea? Well, let’s look to none other than celebrated French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for the secret: “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction.”

Let’s think about that: Love is not about seeing something in someone else’s eyes, but rather in seeing how they look at the world.

If we think about the couples whose relationships we admire most, we would probably see this same trait in how they move through the world together.

And that’s why in France, with a table for two, both seats are both aimed out at the street. So the couples will be looking in the same direction as they take in the world around them. In sync. Aligned. On the same page. And close enough to steal a quick smooch.

Ideally this is how the couple will have entered the restaurant—in sync, having similar views, similar ideals, a similar way of looking at the world. But at the very least, even if they’re on a first date and are highly incompatible, this method of seating will give them a chance at seeing the world through the same lens. And if you try it, I swear, you’ll suddenly find yourself feeling closer than ever to the person beside you, even if you’re there just as friends. And if you’re there on a date, well, you might find yourself making out sooner than you thought.

For a long time, I didn’t understand this principle. I thought love (well, cis male love) consisted in locking deeply into someone’s energy. I thought it was about staring profoundly into their eyes, trying to “see” into their soul, or at least trying to will myself into their heart through our mutually-locked gaze and endless flirtation.

And I did my utmost to put this idea into motion in all my romantic pursuits. I’d endeavor to sweep a woman off her feet by focusing all my energy on her. If I was compelled to cross the floor, I’d be direct, decisive, and focused. I’d approach with confidence, stare into her eyes, ask her questions to get to know her, ask her her phone number, ask her when I could see her again. And then pick the restaurant, open the doors for her, hold her hand, whisk her onto the dance floor, and stare deeply into her eyes the whole time. And it wasn’t an act; it was born out of genuine interest and passion. (And truly, I wasn’t compelled to cross the floor that often, but when I was attracted, I was all in.)

And it “worked,” much of the time. In that we’d fall into each other’s spell, fall into bed together, and maybe even fall in love. And sometimes it would truly last a while. Six months, a year, two years. But never end up walking down the aisle.

Then on one of my trips to France, I finally learned what was “off” with my approach to love. I met a woman in the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz. I was instantly compelled to cross the room and ask to buy her a drink. Her name was Sandrine, she’d tell me. We connected, I was able to charm her with my bumbling efforts at French, and we agreed to head out and walk the river Seine together. At one point, after an hour or two or what I thought was genuinely riveting connection and chemistry, I leaned in to kiss her. But she stopped me, placing a finger on my lips. “Non, non, non, Monsieur,” she said playfully. And then added, “I don’t know you yet.” I thought it was a bit overly-cautious—I mean, I think I’d proven I’m not some axe murderer. But I truly liked her, so I was content to be patient. We continued on down the river walk, and I took her arm, as we bantered away into the night.

Suddenly, we strolled upon a street musician playing the cello. Sandrine seemed unimpressed, but I asked if we could stop to listen. I was blown away by the man’s musicianship. He had nuance, dexterity, tone, and impeccable delivery. I recognized the piece he was playing—one by Claude Debussy, called “Dr. Gradus Ad Parnassum.” Rare piece, but a truly infectious melody. I was in heaven. I grabbed Sandrine’s hand to waltz in the street, but she declined, “I wanna see you dance, by yourself,” she teased. So I indulged her. Fine I thought. She’s not falling under my spell, so be it. But this music is delightful. So I lost myself dancing in the French streets at midnight for a minute until his piece came to an end. Then I went up and tipped him 20 Euros. It was generous, but as a fellow musician, I’m sure he’d been under-tipped for the night. Then I walked back to Sandrine, and went to resume our walk.

But then something else happened.

She grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me in for a deep, long kiss.

And lord did that woman know what she was doing.

What was probably only an eight-second kiss lasted an eternity in my mind.

And then she said it: “There. Now I know who you are.”

As we walked on, she confessed that she actually knew the musician well, since she walks by him all the time, and loves his music. But she played dumb, wanting to see how I reacted.

Then, after seeing me spin around in the streets, drunk on his music, she finally “knew” me. It was then that she knew we saw the world through the same lens. That we cherished the same thing. And only then did she feel like kissing me.

Because in that moment, we were like a couple sitting at a table outside a French café: looking in the same direction and relishing in the same view of the world—not staring deeply into each other’s eyes.

And finally I understood: if you want to truly connect with someone, don’t “love bomb” them as I used to do.

Just find out if you truly look at the world the same way and cherish the same things.

And once you’ve established that, well, you’ll find you can’t help but keep walking together in the same direction.

~

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