I am a person who functions best with a plan. It doesn’t have to be a solid plan. I like to think that I can be fun and spontaneous. After all, you can’t control everything. But you can have a strong influence on certain things. And the first way of doing so is by having a plan—goals and expectations for your life and ideas about how to achieve them. Sometimes they involve other people. There’s usually an order of events. It’s when these other people influence the order of events that my world seems to stop.
It was spring in Wisconsin and I was 23 years old, working full time as a graphic designer on the campus I just graduated from that winter as well as babysitting a few afternoons a week. I’d go to work during the day and spend evenings and weekends in front of my computer, teaching myself French with Rosetta Stone. In a few months I would be going to Brussels to work as an au pair, and I wanted to be prepared.
My boyfriend of three years, Jeremie, a double major in french and photography, was also going to live abroad. He was going to the north of France to teach English.
We didn’t plan to go to Europe together. We each had a similar desire to fulfill before jump-starting our ambitious career paths, so we encouraged each other to follow through with living abroad after graduation. Through a certain amount of luck and strategic choices, we ended up being only an hour-in-a-half train ride from one another—only 45 minutes if you got the high-speed train. He was placed in Lille, and I chose to be an au pair in Brussels for two young boys.
The months before I left, Jeremie helped me learn French. We would read children's books together. I’d muddle through work books written for elementary schoolers. One day he labeled all the things in my house with white, rectangular stickers that had French words written on them in a heavy, black, sans-serif font.
Imagine my roommates surprise when they came home and went to the fridge to get a snack and right above the handle there was a sticker that confidently stated “Le Réfrigérateur.” Or imagine you were about to step into the shower and just as you went to open the sliding glass door to step into the warm water, you noticed something at eye level that wasn’t there before. “Le Douche.” Or if you’re me, right before you went to sleep that night you reached for a small glass jar on your nightstand containing your earplugs, something you haven’t been able to sleep without ever since you lived with your parents and your mom would vacuum at 7:00 on Saturday mornings, and you read “L’ Oreiller.” Surprised that there was a sticker for the word earplugs, learning later that this was actually the word for pillow. It was too hard to place a sticker on the pillow itself, so Jeremie thought that the earplug jar was the logical alternative.
August came, and I got on the airplane to Brussels with my luggage and a head full of French nouns and verbs, not entirely sure how I was supposed to connect them, but confident enough that I could understand someone if they spoke in short phrases asking me about where I was from, what I did on the weekends and what food I liked to eat.
Jeremie and I would Skype every night after I arrived in Brussels. After I was done cleaning up the dinner dishes, I’d go up to the third floor of the apartment and retire to my modest room for the night. There was a built-in shelf in my room which ran the length of one of the walls. Above the shelf on the far end of the room was a tall window which overlooked a large city park. This is where I set up my desk. I’d sit in front of my laptop and call Jeremie, watching the city, ten stories below. I missed him. A lot. More than I expected even. Not only did I love talking to him every night, it was crucial that he helped me with my French homework.
I didn’t like my French class. I was the only American and severely self-conscience about my accent and inability to roll my 'Rs.' I’m the type of student who asks a lot of questions, usually after class, in order to fully understand things and this was incredibly difficult with a teacher who refused to speak any English with me. On top of that, her domineering tone made me uncomfortable so I saved all my questions for Jeremie, hoping he could explain things to me so I could at least have the homework answers when I was called on the next day.
After two long months of only seeing each other over Skype, Jeremie was finally in Lille and I planned my first trip to visit him. It was the weekend after my 24th birthday. His roommate was gone for the weekend, so it was just the two of us in their small apartment on the outside of town. To celebrate my birthday, Jeremie was going to make me dinner. It was dark outside and from the small, Ikea kitchen table there was a view of the neighboring rooftops. In the distance you could see the buildings of the city center, and in the middle of town there was a clock tower which lit up at night.
As we sat down at the table to eat, Jeremie poured red wine and lit two candles. He was disappointed that the tower wasn’t lit up. It was my first evening in Lille, and I had never seen the view from his window at night. I thought it was sweet that he was disappointed that I couldn’t see it, but there would be other evenings. It wasn’t until later I understood why this evening was significant.
After dinner it was time for my birthday gift. We continued to sit at the kitchen table while I opened up his present to me. It was a thick, blue, French-English dictionary. While lacking a little romantic appeal, it was highly appropriate and somewhat expected because I needed a dictionary, and Jeremie knew it.
After opening the dictionary, Jeremie had me use it, asking me to look up this word and that word. While I was busy looking up word number three, which he stated in a casual tone just like the two before it, he got up from the table and went into the kitchen and started rummaging in a drawer. I didn’t think anything of it, proceeding to look up the verb. I found it. I read it.
First definition: To marry.
Second Definition: To hug.
To hug. He must have meant to hug. That’s sweet.
Then I looked up. Before I knew what was happening Jeremie was back. He was in front of me on one knee, with a ring box open and asking me to marry him. “I guess he wasn’t talking about hugging,” I thought to myself. I don’t remember much of what he said. I just remember it was quick. He was speaking nervously, like he used to when we first started dating, and time seemed to have stopped.
I was in shock. Not joking. I didn’t know what to say. And so I didn’t say anything at all. I just stood there.
Jeremie stood up.
“You need to say something, you know.”
“Oh. Yeah… Yes.” “I think I need to go lie down.”
“Don’t you want to call home or something?”
“No. Let’s just go lie down for a minute.”
I wasn’t in shock because I didn’t know what to say. Of course I knew what the answer was going to be. And I knew that Jeremie did too. We both knew we were going to spend our lives together. I just didn’t expect him to propose when he did. I hadn’t even imagined this scenario before. We were young. We didn’t have any money. We were living separate lives in Europe. We didn’t have a plan. I always have a plan.
Looking back now, I understand that my reaction to Jeremie that night isn’t that out of character for me. And I understand that his surprising proposal isn't that out of character for him. And as we spend our married lives together, making and changing our plans, we continue to learn about each other as well as ourselves. And as we experience things together, we gain an insight that helps us understand things from the past that will help guide us in our future.
After all, it’s no longer just my plan. I’m sharing it with someone else. It’s our plan. And the only thing I can plan on for sure is that I’m spending my life with Jeremie. And doing so means that sometimes he’s going to change my course. And I may have to go lie down once in awhile, but he will always be there to go with me.