What’s the most beautiful day of your life?
Before last year, I had never answered this question. I couldn’t have told you what the most beautiful day of my life had been. I didn’t have one. Sure, I’d had wonderful days. Sure, I’d had incredible adventures in many parts of the world. But I’d never had a day that qualified as “the most beautiful day of my life.” Perhaps the concept is like love: You don’t know about true love until you’ve found it… And even then, it’s hard to tell what true love is because how do you really know? After all, it’s an abstract concept.
I lived the first 24 years of my life without a “happiest day,” and I didn’t feel like I was missing out. But there came a day, a day when New York City was calm and cold, with a clear sky, that I’ve come to regard as the most beautiful day of my life. That day was February 15, 2020, a Saturday, and I’ve never been able to forget how peaceful and fulfilling it was. Which is why I’m writing about it. I love this story because it mirrors so well my nature—a man from a small town who lives for the large cities, a North American at heart but a European in spirit. The story says it all, or almost.
This story starts with the fact that this day may well have not happened. It may well have been a bitter day that I would eventually have forgotten. However, it didn’t turn out to be so because I followed my instinct. Had I not done this, I never would be able to say, “I can tell you about the most beautiful day of my life.”
In this article, I want to tell you about the most beautiful day of my life… and what almost kept it from happening.
From Williamsport, PA to the United Nations
It was February 2020. I came to New York City the day before “the day” I was volunteering as a French interpreter at the United Nations. I had rented a small car in Williamsport, PA, where I was a Fulbright fellow, and drove to NYC listening to audiobooks and podcasts. Once at the UN headquarters, I met a young European man, Robert, who worked for a German non-profit. Accompanying me to the UN were two French colleagues from the Fulbright program. One of them made plans to get dinner with Robert after going to the Museum of Modern Arts, and it turned out to be what led to that beautiful day.
Perhaps out of courtesy, my Fulbright colleague invited me to join her and Robert. The two were going to a small burger venue hidden inside a hotel. I had been to the venue before, and I can always find something interesting to do in New York City, but I happily accepted the invitation because… I love burgers and European minds. Soon I found myself at dinner with my colleague, Robert, and Robert’s friend, Wesley, a Kenyan who had just finished his M.A. in international relations at an Australian university.
I didn’t know anyone, including my Fulbright colleague, whom I was meeting for the second time. Robert and Wesley were fascinating to me. I’ve always been a political science nerd with a penchant for international relations, so their work in the non-profit sector made an impression on me. We talked about our work, our home countries, the United States, and what we wanted to see in New York City. Four foreigners in one of the world’s most exciting cities; there was so much to explore.
I forget who said it, but someone suggested we meet the next day to explore Brooklyn. We had some common ground: we liked coffee, we liked long walks, and we wanted to explore the city. What else could foreigners, brought together by a global convention, do in a strange city on a Saturday except run out the day by taking it easy and exploring? My Fulbright colleague couldn’t make it, but Robert, Wesley, and I decided to still meet. We made plans to get coffee in Brooklyn—which is where I was staying—and go to Coney Island with the car I’d rented.
The Simplicity of Beauty
The most striking thing about that day is its simplicity. Although I sometimes complicate things a bit too much, this day was simple, uncomplicated, and beautiful. Robert, Wesley, and I met at a café near the Brooklyn Bridge, we sipped our espresso drinks, and walked around the area. We strolled through the neighborhood, took some pictures by the Brooklyn Bridge, and goofed around. We had no plan, no agenda, no intentions to structure our time—and it was perfect as it was. We just enjoyed a minute at a time.
After strolling around in Brooklyn for a few hours, we returned to my car to leave for Coney Island. As I plugged my phone to the audio system, a call came in. It was from an acquaintance I was supposed to meet that day. My heart sank. I had deliberately “forgotten” we were supposed to meet. And, by that time, I was already glad I had done so. The acquaintance wanted me to help with a project, but I had my reasons for not meeting.
I was supposed to meet with that acquaintance two days prior, when I arrived in New York City. He’d known I was coming to town the day before, and I had asked to meet with him then. I was going to meet with him at his office in downtown Manhattan. However, he’d somehow forgotten about it and had left to go to God-knows-where in Pennsylvania, where I was living. (That didn’t make a whole lot of sense.) Even though I hadn’t known him for long, I could already see a pattern of being self-centered and unreliable. So I, too, “forgot” about his idea to meet that Saturday. I suppose I hoped he’d forget again.
Life sometimes has a way of pulling us in the right direction. I knew it wasn’t great to a ditch plan though informal; I don’t like being the unreliable one (even with someone who hasn’t proved reliable). But something deep inside myself told me it didn’t matter this time. Something deep inside myself told me that the person didn’t deserve me being reliable. Moreover, something told me I had to be there, with these people, on that day—or else I would miss out. And to this day, I believe this to be true. I wouldn’t trade this day for any other day in the world, no matter how fancy or luxurious the alternative may have been. There’s something about this day that reminds me of who I am and who I want to be.
As If a Scene from a Movie
Once in the car, we set up the GPS and put “Coney Island Beach” as our destination. While I was driving, Robert took charge of the playlist. He played German electronic and rock songs I’d never heard before. One song in particular—an instrumental song whose title I can’t recall—still inhabits my thoughts. The sky was clear that Saturday afternoon; everything was calm. The road was easy through Brooklyn all the way to Coney Island Beach. We left the car somewhere around the beach and went for a walk, the timeless activity that seemed to have structured our day.
On this walk, we had strange, interesting conversations. We discussed everything from American culture, European politics, and how blessed and happy our souls were to be in the “land of the free.” We talked to each other as though we’d known each other for quite some time, though we’d only met the day before. It’s uncanny how when we meet the right people in our lives, it feels as though we’ve known them forever—when, in fact, we know nothing at all about them. We feel this way because as we get to know them, our assumptions prove right. We know the kind of people they are; that’s why we connected. As our conversations progress, and as we realize they confirm more assumptions about who we think they are, we like them even better.
Later that afternoon, we stopped to eat at a pizzeria. We shared a large chicken pizza and had soft drinks. More important than the food, though, was the decor. It looked old yet new at the same time. The decor was vintage, maybe a bit cliché, and for some reason, it made me feel at home. Perhaps the right adjective is “timeless.” It created a moment for us to share. My friends took a picture of me, and I always loved to look at it from time to time. Later that year, when I’d start my entrepreneurial journey, I’d publish that photo along with a post about writing. People unanimously loved the photo, agreeing that the decor, though imperfect, had something to it.
After eating our pizza, we walked to Steeplechase Pier, where a scene in Requiem for a Dream was shot. It felt as strange as ever to be here. Even though I’d been to the United States many times before, I still felt like a fanboy—I couldn’t believe I was, in some way, in the center of American culture. Not many Americans can understand this feeling because they take the fact of American culture for granted. But for a young man who’d grown in up in Saguenay, Quebec, to be at Steeplechase Pier had a deeper significance. Silly though it might be, I played the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack on my phone—a song that had populated my life after I’d watched the film for the first time as a child, alone one night in my bedroom.
It felt special to be there, there’s no doubt about that. I couldn’t help feeling emotional. For my whole life up until this point, it had been my goal to “make it to America.” The goal had been simple: Get to America somehow. Getting a visa in the United States was how I was measuring my life’s success. I’d grown up speaking in French in a town where I didn’t feel like I belonged. All I wanted to do was get good at something and be successful. I’d decided that the U.S. Department of State would be the judge of that. “If you let me in,” I thought, “it means I’m doing something right.” And here I was on my J-1 visa teaching French in a Pennsylvania college. (How ironic is it that America let me in to teach the language I’d sought to escape?)
A Private Party?
We had no plans, no agenda, as I’ve already said. It was now around 4 or 5 PM, and we drove back to Brooklyn unsure about what we were going to do for the rest of the day. The sky was getting darker and darker. When we parked the car on a street in Brooklyn, all we knew is that we needed to use the restroom. So, we walked to a coffee shop, but the coffee shop was closing. The staff advised us of a bar that was in the same building. There seemed to be a party going on. We asked security to use the restroom, and they let us in.
We entered a room full of people, men and women, mostly white people, dancing and drinking as if there were no tomorrow. We came to use the restroom, but after we did, we felt we had no reason to leave this place. The place was rather bougie, and the DJ was decent. We knew for sure there was a cover fee to get in, and so we figured we’d stay and enjoy the party. We ordered a few bottles of beer—Stella Artois if I recall well—and took part in the party. It was a bit awkward, to tell you the truth. It seemed private, and we had no idea what this place was and who’d organized the party. These people had something in common, but we couldn’t tell what it was. We didn’t talk much to anyone, but we did enjoy the music.
It became clear this was a private party when I went outside to get some fresh air for a few minutes. When I came back inside, the security guard asked to see the stamp on my hand, but I didn’t have it. He told me I couldn’t get in, and I explained my coat was inside—with my friends. He asked how I’d gotten in. So, I explained we’d gotten in because someone let us in to use the restroom, and we stayed. He gave me a dirty look and made a sign to get inside. When I told Robert and Wesley, we all had a good laugh. It was far from the party of the century, but the fact we had no business being there made it more enjoyable.
By 7 PM, the party was over. Everyone started leaving, and the place became dull and desolate. We left the bar before we were the last ones. Robert had parked his bike somewhere in Brooklyn, so we went to pick it up. I left my rented car in a parking lot, and we took the Brooklyn Bridge to walk back to Manhattan. On the way there, we gazed at the sky and the Hudson River. This beautiful day was coming to an end. The day would soon be over, I’d come to understand. The guys and I talked about planning a trip to Boston or Washington, D.C. We had no idea we’d be forced home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we were still looking for ways to make the best out of the little time we had left in the United States.
Back in Manhattan, Robert called it a night. So did Wesley. I’ve always tended to want to make things last forever, so I was somewhat disappointed they didn’t want to extend the day to get dinner and drinks. But Wesley was lodging in White Plains, an hour-long commute from where we were. Robert had plans to watch some movies, and I believe the two of them were living on somewhat limited budgets. So, we all called it a night—except me. I had the night for myself and was determined to use it to do something nice, something different.
I ended up at a Russian restaurant and bar, where I had Russian dumplings (I had no idea this was a thing) with a nice glass of wine. By then, it was 8 or 9 PM. A Russian band was playing, and I was charmed by the sound of their voice and their instruments. The melodies they played were unknown to my ears, and I loved every second of it. I can’t say the same of the waiter’s humor, who “pranked” me by saying, in a very stern way, that taking a video was prohibited as I aimed my camera phone at the band. He burst into laughter saying he was joking, and I was left wondering, “is that Russian humor?”
I left the bar a few hours later and headed back to Brooklyn using the subway. The rest of the evening was uneventful. I got back to my Airbnb slightly around midnight and had a good night’s sleep. The next day, when I got up, I could hear the French couple in the next room having sex. Little did they know I could understand every word they were telling each other. When I left, about an hour later, I greeted them in their language, an expression of uncomfortable surprise painted on their faces.
On my way to pick up my Fulbright colleague who needed a ride back to Susquehanna University, not far from the college where I worked, I accidentally bumped into the car in front of me at a red light. We pulled over, and I ended up giving the guy over $80 for paint repair, even though the car was fine—I just didn’t want to get into any trouble. Sometime after I got back to Williamsport, I touched based with the acquaintance I was supposed to meet. He took things the wrong way, but I didn’t care because that day turned out to be fantastic for me. And sometimes, even to this day, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t ditched the plan. We may never have met (things happen). We may have met, and it would have been a mediocre one—or even a bad day.
But it never would have been the most beautiful day of my life.
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