There was no Valentine's Day in the Czech Republic, nor in Sweden where I grew up. Coming into it as I did in the '80s in New York City, all I could see were store windows overflowing with cheap pink and red merchandise for which there wasn't all that much use except for that one day a year in which you have to declare your love, preferably with items you need to purchase. In America, I marveled, you could say you loved someone with the aid of sugar, plastic, food coloring, and polyester.
In the Czech Republic, Sweden, and France, saying I love you ("miluji te," "jag älskar dig," and "je t'aime") wasn't an expression of affection or brotherly or friendly love--no indeed. It was a huge proclamation of passionate sexual love only heard between the sheets, and mostly fictional sheets at that! The phrase could be heard in songs, seen in movies, and read in books, but the words spoken out loud carried so much weight that actually saying them was to be not so much romantic as melodramatic. Telling someone you loved them was to show yourself not just naked, but naked and spread-eagled, skin peeled back from your chest to expose your bloody, bleeding heart.
I remember an early boyfriend of mine, who, apparently overcome with feelings for me, tried to articulate them by telling me he wanted to um, you know, like maybe...marry me? This was preferable to saying I love you. Even though I was 14.
The first time a man told me he loved me, I was about to exit his apartment forever. Instead of conveying his deep emotion for me, it conveyed his desperation. I laughed out loud.
It took me moving to the United States and living here for a few years to get over my deep embarrassment at casual friends dropping the "I love you" bomb instead of a goodbye. Really? I'd think every time I got a "love ya" and a wave. But we barely know each other!
I still have an occasional twinge when a friend declares their love for the first time, even if it's in an email with an "xoxoxo love you!!!" But mostly I am now grateful I can be open and American and tell everyone I love them, instead of resorting to "I like you quite well" (French), "you are so wonderful" (Swedish), or slapping someone in the back of the head (Czech) to convey my affection.
But Valentine's Day? Let's face it: As far as marketing goes, love is as good a reason to shell out money as the birth or death of a religious prophet. What really annoys me about this day of enforced love is the feeling that as long as you get it in for Valentine's Day, you needn't try so hard the rest of the year. It's a day of atonement for the romantically challenged.
My new country has taught me how to say I love you.
Now I want to say it every day.
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