We are here and you are there.
We are in a village in the south of France. You — my daughters and their husbands; my husband’s family and their children; my best friends, their spouses and partners and children; other writers, colleagues, and yes, social media friends of whom I’m genuinely fond – are in America. They are in Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, Chicago. They are in malls, movie theaters, night spots, drug stores.
This morning I thought I would write about la belle vie. I wanted to talk about the clever rhythms of the French day, and how small gestures prompt you to pay attention to the physical world. I wanted to write about my visit to an 800-year-old farm, where the young wife-and-husband owners are making their own olive oil. I wanted to write about the tragic fact that regardless of the exquisite tomatoes in this part of the world, I will always be raw tomato-averse; my name is Karen Karbo and I am a mater-hater.
But I’m just too bloated with fear and dread to merrily extol the well-known virtues of living in France. I carry this feeling with me everywhere I go. It’s intermingled with gladness to be gone and guilt to be gone, in equal measure. The whole ball of it is a sullen, anxious passenger that accompanies me as I wander the narrow, winding streets of the village, swim in the sea at sunset, buy lettuce and raspberries at the Sunday market.
I don’t sleep. Something that has never happened to me in my life. I think of every immigrant I have known personally, and then every immigrant everywhere, and the heartsickness they must carry around when they hear the news that their homeland is crumbling. And then I think of coming back to the States, and the pointlessness of that. I can chew my cuticles and suffer insomnia here.
Two nights ago, we had apéros with our friend Valérie, and her husband, John, and four of their French friends. Meeting for an apéro is basically like signing up for a four-hour long happy hour that segues neatly into a night cap. We split several bottles of wine, a rosé and a light red (because summer), and went through several platters of charcuterie and cheese, and a variety of olive tapenades, all served with crusty bread.
They were curious about us. The Anglophones in our village are mostly from the UK. There are “a few Americans tucked away here and there,” but not many. In the French way, they dove into the contradictions of being American. My French is conversational, if the conversation in question is being held with a shopkeeper or a six-year-old. They spoke slowly when they remembered to. They were so dear, as I struggled along. They seemed to agree that the United States has gone completely mad, and there’s nothing for it. The larger question was whether we had an obligation to stay home with our people and go down with the ship. No one said so, but France is a country deeply familiar with the collapse of empires, and I’m sure among these people were ancestors who’d left their homes in the night and never looked back.
We tried to point out that we didn’t flee, exactly. For one thing, there is no fleeing President Voldemort; his orange toxin has poisoned the Internet, if not the world. Also, living in France is a dream I’ve cherished since I first visited Paris at age 20. We had planned our move long before the current catastrophes.
I felt a bit better with these people, on this night. It’s one of the best things about the French, their seemingly universal willingness to wade into the complexities of politics, morality, and what it means to be alive. We closed the bar around 12:30 am, and the women all went skinny dipping on the beach behind the church. Because really, what isn’t fixed, at least temporarily, by skinny dip on a warm night?