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?

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Luisita Torregrosa says:

    Wonderful. As a writer, I love your eye and mind for place and moment. As reader, I love the immersion into that life you are living, one I dream about (but not in France) while seeing the delusion.

  • JG Reichert says:

    Eager to follow you.

  • You are living my dream! I’m joyously following your journey now. And yes, it’s difficult here in America. I wonder all the time if leaving is the answer. Imagine how this question has plagued immigrants for eons. And now it’s us An unimaginable thought but that’s probably always the case. Thanks for sharing! Look forward to more. Bon chance!

    • Karen Karbo says:

      The question about whether to go is a hard one to answer. I’ve wanted to live in France forever, and American politics notwithstanding, I kept thinking, “if not now, when?” We’re not getting any younger. Plus, the plane goes in both directions. We can always come back, right?

  • Judith Kearney says:

    So beautifully written Karen. I do think your life in the south of France is somewhat different than the hubbub of Paris, but the same feelings of looking back homeward are the same. Someone once told me about a theory called “Circle, Square, Triangle.” If you haven’t heard of this, briefly those living in the circle have never ventured far beyond. In the squarae, people have gone forward/outward to some extent. But in the triangle are the people with a footprint in two places, be that state or country or whatever. And therein is the dilemma of where do we actually belong. I have entered the triangle. I adore living in France (and absolutely abhor the thought of losing my Carte Vital!) but I so miss my ones in the states … the family, the adorable grandboys, the friends. So yes, we are Never Not Americans!

    • Karen Karbo says:

      The next time I come to Paris let’s have un verre du vin! I LOVE Paris, and would probably live there if I had the money. Still, something about Collioure and the south has always beckoned. It reminds me of the southern California of my girlhood, oddly enough. (Although a lot of French people live in Santa Monica, and say it reminds them of the south of France, so maybe I’m not that far off.) I’m going to research the Circle, Square, and Triangle. Super interesting. We are still awaiting our Carte Vital — something that France does NOT excel in is moving their paperwork along.

  • Jack Sabin says:

    I remember the curative powers of cheap wine, expensive conversation and the (almost) sobering effect of a midnight swim.

  • I would fit beautifully in France. I fit terribly in America, although it is my “home.” I love this description. Sounds like a lovely life to life.

  • Alexsandra Stewart says:

    Thoughtful and provocative essay. Appreciate the gentle contrasts of happy contentment with concern, and the anxious moment as well as the notes of delicious discovery.

    • Karen Karbo says:

      I’m so anxious about what’s going on in the States, even though I can’t do anything about it other than vote. (Absentee ballots ftw!) It reminds me a little of how, once you have children, you never don’t worry. Thanks for the kind words.

  • What a bittersweet reflection. I’ve enjoyed reading about your adventures as expats. I lived more years abroad (in Germany, with frequent trips to France) than in the U.S., and I still feel not quite American after five years “home.” Other friends chose to retire to Spain and question how we could ever settle for life in the U.S. We came back to be closer to family, but I miss Europe every day.
    As for Voldermort, the shootings, persecution of immigrants–it truly does feel like we’re fiddling while Rome burns. I hope there’ll still be a U.S. worth living in when my grandchildren grow up.

    • Karen Karbo says:

      So interesting! I’ve wondered what it would feel like to spend a lot of time out of the country, then return. Did you take some of your German/French habits with you?

  • Lynne Christensen says:

    Enjoyed the article, especially the last line, “Because really, what isn’t fixed, at least temporarily, by skinny dip on a warm night?” Exactly

  • Your account feels both gracious and real, Karen. I can imagine the joy of living in your small village and the complexity of the conversation—isn’t it wonderful to have friends who will consider a question from all angles?–and the way these questions are never answered—but they are eased when we take them into the water….happy swimming–that is also my great love.

  • Karen Karbo says:

    Your vacation sounds sublime, Shelley. That’s such a breathtaking part of the country. I think we’re coming to some kind of a reckoning with social media. His Orangeness (love that, ha!) still holds so much power because we pay attention to him. What if we just turned it all off? Or ignored him? We’re all figuring out how to cherish our own lives the best we can, without allowing his manic toxicity to poison everything.

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