I hope I haven’t given you the impression that we’re flush enough to arrive in a foreign land and snap up some real estate. For the first year we lived in Collioure, we rented. A woman we’d become friendly with over the years, who owned a boutique in the center of town, put us in touch with a friend of hers who owned an “impeccable” apartment she was willing to rent to us month-to-month. We were waiting to sell our house in Portland. Until then, we’d be living on a crazy quilt of savings, cash we’d made from stuff we’d sold, and one-half of an advance for a book that was due two months after we arrived (but that I preferred not to think about).
The impeccable apartment was owned by a couple who lived in Paris. There was an exposed stone wall on one side, and a hand-forged spiral staircase that rose to a loft where there was a small day bed, littered with tiny pillows encased in linen pillow cases. A heavy sliding glass door led from the loft to a terrace, with a view of the terra cotta roofs around us. The two bedrooms were tiny; bunkbeds had been wedged into what we presumed was the children’s room. After unpacking our summer clothes, we rolled our five roller suitcases inside, rechristened it The Suitcase Room, and shut the door.
Collioure, and coastal southern France in general, is populated by rich people, retired people, and people on holiday. We were none of those people, which doesn’t mean we didn’t behave as if we were those people. We had plenty of work – so much work! — I had a book due in two months! – but the encroaching deadline failed to activate my inner Energizer Bunny-on-Meth as it usually did. Maybe it was because we usually came to France this time of year, so our being here just felt like vacation.
It took a day to get settled into the impeccable apartment, after which we could find no reason not to go swimming, then drink a glass of wine. Sure, we needed a bank account. We needed to get French phone numbers. I needed to work on my book. Jerrod needed to check in with his clients. But we did none of those things.
We awoke every morning to the smell of croissants baking at the boulangerie across the street, and the sound of the street-cleaning machine barreling down our street. We ate breakfast on our rooftop terrace, then went for a swim. It was imperative to try out every beach – there are three – at different hours of the day. Then, it would be time for lunch. The French take lunch very seriously, and we were eager to assimilate, so we took lunch seriously, too. We took drinking wine at lunch very seriously, a light, dry rosé. It was so dry, this French rosé, it was like you weren’t even drinking wine! After lunch, we napped. We lazed and read and in the hot afternoon, we went to another beach. We ate tapas for dinner at one of a number of small restaurants where you could sit for hours. It stayed light until after ten. There was no reason not to swim before bedtime.
I became haphazard with the sunscreen. I stopped washing my hair, preferring to rock the “beachy waves.”(I was starting to look like Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” just before he was rescued.) I wore the same three sundresses I’d bought on sale at Fred Meyer, a Portland super market chain with a small, tragic clothing section. I developed a fiendish addiction to French potato chips, roast chicken flavor. (I know. Shut up.) I made up a song to the tune of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville,” only we were wasting away again in Roséville.
Wasting away all day in Roséville
Searchin’ for a good reason to halt
Some people claim that it’s Collioure to blame
But I know, it’s my own damn fault (and also Collioure, duh)
Some time at the end of June – I’d stopped putting dates in my journal – I was looking for a pair of sandals I’d sworn I’d packed, but couldn’t find. I ventured into The Suitcase Room, to see if perhaps I’d forgotten them in the pocket of the summer clothes suitcase. They weren’t there. I opened another suitcase, and found them wedged between two winter coats, in the suitcase of clothes we’d packed for winter.
It took a few moments for me to absorb the significance of our winter coats. What were they doing here? We’re on vacation. We don’t need winter coats. Why aren’t they hanging in the coat closet in Portland? Oh, wait. Because the house in Portland was on the market. We didn’t live there anymore. These clothes were here because we were here. We lived here now. The Roséville trance was broken. Nous habitons ici maintenant! The demands of establishing ourselves in France rushed in like high tide during a full moon.
* * *
I think part of the reason it seemed so easy to imagine ourselves living in the South of France is because Jerrod and I are at our best when we’re adventuring. We possess identical vacation-y predilections. We don’t make itineraries. If we see one Must See thing a day, we’re good. We do not have check-lists. We are believers in power-walking through museums, making a beeline for the thing we want to see, seeing it, then leaving. He packs the luggage, I mind the passports and tickets, and we are good to go. It’s why we went ahead and eloped in Vegas, after we had been married in our Portland backyard two months before we moved to France. It sounded like ridiculous fun to be married by Elvis in front of a few good pals, then treat them all to dinner at some old school Vegas steakhouse. That we now have two anniversaries – the legal one and the Vegas one — fills us with delight, and we celebrate them both every year. But we were not on vacation here in Collioure, and the Roséville trance had been broken.
Before I get to our first fight in France, there are a few things you need to know:
Jerrod is an extraordinary and maddening human being. At eight years old, he took apart and reassembled the family television set. By fifteen he was an experienced computer hacker. By sixteen, he started his own computer security business (at the advice of an uncle who thought making money from his obvious gifts would be better than going to jail.) By seventeen, he destroyed his business through mismanagement. And therein lies the Jerrod paradox: he can do the hard thing and make it look easy – building a six-figure business as a teenager – then completely wreck it by failing to do the easy thing (keep a ledger, or know enough to hire someone to keep a ledger).
Jerrod can build anything and fix anything. (As I write this, he’s downstairs refurbishing an 18th century chandelier.) He is the person you want around during any kind of an emergency. He’s generous, very funny, and would do anything for his family and friends. He admits he’s not good with timelines, by which he means time. Like, the entire concept of it. He fits in perfectly in Collioure, where fifteen minutes late is considered early. He can’t keep track of anything. He loses credit cards, check books, shoes, keys, wallets, any and all To Do lists. Any project that requires long term planning, or any planning is a challenge.
On the night I glimpsed our winter clothes and awakened like a fairy tale witch from my Roséville trance, I realized that we still hadn’t registered our long stay visas. Once you arrive in France, depending on the type of visa you’ve been granted, you have two or three months to register it. It’s unclear why for some visa holders it’s two months and for some, three. There are many different types of visas available to Americans, depending on whether you plan to work, study, start your own business, or retire, and each one comes with its own torturous bureaucratic obligations. To make matters more complicated, the month before we had applied for our visas the entire application process had been moved online, with all the attendant glitches and bugs. (Example: when I checked the box that we were from the US, autofill insisted we meant Taiwan.)
I marched out of The Suitcase Room, fetched my laptop from the coffee table and plopped down next to Jerrod on the impeccable sofa, where he was absorbed in reading some Reddit thread on his phone.
“We need to register our visas,” I said. “What are you doing there? Are you studying your French? You should be studying your French. We need to learn French.”
“It’s 11:00,” he says. “It’s too late, we’ll do it tomorrow.”
“It’s not too late. We’ve been procrastinating! We can’t procrastinate anymore. We’ve got to get our shit together. We’ve got to learn French. Anyway, I’m the one who will be doing it, so just give me your passport and I’ll do it. Right now.”
Slowly, he put his phone down, lifted himself off the impeccable sofa and ambled three steps over to the other side of the living room, to the round metal café table that served as his desk. There was no reasoning with me when I became, as Jerrod graciously says, “energetic.” He poked around a few piles of stuff. He took his time, hoping I’d come to my senses. But I was already on the French government website, cussing and throwing around my snarly castaway hair.
“I think you have my passport,” he said.
“I don’t have your passport.” If we were on vacation, I would certainly have his passport, but since was is real life, not a vacation, shouldn’t he have his passport? He was a grown man. He couldn’t keep track of his own passport? Why was that my job? (Answer: because we agreed that I was better equipped to take care of the paperwork.)
This led to our Standard Argument. Every couple has one. Usually, they’re about money. Ours is about the division of labor. I always begin by granting him all the things he contributes, all the things he does I’m grateful for, blah blah blah, before trotting out my usual complaint: Why Do I Have to Do Everything? Why do I have to be the family project manager, accountant, auditor, and now, Chief of French Paper Shuffling?
Just as we got to the part of the argument where he says, “Okay, here we go!” which further enrages me, my phone rang. It was my daughter. She’s one of those kids who only calls when something’s the matter.
“This is Fiona, and I need to take it, but you better hope she’s not asking for money. Because unless the house sells soon we’re going to be in deep shit.” (Well, okay, we do fight about money.)
Instead, she said, “Mom, I’m pregnant.”
And yes, I had his passport.
Karen Karbo is a frequent contributor to Frenchly. Her 2021 essay, Au Revoir Thanksgiving was the germ for this column. Karen is the author of fourteen award-winning novels and works of non-fiction including the international bestseller, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel. Her essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, O., The New York Times, Tin House, Salon, Slate and elsewhere. To connect with her, buy her books, and learn about her writer’s retreat in Collioure, please visit her website here.
Photo credits, Karen Karbo: “Shutters and Desmond,” “Rue du Soleil,” “Swimming” and “Wedding in Vegas.”