Quillan: Evening in the Garden
Living the ex-pat life in the South of France
Quillan: Evening in the Garden
"There is no geographical solution to an emotional problem." Tony Soprano said that. But he’s not the only one. There is no shortage of shark-hearted platitude peddlers ready to tell you that you can’t escape your problems by leaving them, even as they offer you another pill. And like all truisms, it’s sometimes true. A schizophrenic will still hallucinate in Helsinki or Helena. The malignant narcissist will poison Yonkers and Yekaterinburg equally.
But what they don’t tell you is that the version of you that stands on Paris pavement, overwhelmed by the sudden Stendhalian perfection of it all, is not the same person as you are now. The past is a story we tell ourselves over and over, no more real than the exploits of a TV mobster. Change your situation, and you change yourself.
Any immigrant knows this. But British people are never immigrants. We’re only ever expats, with its decadent connotations of supper clubs and afternoon drinks and the fading glow of Empire.
We only found our way to the small town of Quillan, with its population of 3500 split between native French and Anglophone—mostly British—ex-pats by chance. We needed somewhere affordable to spend the summer, but close enough to major cities to allow us to catch flights when we wanted to. Close to the Spanish border, Quillan has hot, dry summers and is surrounded by mountains. Plus, the owner of the apartment we found—the upper floor of a house, actually—spoke fluent English.
In fact, she turned out to be a Londoner. As was the woman across the street married to a Welshman. Next-door lived an American and a Scot. Unwittingly, we had found ourselves in a bona fide ex-pat community.
No one moves to France to hang out with English people. But after six months of never having a conversation that wasn’t with each other, even an introvert like me could see an upside to social interaction. And the gardens of Quillan are gorgeous on a summer evening, with the dogs napping and the stars starting to show in the purple sky that sings with the bells from the church. The people of Quillan, the ragtag group of foreigners that have made their home in an obscure town in the mountains, couldn’t have been more welcoming.
The ex-pat is fundamentally different from the refugee. One chases a dream while the other flees a nightmare. And it’s not a question of money. The history of the 20th century alone will give you plenty of tales of rich refugees. The ex-pats of Quillan have chased their dreams to wind up here, in the castle-crowned bowl of the hills pierced by winding rivers, granite gorges, and precipitous balcony roads. The accents you hear on the drowsy tables in the garden after nightfall are mostly British, but you would never mistake Quillan for the rain-sodden country of my birth. In this community and thousands like it all across France and Spain and elsewhere in Europe, people live blessed lives of their own devising, halfway between past and perfect.
But they’re not just going to let you sit in the sun and sip wine while the clouds sink down the flanks of the mountains. The world comes for us all, soon or later. And if not for Brexit, maybe we never would have moved to Europe in the first place. It was only the threat of my British passport becoming worth less than it has been all my life that made us take our two-year journey around the EU. In Quillan and all the places like it, there is a fear, no matter what people tell themselves. A fear that, no matter what they do, an ex-pat’s right to remain in the home they have made for themselves could be suddenly taken away.
We all live in a vortex of uncertainty. All we know is that this can’t last. The mountains will fall just as the trees do, only slower. Everything seeks its end. In a cave above the village of Ariege, the strange signs painted 15,000 years ago can still be seen today, but they won’t last forever. Set against the life of mountains, we humans have barely a heartbeat’s space to see what surrounds us before we vanish into the shadows at the far end of the cave.
But then, anyone familiar with French cooking knows that a single bite, if the food is rich enough, can be plenty. A single moment of life, any life, sliced any way you please, can contain the universe when everything connects to everything else. The ex-pats of Quillan were willing to follow their dreams to an obscure French town, and their reward is those crystalline evenings and the murmuring mountains and a weekly market that sells the best fruit you’ll ever taste. The local winery will fill any bottle you bring them from a hose. Beats sitting at home and popping another pill.