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Alex Carnevale

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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in kara vanderbijl (77)


In Which We Look Casually For Jellyfish

Provence State of Mind


When I tell people that I once lived in France, but not in Paris, their faces fall a little bit. It is as if I had announced that I once met Beyonce’s cousin, only they are not sure she even has a cousin. So when they ask, “What was life like in France?”, I know they do not really want to hear about my life in France; that would be as uncomfortable as a magician explaining his act while it is in progress, cheap truth overlapping the alluring illusion. People embrace a certain mythology about a place, and they want to hear it told over and over again. They want to hear silly stories about snobby mustaches and striped shirts and cowards running away from German soldiers. They want poodles and snails and Amelie Poulain and ooh-la-la. They want to hear how many times you have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

“None,” I reply, “I’m afraid of heights.”

“So where, exactly, did you live?” Their lips pucker in disappointment.

“The south,” I tell them, “In Marseille.”


Most people believe that the entire country of France was born in Paris like a dark blot of ink, losing color and definition as it eventually seeped in all cardinal directions. But before there was even a nation or a Paris to speak of, the Phoenicians settled into a tiny seaside port called Massilia. Here the Mediterranean, lapping at the limestone cliffs, was turquoise or cobalt depending on her mood. The hills smelled like rosemary and thyme. Far from powder or perfume, the original settlers were swarthy, olive-skinned, feasting on fish and dark strong wine. They were pirates.

Later, after the city had grown, after they’d dressed her in churches and cobblestones, Massilia festered with the plague and with Roman trade. Napoleon loved her and planted a fortress and a palace like kisses on her seductive cliffs. She sent volunteers to the Revolution lustily singing an anthem that was later named for them. She sent fish, and olive oil, and lavender wrapped in brightly-dyed fabric. She sent immigrants fresh off the boat from North Africa and her salty perfume up the Rhone. She sent us long sun-dappled summers and an August sea as warm as bathwater.


Marseille is known for a hearty fish stew called bouillabaisse. The dish contains at least three different kinds of fish, all originating from the sea around the city. It is a very strong, almost pungent dish, but done well, it’s complex, hinting at luxurious saffron and herbs of Provence. In the very old days, fishermen returning to port made the stew in a cauldron of seawater, using the small, bony fish that wouldn’t sell as well at the market, using simply sage and garlic to flavor it. As time went on, more ingredients were added, and bouillabaisse moved off the street into some of the most prestigious restaurants in the area.

The stew embodies the brine-soaked city in a way that nothing else can. It’s a melange of sights, smells, and cultures. It has its little moments of deep luxury, but for the most part, it is full of people and things you wouldn’t necessarily look at twice, that wouldn’t go for the asking price at the market.

My parents first visited Marseille in the summer of 1997. They had been accompanying university students on a voyage abroad, spent mostly in northeast Lyon. Marseille was blisteringly hot. A prolonged trash strike had littered the cobblestone streets with mounds of refuse that crawled with rats. What should have been a short day trip lasted three, thanks to the high-speed train service going on strike; with no change of clothes, my parents smelled no different from the leather-skinned old men who sat at the Old Port all day smoking, swearing, selling fish. My mother must have tried to make the best of it; she always does. In the end, she told my father,

“I will never raise my children in this city.”

Three summers later, we moved there.


Marseillais French has a distinct twang. The further south you go, the more the language transitions from a closed, nasal delivery to one of exuberance, vitality. Passions and tempers run as hot as the weather. At the same time, nobody relaxes as well as those who live in the south. France as a whole knows and enjoys and strives after pleasure more than any other country I have ever visited, but in Provence it is a religion. It is not difficult for this to be true when the the food is so fresh, when the weather is so good, when the sea is so blue.

The older inhabitants of the city are the best expression of this. They’ve been here for years. They vacation in nearby Spain or Italy, leaving the French language and food behind but never straying far from the coast. They are an unbridled expression of bliss and simple goodwill. On the beach the men wear Speedos and the women go topless. Their skin is like wrinkled brown leather; rolls of good-natured flesh overlap the nylon of their bathing suit bottoms as they sit, decked in gold necklaces and communion bracelets, on their towels with their grandchildren playing nearby. They laugh heartily from the belly. It’s a terrible and terrific sight. You cannot help but admire their spirit as much as you disdain their bodies. And why this disdain of their bodies? We all grow old and flabby. Why should the young and beautiful be the only ones to enjoy the freedom of their bodies?


My parents were friends with a couple who had both been working in the same French bank for many years. Both of them had accrued ten weeks of vacation time per year. Ten weeks. That’s a fifth of the year. That is two and a half months of time during which their place of employment pays them to do whatever they want, as long as it is relaxing, as long as it doesn’t take place in the office. You say, “And then people wonder why the French economy is in the toilet,” and I don’t disagree, but I also say, “The American economy is in the toilet. And we’re enjoying it a hell of a lot less than they are.”


The scrubby limestone cliffs on the coast smell like rosemary and thyme. Rosemary means “dew of the sea” in Latin because in many places this little plant requires nothing other than the humidity carried to it by the sea breeze to live. I grew up similarly. It was enough most mornings to walk out and smell the salt air in order to be reassured of a greater order and purpose. Even when she churns in discomfort at the hint of a storm, the Mediterranean is much less frightening than any ocean. Twice my mother has been gifted with special waters: the first time, a student brought some of the Dead Sea back to her in a used bottle. Another time, a friend visited Lourdes and bought a small vial of Mary’s blessed liquid.

We looked casually for jellyfish and other creatures as we floated during the summer. I swam to a spot deep enough for my lower body to be in cold water and my upper body to be in warm water. I knew I was two people, one who had always been in the sea and the other who was just visiting.


I really dislike the idea that becoming more like a certain culture and less like your own will be better for your health or well-being. There are pros and cons to every mindset and way of doing things. You must learn to take the best of the worlds you inhabit and create your own culture. That’s why it is such a wonderful thing to be able to live in a foreign country when you are young and your mind is still elastic. If you can only see things that are different when you’re traveling, whether you think they are “better” or “worse” than what you are used to, then you must exercise your ability to see people as needing and wanting the same things across time and space and simply trying to get them in different ways.

Over the past few years my bookshelves have taken on a few “cultural self-help” books, as I call them: thin, brightly-colored volumes that aim to introduce Americans to foreign cultures, to expose what differentiates them from their peers overseas and to teach them how to be more.... whatever it is that the author deems is missing from the American way of life.

Even some expat memoirs fail to delve deep into their cross-cultural experiences. It is always more interesting, more sensationalist, to tell those you’ve left behind how foreign, how different, how difficult to understand everything is. These travel pieces are interesting but they are limited to a sort of crude voyeurism. Let me see how I can paint a picture of this people in a way that makes them seem backward or odd or fetishized.

I have often fallen into the pitfall of portraying my experience this way to people. I have fed into the stereotypes that, while they are not fully untrue, do not encompass the French people or their culture. If I were to tell the absolute truth I would say that it was no different for me to live in one country or another. I think that it is possible to live outside of the culture you live in, even if you never leave it. It must be possible to constantly renew your experience so that you are taking the best of everything you know and don’t know and making it apply to your life.


The French are fiercely jealous for their language and culture. In the south, the constant mixture of nationalities and backgrounds causes friction. It’s not unlike the immigration debate here in the United States, except that it takes place in much smaller streets and neighborhoods and cities. The borders between minorities are thinner and less defined. In a port city like Marseille, most quartiers combine the flavors of each culture. The melting pot lets off a strong fragrance of blurring identities, of old colonial tensions. You’ll eat a croissant for breakfast and couscous for lunch.


In France, I was resistant to being known as “the American girl”, and now that I have returned to the States, I am resistant to being known as “the girl who lived in France”. Yet it is difficult for me not to fall into easy patterns, to embody the things I loved about my experience overseas in order to differentiate myself from my peers. It is the hook in my personal history, the thing many people refer to as “the most interesting part of Kara’s story.” On an objective level, I don’t disagree with this statement. Next to many, I had a rogue childhood, a home built out of moving boxes.

But I believe the most interesting part of your story is what you choose to do with what you have experienced. It is the one state of mind you adopt after you have visited all of them. You plant your flag there in courage or cowardice and you wait for the crowds to come visit. It is the country you make of your heart. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Before Midnight. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Cannons" - Youth Lagoon (mp3)


In Which It Must Have Been Quite The Night We're About To Have

Clock Struck


Before Midnight
dir. Richard Linklater
109 minutes

All my friends are getting married or moving in together. A friend's wedding is an incredibly high moment, not easily replicated by later life events. We forget about people after they commit collectively to kitchen utensils, as if we'd prepped their bodies for a journey into the afterlife with grave goods like KitchenAid mixers and monogrammed towels.

Those who have followed Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) since the beginning of their ambling, bantering European romance will leave the latest installment of their story, Before Midnight, with slower steps and some disappointment.

Not because Richard Linklater and his leads fail to deliver; on the contrary, this year’s film outdoes its predecessors Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) in the complexity of its script, the beauty of its location, and the sincerity of its performers. The collaboration between Linklater, Hawke and Delpy feels like improv. It is in fact a carefully crafted script, replete with tiny gems of insight into the main characters, their friends and their lives.

Caught up in the dialogue, you can pick out the stories that surely trickled down from personal experience and those that were born out of imagination. Against the backdrop of the Greek isles, the film unfolds as an intimate glimpse not only into the story that we've come to love but also into the minds of those who created it. 

But this is hardly a film to dive headfirst into the romantic frenzy that characterized the first two chronicles of Jesse and Celine's story. Rather, it explores what happens after the fairy tale has ended. They fell in love in one Viennese night twenty years ago and rekindled their romance ten years later in a Parisian afternoon. When we left them last, Celine was singing Nina Simone over a cup of tea and Jesse was twisting his wedding band nervously, about to deliberately miss the plane back to his wife and son in Chicago, about to begin the life with Celine he's been dreaming of. 

Now, nine years into whatever they began that afternoon in Paris, Jesse and Celine are nearing the end of a six-week vacation. They have seven-year-old twin daughters, who doze in the back of the car as the family drives back to their vacation home from the airport, where Jesse has just dropped off his son, Hank. It's hard for Jesse to say goodbye; they've had a good summer together, but Hank lives halfway across the world with a depressed mother and he's growing up fast. 

Their farewell mirrors the one Jesse and Celine shared in Vienna, so many years ago. Granted, it's not romantic, but Jesse's desire to connect with his son obliterates the distance between them and reckons fiercely with it at the same time. The teenager answers in monosyllables as his father asks him questions about the upcoming school year and tries to set up a weekly skype date. 

Jesse and Celine's original dilemma wouldn't exist today, and the gently ironic, numerous references to digital relationships make this very apparent. But it's also clear that genuine contact between people is difficult, or absent. As he watches his daughters play in the sea, Jesse receives a text from his father that his grandmother has died. The news is instantaneous, but the ability to be physically present in that crucial moment is impossible. And doesn't knowing something the minute it happens, yet being completely helpless in the face of it, seem like even more of an injustice? 

The goodbye with Hank is the background of Jesse and Celine's first dialogue, a long, unedited shot of them sitting in the front seat. As Jesse shares his misgivings about being so far away from his son, Celine debates taking a new job in the government. Celine is worried that Jesse will ask her to move to Chicago so that they can be closer to Hank, when she already feels as if she has sacrificed so much in being his companion and a mother.

Their conversation is as lively, frank and funny as it has always been, peppered with the philosophical musings that endeared them to us so long ago. At the same time, they've been cookie-cut into a shape we've never seen them assume, although it's a shape we're familiar with. They're talking about schedules. They're talking about parenting. They're interrupted by ringing cell phones. They're struggling with the day-to-day of a seasoned relationship, one that has passed beyond its original ardor into something different. 

Before sunrise and sunset, it took only the two of them to create a third space in which their interaction and growing attraction for one another had space to flourish. It didn't matter if they were strolling through a park or sitting at a sidewalk cafe. Now, despite the natural beauty of the island, the reclusive vacation home and the small village tucked into the hills, the world has invaded Jesse and Ceiine's space. Their friends book a hotel room for them, complete with a bottle of wine and a couples' massage, so that they can get away together and spend a romantic evening, but they spend most of it arguing. 

I think it is probably difficult to reach forty without messing up in some large way, or at least believing that you have ruined your own life even if it has gone exactly as you thought you wanted. Both Jesse and Celine are struggling with this in their own way: Jesse because he feels more and more like an estranged father, and Celine because she feels as if she has given up the best parts of herself to motherhood.

She's insecure, asking Jesse whether he'd still pick her up now, a "fat-assed middle-aged mother". She's fiery and morbid like we remember her, but she has also grown more vulnerable. Delpy parades through the hotel room bare-breasted for a good ten minutes: at first, she is Aphrodite, the lover, sharing a close moment with Jesse. As it escalates into an argument, she becomes a symbol of the indignant mother, then Liberty Leading the People, her Sorbonne post-feminist dreams fizzling into mere theory as she and Jesse tease out their very physical differences. Celine has been so many things and wants to be so many things and Delpy literally embodies them all with poise.

I wanted there to be more moments of peace in this film. I wanted there to be less shouting. More than anything, though, I wanted their fights to be about something bigger than themselves. Doesn't it blow your mind that anybody would want to be in a long-term commitment with anybody else? Is anybody immune to the fights about dishes, and laundry, and who's picking up who and who didn't wash their hair out of the sink this morning? Celine and Jesse aren't even married. Avoiding the giant clusterfuck of marriage has saved them from absolutely nothing.

with linklaterIt would be easy to point at Before Midnight and say, "Here. Here is an example of why long-term commitments don't work. It's all roses and strolls through beautiful European cities in the beginning, but in the end, nobody knows how to make it work." I am tempted to believe this myself. We don't know how it ends. We don't know whether the couple is able to compromise. It seems like this fight, these differences, might be the end of them.  

But like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Linklater's latest is simply a brief glimpse into a relationship. It's a fleeting moment. It might be true that you cannot sustain romantic passion forever. But it is also true that you cannot sustain rage forever. It's too hard on the heart. We are rarely privy to this part of the story, to what happens later, when we've willingly launched ourselves into the loss of our freedom that is loving another person. The daily ins and outs, disagreements, and pleasures are what our first connections, hopes and dreams move towards. This is a film about wanting the quiet moments in between the extreme highs and lows.

Like Celine said in Before Sunrise, "I believe if there's any kind of God it wouldn't be in any of us, not you or me but just in this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt." 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about taking things for granted. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Let Me Go On" - Matt Simons (mp3)

"I Will Follow You Into the Dark" - Matt Simons (mp3)


In Which We Have Seen Our Reflection On The Morning Dew

For Granted


For a long time after I moved to Chicago, I didn’t experience the city any other way than walking through it or riding the trains from one end to the other. I had very little money to do anything, and I didn’t know anyone except for my relatives, so I would pass by coffee shops and restaurants and bars and stores and I looked through windows and talked my way into this city by imagination. I tricked myself into believing that it was all open to me, that it was my choice to remain on the outside, to know the city as a pop-up book of glass facades and closed doors and empty space behind them. 

Observing rather than experiencing gives every event, every new acquaintance, an air of absolute novelty. Even the simplest things become luxurious. When I visit a new restaurant, my joy is unparalleled. As I soak up a new atmosphere, notice the details, appreciate the presentation or fragrance of a dish I’ve never tried, I can’t even imagine returning to this moment or wanting to replicate it. Every sensation is unique. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

I’m afraid of becoming the sort of person who takes things for granted. Who returns, again and again, to known experiences without any sense of wonder, without being as fully satiated as the first time. I’m nervous to try new things that I know I’d enjoy because I don’t know if there is enough in me to appreciate them fully. 

When I first started drinking tea, I put a lot of sugar in it. Little by little, until I was tipping only a few grains into the steaming cup, I cut it out. I cut away what was distracting me from experiencing it fully. I feel the same way about difficult circumstances and the truisms we tell one another to make it through them. Cutting away any attempts to make sense of an often senseless (for pleasure or for pain) world allows me to seek peace amidst all my conflicting emotions: hurt, joy, anger, confusion. I am not supposed to feel only one thing. I am not supposed to quiet the cacophony. 

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting a restaurant that has quickly become part of Chicago’s foodie mythos. As fragrant, beautiful dishes were brought to us from the kitchen, as the wine flowed and the candles flickered and a collective, satiated sigh bubbled above us like so much champagne, I thought to myself, “This is what Chicago means to me,” and this sentiment was no less true the next morning when I stood in front of an industrial stove in a women’s shelter and stirred a vat of bean soup that smelled rich and homey and comforting.

There was a slim stainless counter between me and the women I served, but there might as well have been a wall, because I will never not feel things like “guilt” or “fear” or “privilege” and despite all my best intentions these feelings, these narrowing words, separate us.

In both instances I was given a glimpse of a world in which I do not belong: one, because I do not have enough, the other, because I have more than enough.

When I feel overwhelmed by all that there is to see and do, by the person I need to be, I imagine myself sitting on the crowded outdoor patio of a small restaurant in Southern France. We drank crisp cold red wine and ate a simple tomato salad with vinaigrette. The air was salty. There was nothing more or nothing less than these things. It was exquisite. There is nothing more required of me than to be completely present in this moment. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She tumbls here and twitters here.

 "Gold" - Sir Sly (mp3)

"Ghost" - Sir Sly (mp3)