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Peter Mayle’s Richly Appetizing Advice for a Life Lived

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“The year began with lunch.”

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Like many opportunists in the London real estate market, the Travel Book section in my favorite London bookstore recently upgraded its residence, upsizing from a tucked-away shelf to a kiosk in the center of the room. These blithesome books command more space—and better space—than actual travel books that will actually tell you where to travel and actually tell you how to get there.

I’m skeptical. I don’t adore the travel writing genre. Too many lemons, spice bazaars, and, frankly, too damn much solipsistic reflection of other people’s selves as they experience travel.

Except one that I return to once a year. The book, not the place. Because it isn’t really a book about a place, it’s a book about a life.

Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, published in 1989, details the year of English author and advertising creative’s relocated to a yet undiscovered fairy-tale parcel of the world: Provence. An area where air glistens with thyme and lavender, scrub oak climb hillsides, and tout le monde ceases activity to communes for the holiest of event, the afternoon meal.

Mayle begins the book (and the year) as he means to go on:

“We have always found that New Year’s Eve. with its eleventh-hour excesses and doomed resolutions, is a dismal occasion for all the forced jollity and midnight toasts and kisses. And so, when we heard that over the village in Lacoste, a few miles away, the proprietor of Le Simiane was offering a six-course lunch with pink champagne to his amiable clientele, it seemed a much more cheerful way to start the next twelve months.”

During this particular repast, Mayle and his wife are introduced to the French penchant for good cooking, good food, and good company. In fact, the food and the meals in which they are appreciated underlie all of Mayle’s undoings and the unraveling, or Frenchification, rather, of his British sensibilities. As he abandons concepts of formal social engagements and time parameters, and embraces his new world, especially the idea of embracing a life lived around good food, he appreciates the psychological change this entails:

“The people who work on the land are more likely to eat well at noon and sparingly in the evening, a habit that is healthy and sensible and, for us quite impossible. We have found that there is nothing like a good lunch to give us an appetite for dinner. It’s alarming. It must have something to do with the novelty of living in the middle of such an abundance of good things to eat, and among men and women whose interest in food verges on obsession.”

A Year in Provence is a humorous, gentle, cheerful account of France and the French that welcomes its readers like the warm burly arms of a Provence proprietor holding a glass of full-bodied red.

Mayle’s interplay with the French includes explaining “No, the English don’t eat fox,” being taught the benefits of a primed palette when drinking wine, and learning how to befriend one’s neighbors (it also involves wine).  All while he wades into the bureaucracy for which France is legendary, a bureaucracy that “in its manifold subtleties and inconveniences can transform a molehill of activity into a mountain of frustration.” (I chuckle, for this is how my husband and I—American expats—view British bureaucracy.)

Perhaps most striking to me, as an expat in Britain, is how warm and openhearted Mayle finds the French, truly a departure from some of the more—shall we say, polite—mannerisms found in the English, which can be quite off-putting. Mayle deals with this change of custom, among other major and minor perturbations, with humor and tranquility, spending seriousness where it is most needed:

“We bought red peppers to roast and big brown eggs and basil and peaches and goat’s cheese and lettuce and pink-streaked onions. And when the basket could hold no more, we went across the road to buy a half a yard of bread—the gros pain that makes such a tasty mop for any olive oil or vinaigrette sauce.”

There is something about fresh, local markets, wine, warm days, and bright smells that opens one’s mind to different values of time and energy. Though his British friends regularly asked, “What do you do all day?,” Mayle found the answer to be (surprising to him, at first): “We found the everyday curiosities of French rural life amusing and interesting.” Not to mention house repairs, vineyards to be discovered, sun to be slept under and richly diverse and authentic friends in whose company one passes the day.

I hope I have the courage to life like this, consumed in what seem to be life’s necessities, not its trimmings.

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Read more of Mayle’s delightful observations on life lived and thoroughly enjoyed in his subsequent Toujours Provence (1992) and Encore Provence (2000). I love the intersection of dissimilar cultures and wrote specifically how to find humor in our differences in this short fiction, Angel on the Roof.

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