“The year began with lunch.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
I hope I have the courage to life like this, consumed in what seem to be life’s necessities, not its trimmings.
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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