Recently my nose led me to a stall in down-town Vancouver where people were selling lavender products made in Provence, France. With lavender and Provence still strongly on my mind I grabbed Peter Mayle’s memoir off the bookstore shelf without a second thought. It was so prettily published and the subject was appealing – and besides, I had read his 1989 hit memoir, A Year in Provence, with great enjoyment. The title is self-explanatory – but what is this British preoccupation with relocating to France?
It rains heavily in France same as in the UK (actually Mayle proves in the book that it’s wetter where he lives in Provence, than in London). France is just across the channel so it’s not exactly “crossing the Rubicon” as it was for Julius Caesar. And yet, given money and pipe dreams Brits frequently up roots and shuffle on over to settle somewhere warm, pastoral and utterly Gallic. And then they write books about it: A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke, published in 2006, is one, and another is An Orderly Man: A Memoir by the inimitable Dirk Bogarde, about renovating his house in the south of France, first published in 1983. (And many more recent ones in this excellent list, here.)
The Trouble with Truffles*
The reasons must lie in the warmth, the wine, the truffles, the fields of lavender, the array of asparagus and the pitter-patter of tiny tourist feet descending en masse in summer and leaving lots of money behind when they go. Mayle got so accustomed to living there that he writes like an anthropologist, explaining, convincingly, the thinking and habits of the locals. No wonder they made him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2002.
Regardless of his initial difficulties with settling down and managing the cultural divide between the English and the French, Mayle depicts the locals with gentle humour – in this instance about French people’s inability to queue in an orderly (British) manner:
“The French are ingenious and persistent in their determination not to stand in an orderly line and wait their turn. They jostle, they creep, they sidle, or they pretend to be joining a dear friend who happens to be standing at the front of the crowd. I even know of a sprightly old lady who never goes to market without a crutch, otherwise never used, which she wields like a weapon to clear away anyone in her path to the front.” (p. 32)
Being a stickler for an orderly queue myself, I found this very amusing. Mayle had his own local French teacher and learned more about the language than just grammar – he learned to use body language, the French way – road rages, nose prods, cheek-kissing, arm waving, and the famous shrug.
“Finally, there is the shrug. There was a time when the world saw this as typically French. In those days, reacting to circumstances that would make the Frenchman shrug, the Englishman would put his hands in his trouser pockets, the Italian would smack his forehead with the palm of his hand, the American would pick up the phone to call his lawyer, and the German would lodge a complaint with the chancellor. But nowadays, the whole world has learned to shrug, although I still think the French do it best.” (p. 51)
Three reasons to read it
Three things you must know about this book: For one, it will make you want to go there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Whatever you had saved up for a family vacation might end up being spent on manoeuvering your way through the dreaded mountain passes to Provence, specifically to get to Ménerbes, a walled village in the Luberon Mountains in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France in the foothills of the French Alps. A mouthful that is – and quite a distance from anywhere.
Secondly, you will end up feeling hungry. Mayle has a way of describing food that makes you drool – he was after all, a restaurant critic for a long time, and an advertising copywriter. He describes a whole new complicated world of food – more types of fruit, vegetables and meat that most of us would ever know, and writes things like “Browsing through the garlic is, as you can imagine, thirsty work.” I’ve heard of browsing through books and tiptoeing through the tulips but never browsing through garlic – there must have been a lot of it. He delves into the local restaurants, food markets, farm produce, menus, wineries and all sorts of alcoholic pleasures – including the local rosé (a particular favourite of his) and the ever-present pastis:
“As I said to Farigoule, I was surprised at how easily it had slipped down. ‘That is the little deception of pastis,’ he said. ‘You think you are drinking an innocent mixture of anise, and you forget that the Ricard in your glass contains more alcohol than cognac, vodka, and most whiskies.’ And with that, he ordered another one for each of us. Never had education tasted so good.” (p. 173)
To quote more would be to give too much away because it is a small little book – small in size and only 192 pages, consisting of 21 short and pithy essays and an afterword. In a year filled with difficult, challenging, confusing, incomprehensible and serious books, it was such a joy – I cannot tell you what a pleasure it was – to read a happy book.
In a famous moment from the film Notting Hill, “William Thacker” remarks about the object of his affections, “Anna Scott”:
William: It was sort of sweet, actually – um, I mean, I know she’s an actress and all that, so she can deliver a line, but she said she might be as famous as can be, but also…that she was just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her. [From the script of Notting Hill]
It’s the same with this book. I know Mayle was a skilled wordsmith, and he can deliver a line, and I know he made a living from painting as positive a portrait as possible of Provence. But still. Amongst the genteel passages with hardly any sad and definitely no cynical moments, is heartfelt affection for all of it – from a man who seems to be genuinely happy to have been there and savoured its pleasures. And that is just so nice, you know.
That’s the third thing this book will do to you – unless you are actually the Grinch in human form, or have Scrooge’s heart of ice, this book will make you happy. And what better Festive Season gift can there be, than that?
A life with lots of writing
The real story behind the essays in this memoir is not too far from the truth, and interesting in that it was not all love and peace when his first memoir of his time there turned the region into a tourist hot-spot. But there’s none of that in here.
Peter Mayle died on 18 January 2018 (aged 78), in his home in Ménerbes, Provence, France after a lifetime of what could be described as “mannerly writing” about all sorts of things like food, art, Provence, and so on. But he also wrote about willies, sex and babies.
“His humorous children’s guide to reproduction, “Where Did I Come From?,” was widely translated and sold more than 2 million copies. He also published several books in the “Wicked Willie” series, featuring a talking cartoon penis.” (Matt Schudel, Peter Mayle obituary, The Washington Post, January 25, 2018)
Didn’t know that, did you? There are lots of his books to choose from. But unfortunately, there will be no more. Here are my favourites:
*A horrible pun: “The Trouble with Tribbles” is the fifteenth episode of the second season of the American science fiction television series Star Trek, first aired December 29, 1967.
The header is a scene from a wine farm in the Western Cape, in South Africa, in the heat of summer.