Do you like to buy your fruits and vegetables from a farmer’s market instead of a supermarket ? How about your olive oil in liters from a mill and liberally using it everyday, rather than measured teaspoonfuls on special occasions. Get wine from several nearby vineyards, after spending a most agreeable afternoon leisurely sampling them. Eat meals that are taken for granted by the locals, and are remembered by tourists for years. Work of all this eating and drinking by going on long hikes in rosemary and thyme scented mountains or picturesque sun-drenched lavender fields. And come back home to a quaint and charming centuries old stone farmhouse that you just remodeled. If you do not have the money and/or the time (like most people), the next best is to read Peter Mayle’s autobiographical narration "A Year In Provence".
Peter Mayle, an ad executive, and his wife Annie leave their London jobs and go live in heavenly Provence, a rural region in Southern France. After impulsively purchasing an old stone farmhouse near Menerbes, they set about hiring local craftsmen to modernize it. The book not only details their adventures in house restoration, but also documents their experiences in integrating into the Provencal French culture. All this written in a warm descriptive style with plenty of wry humor makes this book one of the best advertisements for Provencal living in particular and French culture in general.
The book is organized according to the months of the year, with a chapter for each of the twelve. Needless to say, each chapter offers a different entertaining tale; and more evidence of Peter’s love for Provence. Skillfully interwoven is his appreciation and liking for the crusty, rough-hewn, nosy yet genuinely warm and loving local inhabitants.
A brief synopsis of some of the months
January --- The first month begins with a disaster, their frozen pipes burst in the dreaded Mistral; an incessant howling cold Siberian wind. A local French plumber, Menicucci, is introduced; he always answers the phone with the stereotypical "Oh La La". Also introduced is neighbor Faustain; who invites the Mayles’s for traditional "stick-to-your-ribs" Provencal meal. A local gourmet has the best line about English cooking, "the English kill their lamb twice, once when they slaughter it and second when they cook it."
April --- Spring has arrived and the local markets (fresh vegetables, brown eggs, goat cheese, olive oil, lavender honey, bread of all sorts) are in full bloom. Blossoming cherry trees make a pretty sight, but the region begins to get crowded with the arrival of the first tourists.
September --- The wine grapes harvesting month, includes funny tales involving really old trucks used to transport grapes to the co-operative winery. Also the official start of the hunting season, a hilarious description of the French going overboard with enough ammunition to decimate almost all animals and birds on this planet (but fortunately without much success.)
December --- Annie dreams up a splendid scheme to finally get the tardy and ever-late French workmen to complete the remodeling. The year ends in true French tradition, what else but a party with Champagne, individual pizzas, quiches, foie gras, and olive bread.
Are you ready to book that vacation to Provence ?
1) Of course, the book (this review’s title is one of life’s lessons learnt by Peter after a year)
2) Audio-CD of the book, John Case does a marvelous job. Peter Mayle himself has narrated this book, but I have not heard it (doubtless it should be very good).
3) BBC mini-series "A Year In Provence", starring John Thaw & Lindsey Duncan with an absolutely hilarious special appearance by Alfred Molina as a boorish ill-mannered English guest. One flaw in the book is that Annie’s character is not fully fleshed, and the mini-series makes up for that. Annie comes across as a determined practical and no-nonsense but very hospitable human being. A mild yet harmless flirtation develops between her and Louie the swimming pool cleaner who wears a "Je Suis Sexy" shirt. Several short third person stories alluded to in the book are further developed here. One of the best is about a snooty Parisian lady who buys a nearby house, but is troubled by a peasant neighbor’s "le coq" that keeps crowing in the wee hours of the morning. Another is about a boule tournament (a Provencal game played with steel balls), where Peter challenges a local French expert. After some Anglo-French jingoism, he learns the secret of assimilation; graciously loosing.
4) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/apr/05/france.travelnews , a really funny piece on English-French relations by Peter Mayle.