t was at a show of paintings by Cezanne and Pissarro at the Museum of Modern Art that I realized I wanted to spend my declining years in the South of France. Specifically, in Provence. My bedroom was the key image: a big bed, whitewashed walls, a shuttered window. And this, most of all --- a view of rolling fields of lavender.
This was not a fantasy of a late-life invalid. Of course I'd write. Probably about Provence. And then I remembered: Peter Mayle has already been there, done that. Indeed, he owns the franchise on Provence.
I would be annoyed by Mayle's dominance, but the thing is, I know him ever so slightly and he just might be the most pleasant guy on the planet. Opens the good wine for guests. Laughs at your jokes, etc. And is so not a greasy careerist, eager to sell out a beautiful patch of France for a bag of Euros. Listen to Mayle tell the story of his success:
I was doing some work for GQ magazine and I had a little bit put aside. We sold our house in England. But I had an idea for a novel that I had sold to a publisher in England. I was going to go out to Provence, lock myself away and whack out this novel and financial things would be more comfortable. I got there and was so distracted by what was going on that I didn't do anything on the novel. My literary agent kept ringing me up and asking to see pages and I eventually sent him some pages on why I couldn't start the novel. He took them to the publisher and said this actually is a much better idea than the novel and the publisher agree. "If he can do another 250 pages like this we've got something." They gave me a "modest advance" -- so modest in fact that it was self-effacing. We had a two-man publication party -- me and the publisher -- and he printed 3,000 copies and said, "There'll be a few left over but I'll give them to you at a discount so you've got them for Christmas gifts." About six weeks later, I was back in France and he called and said. "We sold them all. We're reprinting another 1,500 copies." Gradually it snowballed and then the paperback came out and sold a million copies in England...
And then Knopf picked "A Year in Provence" up for the American market, and you know the rest.
In "Provence A-Z," Mayle shares the offbeat information he has gathered while living in Provence for almost two decades. Very little of it is the stuff you find in guidebooks. Much of it is information gathered in cafes, where Mayle is fond of pastis (at 45% alcohol, the most intoxicating drink in the house). All of it makes you want to fly to Paris --- tonight, if possible --- and then take the TGV down to Aix. (Cautionary note: There are 16 million visitors to Provence each year. Try not to go in August.)
Here's a sample of Mayle's gleanings:
-- the origin of a bamboo forest near Nimes
-- the charms of Beaumes-de-Venice, which is so much more than a dessert wine
-- the genius of the bouffadou in lighting fires
-- the Provencal sun tan (Picasso, Mayle notes, was "the color of a well-cured cigar")
-- what to do with leftover ends of cheese
-- how to cook eggplant on a barbeque
-- the male goat "can copulate up to 40 times a day" (cheer up: each encounter lasts for only a few seconds)
-- the world's only corkscrew museum
-- the soaps of Marseilles, the best rose wine, salt from the Camargue
-- a hundred intangibles: the smell of a cafe, a hidden path, an afternoon nap, neighbors and so much more
And here, both to whet your appetite and to show you that there is no such thing as a "small" subject when a fine writer is at the top of his game, here is Peter Mayle on the subject of the air --- yes: the air --- in Provence:
A man in a bar once told me that the air in Provence was the purest air in France, perhaps even in the world. He was a large and somewhat aggressive man, and I thought it wise not to argue with him. In fact, I was delighted to believe what he had told me, and for several years I would pass on the good news to friends and visitors. "Every breath you take of Provençal air," I used to say, "is like ten euros in the bank of health." It wasn't until I started to research the subject that I discovered the truth.
Here it is: The départements of Bouches-du-Rhône, the Vaucluse, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, and the Var make up one of the four most polluted zones in Europe, a distinction they share with Genoa, Barcelona, and Athens. (Source: Greenpeace France.) Apart from the emissions coming from heavy traffic on the routes nationales and the autoroutes, the principal villains are to be found in the industrial complex --- l'industrie-sur-mer --- that straggles along the coast from Marseille to the Gulf of Fos and the oil refineries at Berre.
How bad is it? By August 2003, there had been thirty-six days during the year on which the level of air pollution exceeded the official limit of 240 micrograms per cubic meter. More was to come as the summer heat wave continued. And, so we were told, the pollution was not necessarily confined to the area immediately around those who produced it, but could spread as far away as sixty to ninety miles.
Since each of us breathes about thirty pounds of air each day, statistics like this make uncomfortable reading. And yet, walking every day in the Luberon as I do, it's difficult to believe that such a thing as pollution exists. The air looks clear and tastes good. Vegetation seems untouched. Butterflies thrive. Birds and game go about their business, apparently in rude health. Can it be that the mistral is protecting us by blowing away the foul breath of industry? I must consult the man in the bar. He will know.
I'd like to meet that man. And see Mayle in situ. Shall we gather in the late afternoon at that bar?