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"Take this longing from my tongue...
on 5 October 2012
whatever useless things that these hands have done." The previous quote is a line from a Leonard Cohen song, with the eponymous subject title. He's still, or more properly, back on the concert circuit, and was recently in Toulon, which, with a bit of longitude, could be considered far eastern Provence. Peter Mayle felt a similar longing, and in the beginning of his book, he described it thus: "We had talked about it during the long grey winters and damp green summers, looked with an addict's longing at photographs of village markets and vineyards..." Provence is hardly a secret; it is a destination of choice for the "au courant," starting with at least Caesar's troops, who might be granted a farm there for their retirement if they lived that long. Do you hear that, Veterans Administration?
Mayle, who is English, wrote this charming account of a year there in 1989. It has become a classic of sorts, with millions of copies now in print. Supposedly, the Japanese tour buses would weave through the narrow streets of Ménerbes so they could take a picture of his now renovated house. Mayle had been an advertising executive, managed to accumulate a few coins, "saw the light," chucked it all, and actually fulfilled his dream, and that of his wife, and perhaps the dog's also. Provence was no longer just a vacation destination; it became his home when he purchased one in the countryside, along the northern base of the Luberon massif. It is a year's account, commencing in January, with a chapter devoted to each month. The hardback version which I acquired shortly after it was originally published is warmly illustrated, with black and white sketches, by Leslie Forbes.
The "tongue" is reflected in perhaps 30% of the book; a loving description of the food, and the many meals prepared. It really IS different there... one can become obsessive, and discuss the ingredients and preparation of the next meal as one consumes the present one. And with the quality of the food (and wine!), it is possible to seemingly eat all the time, without gaining weight. Proust's post-prandial stroll has to be integrated into the routine, though. As a resident, he develops relationships with all sorts of French people that the tourist does not. Throughout the year, he relates his experiences with the construction workers renovating his house... which... as he admits, seems to be a universal condition. He had neighbors, all with their vested economic interests, like the farmer who leases his vineyard, as well as the crotchety recluse who is obsessed the German campers who buy only the bread. Nonetheless, he is still hoping for the big payout, when he sells his rundown, dark house for a fortune. And then there is the issue of your house guests! As Mayle recounts, a lot of long-lost acquaintances suddenly become your best friend when you have Provençal accommodations. But then there is September, and the joys of a non-tourist Provence returns. A few reviewers have accused Mayle of being a "snob." I didn't see that at all; if anything just the reverse. In another funny anecdote, he relates being at a chic party with "tout les Parisiens," and he and his wife realize they have become the "country bumpkins."
It is hardly a comprehensive account of Provence. Missing are the lives of quiet desperation in the HLM's. It is only a slice of life in the Luberon, with the largest city ventured to being Aix. Seemingly he never makes it to Avignon, Arles or Marseille. The weekly markets are far more charming than the Hypermarchés that are so rapidly replacing them. Racial tension ? Religious concerns, all off the radar. But that was OK for me.
I first "discovered" Provence in the same year, 1989, renting gîtes on a long-term basis, and that is one reason his book so strongly resonates. I was also in Auzet's boulangerie in Cavaillon in 1995, and had a French TV camera shoved in my face. The book had just been translated into French. "Had I come to Auzet's, which is in Mayle's book, because I had read about it there?" No, not actually, my purpose that day was a bit more complicated, like buying a large patisserie for the nurse's in Avignon who had taken care of my mother. And I'd been coming here prior to the book.
Mayle's book remains a quintessential guide to an essential slice of life in southern France. I have had that "longing" of late, and the re-read whet the appetite rather than satiating it. The next two lines of Leonard's song are equally appropriate. Though he was obviously talking about a woman, and that is one charming aspect of Provence, the lines also apply to the entire experience: "And everyone one who wanted you, they found what they will always want again." 5-stars, plus.