It is impossible to exhale summer properly without pausing on Peter Mayle’s (14 June, 1939 – 18 January, 2018) reminiscences of Provence.
In my imagination Provence is to sun as Scotland is to a rain. Thus Mayle’s excursions in Provence always occur in summertime (even when they don’t).
“After a week or two in Provence,” Mayle promises in Encore Provence, a book that revisits the place thrown open to his readers in A Year in Provence, “You will have had plenty of sun, wandered through a dozen markets, visited vineyards, paid your respects in churches, and sat on a piece of ancient history in the orchestra stalls of a Roman theater.”
A more immediate view of Provençal life, however, is where it gets interesting.
[L]ife in Provence is never short of curiosities, and the national genius for complication is never too far away. There may be some mad logic at work somewhere, but there are many times when it is difficult to understand.
Take, for example, the matter of the village garbage dump. It is discreetly placed, frequently cleared, designed to accept debris of any type and size short of a discarded truck, an admirable facility in every way. An official notice is prominently displayed above the garbage containers; translated it reads: Large items should be deposited two days after the last Wednesday of each month. I stood and looked at it one morning for some time, thinking at first that I had misread it, or that my French was letting me down yet again. But no. That’s what it said. Two days after the last Wednesday of each month. Why didn’t it say the last Friday of each month? Was there some plan afoot-doubtless another piece of nonsense from the bureaucrats in Brussels—to change the name of Friday to something more dynamic and politically exciting? Euroday, perhaps.
While I was wondering if this was a treat in store for the year 2000, a small van arrived. The driver got out and studied the notice. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked again at the notice, shook his head and shrugged.1
This is merely one example of the elegant fluidity of time and dishevelling of what we with humorless efficient personalities might deem “important.”
Such examples abound in Encore Provence:
And just when you begin to feel that a certain chaotic pattern is emerging, the rules will change. You go to buy cheese at a shop that has always opened on the dot of three, only to find the window bare except for a notice advising you of a fermeture exceptionelle. Your first thought is that there has been a death in the family, but as the exceptional closing period enters its third week, you realize that a matter of almost equal gravity—the annual vacation has come up. This is confirmed by Madame when she returns to work. Why didn’t she put her holiday plans on the notice? Ah, because news of a prolonged absence might encourage burglars. Cheese theft, apparently, is a grim possibility in these dangerous times.
What many of us might find infuriating works for Mayle, however, because these seemingly arbitrary movements are underscored by a wonderfully fierce habituality that is absolutely rampant among the eldest of society (gentlemen who resemble elders the world over, no?).
Midmorning may be early but it certainly isn’t for the quartet of village elders, with a collective age of more than three hundred years, who arrive next. Tumblers of pink wine are brought to them, and the cards for belote. But before they start to play, four heads in flat caps swivel on tortoise necks to inspect the strangers. They are from the pre-tourist generation, the old men, often puzzled by the popularity of Provence, sometimes pleasantly surprised at the prices their disused barns and scrubby, unproductive patches of land can fetch: quarter of a million francs for a ruin, half a million or more for a modest house. And then another small fortune spent on indoor sanitation and central heating. Putaing, how the world has changed.2
The Provençale vernacular leaps off the page into our ears, smells doth the words like a spritzed scent and the food, oh the food.
The meal sections are to be read and reread, every morsel savoured like the licking of a plate.
Toast came first, but not in thin, limp, Anglo-Saxon slices. This was country bread cut thick, crisp and lightly browned on each side, warm and soft in the middle, edible transport for the terrines that were now arranged across the table. There were four of them – deep rectangular pottery dishes, their contents ranging in texture and complexity from smooth and pale to chunky and dark, from pork to hare. A knife was stuck unceremoniously into each block of pâté. A jar of cornichons, those tiny, pungent French cousins of the American pickle, was set in front of us, and we were left to help ourselves.
I have an abundant dislike for pâté yet I relax into this passage repeatedly.
After their first jaunt in Provence, Mayle and his wife returned to England yet remained longing for something that once was.
An entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday-morning markets. Very few weeks went by without a twinge of what I can best describe as homesickness.
Returning to a place where you have been happy is generally regarded as a mistake. Memory is a notoriously biased and sentimental editor, selecting what it wants to keep and invariably making a few cosmetic changes to past events.3
Mayle mentions home, being home, feeling at home. It is a theme we return to frequently on The Examined Life for I believe, to borrow from Graham Greene, we might have been formed on those tree-lined avenues of our home town. But what is the feeling of home, why is it alienating as an adult?
It is the thing that formed us to which we can never return. The poet A. E. Housman warned us mournfully;
“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”
From A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems
And yet Mayle does return to Provence and indeed was “made to feel that we had come home.”
To make a new home as an adult is a rite of passage as momentous as leaving our home as a young adult.
Finding roots is a the vital thing for humanity, argues French philosopher Simone Weil. Mayle twists and pulls at the idea of home until it works, twisting and pulling himself most of all.
The old men still play their endless games of boules. The markets are as colorful and abundant as ever. There is room to breathe, and the air is clean. More than anything else, people make a place and the local inhabitants don’t seem to have changed at all. I’m happy to have this chance to thank them for the warmth of their welcome and their many kindnesses. We were made to feel that we had come home. 4
Mayle had changed, Provence had not. When he died in 2018, Peter Mayle was buried in the rocky, lavender-scented soil of his beloved Ménerbes.
If you are new to Mayle, begin with his maiden piece A Year in Provence a calm, simple book of gargantuan people and place. A book that has never been out of print since it was published in 1989.
Then pair his writing with any of Laurie Lee’s memories of home: I Can’t Stay Long, Village Christmas and Other Essays on the English Year and his most famous Cider with Rosie. Both writers observe others with a humor and generous kindness.