A Year in Provence should be read with thick plummy-red red and crusty bread soaked in truffle oil.
Peter Mayle’s (1939 – 2018) classic piece of travel writing chronicles the year Mayle, British advertising creative, relocated with his wife to an undiscovered fairy-tale parcel of the world: Provence. The place glistens with thyme and lavender. Scrub oaks climb hillsides, and tout le monde communes for the holiest event: the afternoon meal.
By 12:30 the little stone-walled restaurant was full. There were some serious stomachs to be seen—entire families with embonpoint that comes from spending two or three diligent hours every day at the table. […] The final “bon appetit” died away and a companionable near-silence descended on the restaurant as the food received its due attention.
Day by day, Mayle’s cold, stiff British exterior is buffed and smoothed by the kindness eccentricities of the Provencal locals.
For three years in a row, winters had been noticeably harder than anyone could remember—cold enough, in fact, to kill our ancient olive trees. It was to use the phrase that comes from Provence whenever the sun goes in, pas normal. But why? Monsieur Menicucci gave me a token two seconds to ponder this phenomenon before warming to this thesis, tapping me with a finger from time to time to make sure I was paying attention.
Mayle’s aesthete is revealed. As is his relaxed inner-self. He accepts that a day spent on home repairs, in the market with colorful characters, or around the dinner table is a day well-lived. To live as such, consumed by life’s bare but rich necessities, not its trimmings, is this book.
I remember reading A Year in Provence when it first came out in 1989. This far-away beautiful place, undisturbed but for the French. Now, it is not the place that is unreachable, but the time. I imagine, perhaps due to Mayle, the Provence countryside must be frantic. Quite changed.
We learned that time in Provence is a very elastic commodity, even when it is described in clear and specific terms. Un petit quart d’heure means sometime today. Demain means sometime this week. And, the most elastic time segment of all, une quinzaine, can mean three weeks, two months, or next year, but never, ever does it mean fifteen days.
Time elasticity, does that still exist? (Apart from in building trades and any and all deliveries.)
Mayle died a year ago in Menerbes, which means he held on and probably became a local. His first book (there are three subsequent, equally good) has now passed into lore, a funny romp of a time long gone, like Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals or Laurie Lee’s A Village Christmas.
Mayle’s message of simplicity, kindness, authenticity, and meaningfulness is as alive as ever, and upon reread this book reveals new marvels. A Year in Provence is worth a good sink into lovely cushions and a hefty red.1
I was affected by Mayle’s urgency to do simple things at a leisurely pace. Read more on how delightful rituals and moments of pause impact our outlook in The Abounding Similarities Between Tea and Poetry, or take a closer look at gardening and other things we do to feel engaged and relaxed.
On living a life of meaningful busyness, read French travel-writer Sylvain Tesson’s retreat and restart in Siberia. Poet Mary Oliver wrote a perfectly self-contained poem about retreating from life’s busyness. I think Oliver and Mayle would concur: it is not the busyness we reject but the futility of activity.