Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence

“The year began with lunch.”

A Year in Provence should be read with thick plummy-red red and crusty bread soaked in truffle oil.

Peter Mayle’s (14 June 1939 – 18 January 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.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It started with homemade pizza-not one, but three: anchovy, mushroom, and cheese, and it was obligatory to have slice of each, Plates were then wiped with pieces torn from the two-foot loaves in the middle of the table, and the next course came out. There were pâtés of rabbit, boar, and thrush. There was a chunky, pork-based terrine laced with marc. There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in a fresh tomato sauce. Plates were wiped once more and duck was brought in. The slivers of magret that appear, arranged in fan formation and lapped by an elegant smear of sauce on the refined tables of nouvelle cuisine—these were nowhere to be seen. We had entire breasts, entire legs, covered in a dark, savory gravy and surrounded by wild mushrooms. We sat back, thankful that we had been able to finish, and watched with something close to panic as plates were wiped yet again and a huge, steaming casserole was placed on the table.

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.

Photo of lavender. Featured in Emma Mitchell's "The Wild Remedy" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I remember reading A Year in Provence when it first appeared 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 in 2018 and was buried in Ménerbes, which means he essentially 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.

year in provence
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.

Looking up at trees. Photograph by Ellen Vrana featured in Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" in the Examined Life Library.
“Mental downtime is having the space and freedom to wander about the vast hallways of memory and contemplate who we are.” thoughts from Alan Lightman’s delightful In Praise of Wasting Time. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.