Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence

“The year began with lunch.”

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

Provence chronicles the year Peter Mayle (1939 – 2018), 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 companionabe nearsilence 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 and warmth of the 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. 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 it’s trimmings, is this book.

I remember reading A Year in Provence when it first came out.  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 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 are as alive as ever, and upon reread, this book reveals new marvels. Worth a good read and a good red.

Read more on how delightful rituals and moments of pause impact our outlook in The Abounding Similarities Between Tea and Poetry. On living a life of meaningful busyness read French travel-writer Sylvain Tesson’s retreat and restart in Siberia.