Friday, May 4, 2007

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

This is good, simple travel writing. A Year in Provence is part satire, part cookbook, part narrative and part guide. Mayle and his wife moved to Provence from England after vacationing there inspired them to buy a 200 year-old farmhouse. Mayle lives what so many travel enthusiasts and Francophiles only ever dream of. The life he describes is incredibly bucolic: his only responsibilities are to buy new vines at the start of each grape growing season, and collect his profit in either cash or bottles at the end of it.

Through the open door we could hear the croaking of our resident frog, and the long, sliding song of a nightingale. We took a final glass of wine outside and looked by the light of the moon at the new lavender bed while the dogs rooted for mice in the Lucerne fields. The rabbits would eat well this summer and, Faustin had promised, would taste all the better for it in the winter. We realized we were becoming as obsessive about food as the French, and went back indoors to attend to some unfinished business with a goat’s cheese.

Mayle and his wife live in the Lubéron, a Provençal mountain range, supposedly out of the way of so much of the Côte d’Azur tourism. However, even in 1989, he talked about how the region was changing to become more commercial. The impression that I got was that, in France, Provence is viewed as its own, culturally isolated country. Parisians scorn the rustic, simple Provençal life, yet flock there in the millions (along with Germans, Belgians, Swiss and English) to weekend and vacation homes. Mayle occupied a sort of middle ground, not quite tourist and not quite native, from which he could satirize both. It’s interesting, to me, to learn more about a small corner of the world that dealt with so many of its own localized problems when I was only three years old, still learning to feed myself properly. All of his anecdotes about rural life were interesting, but where he really excelled were his descriptions of fresh, country food. This book actually made me hungry; Mayle spent pages on thick stews, roasted lambs with rosemary, black truffles, local wines, fresh cheeses and hearty, crusty breads that made my mouth literally start watering.

He describes so well such a simple, idyllic lifestyle that I wonder, and hope against, how much change the region must have gone through in the past 18 years. But Mayle is very impersonal, and, for that reason, Bill Bryson is still my favorite travel writer. Where Bryson really helps you relate to him, and see experiences through his eyes, Mayle keeps the reader at arm’s length. The book is minimal on dialogue, at least on Mayle’s part, and relies more on observations and briefly summed up conversations. It’s a quick read, and often very humorous, as only an outsider’s perspective can be. You could probably get through it on a slow afternoon if you wanted too, and it’s definitely worth the time.

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