A Year in Provence
By Peter Mayle
In this witty and warm-hearted account, Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January’s frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhône Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine. A Year in Provencetransports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days.
I had first read A Year in Provence a decade ago, a random selection from a friend’s bookshelf. I was charmed by the tale and was charmed this time around as well. It is surprisingly easy to forget that Peter Mayle wrote about his first year living in Provence in 1989. The lack of references to cell phones would have been less obvious ten years ago but I found myself not even thinking about that as I read about his explorations of his new home. There’s no TV, but he mentions that at one point – Mayle and his wife chose to leave the TV back in England from whence they came. There’s also no internet.
Maybe because it’s a story about a place and the people and the food and the cafes. It’s about the relationships Mayle builds with his neighbors as he learns about wines and truffles and hunting season. There’s no reason to think about a cell phone when Mayle describes the grape vine planting process or the delights of eating in a local café.
A Year in Provenceholds up 25 years later because of the focus on location and culture. Not to say that Provence isn’t very different now and a memoir about moving to Provence in 2015 might be dishearteningly similar to moving to somewhere in California.
It reads like a land out of time. Sure, there are references (a few) to the goings-on in France, mainly about the tourist migrations across the country at various times in the year. It is clearly a real place but it is also such a dreamed about place that all the descriptions seem a big magical.
Which is not to say Mayle’s first year is perfect. There is the year-long work on his home that is only completed when his wife throws a party and invites the builders and their wives to attend. A flurry of work quickly occurs. There are all the visitors from England who want to crash at their home. Some are pleasant visitors; others are highly disruptive. The Mistral wind is a shock to their systems, and to the heating system in their home.
I prefer travelogues and similar first-person accounts to memoirs and autobiographies. Learning about a person through their worldview is very interesting. However, for being about Mayle and his wife’s new life in Provence, the book is quite vague about them. Mayle is the narrator and the protagonist who gains us entry into cafés and restaurants and vineyards and parties. He also translates and explains the nuances of the Provencal French as he learns. Example – how to properly speak with one’s hands. Mayle is more an observer than an active participant.
The book has twelve chapters, one for each month, that contain multiple anecdotes of what happened that month and miniature essays on related topics. Mayle is highly observant and has an enjoyable, detailed way of describing the landscape, the people he meets and the food he discovers. Trust me, you’ll want to live there after you read A Year in Provence. Everything trendy these days – farm-to-table eating, living more slowly, connecting with people IRL – was just what it was. And maybe (fingers crossed) it still is.
My only lingering question – is it appropriate in 2015 (and was it actually appropriate in 1989) to describe someone as a peasant? Discuss amongst yourselves.