Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

 Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars

You cannot possibly understate the frustrations of moving to a new country, and renovating an old house - yet Peter Mayle handles the situation with grace, charm, and good humor - C'est la vie. In the late 80's, Mayle and his wife left the rainy shores of England to settle down in the Luberon region of Provence in France. Provence is a famously sunny land, but they happened to land in the midst of an unseasonably cold winter, and faced the full wrath of the Mistral, the Northerly wind that visits parts of Southern France with a vengeance:

"...We had heard stories about the Mistral. It drove people, and animals, mad. It was an extenuating circumstance in crimes of violence. It blew for fifteen days on end, uprooting trees, overturning cars, smashing windows, tossing old ladies into the gutter, splintering telegraph poles, moaning through houses like a cold and baleful ghost, causing la grippe, domestic squabbles, absenteeism from work, toothache, migraine - every problem in Provence that couldn't be blamed on the politicians was the work of the sacre vent which the Provencaux spoke about with a kind of masochistic pride."

Though he does wax rhapsodic about the food, there is more to Mayle's love of Provence than the gushing admiration of tourists bent on picturesque scenery and epicurean delights. He doesn't sugarcoat the frustrations of provincial life that one has to face when actually living there, as opposed to a brief stop in the itinerary. He recounts not just the experience of settling down into their new home, but also the process of getting to know their new neighbors, and the various colorful local personalities.

Reading Mayle's book would almost convince us that the stereotypes of France are not stereotypes after all, just the truth - whether it is the famous Gallic disdain of government, the frenetic driving style of French motorists, or, the serious physicality involved in greeting acquaintances, let alone friends.

"...It's hardly surprising that aerobics never became popular in Provence. People get quite enough physical exercise in the course of a ten-minute chat."

He does make a nice distinction between the Provencaux vis-a-vis Parisians; the latter are portrayed as far more fussy and fastidious than the former, who believe in living life with uninhibited gusto. There is an entertaining account of a dinner watching fashionable Parisian guests boogie into the night, and excusing themselves early to catch a goat-race the next morning.

Travelogues about France are plentiful. What was most engaging about this particular one was its refreshing sense of humor. There is not the slightest disdain of his host country or his eccentric neighbors, just a warm appreciation of the oddities and uniqueness, and a gratitude for all the bounty that sunshine brings.

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