I regret that I have never been to France, never fallen in love with dizzying glamour and history of Paris, never sat on the hills looking over the sun-washed countryside. French was a language I learned inadvertantly, from reading Paris Match and watching movies (sometimes with subtitles in languages I didn't know, which forced me to learn French), which I never thought would come in handy until we got lost in some hillside town in Portugal and a lovely Portuguese woman who spoke beautifully clear French pointed me back in the right direction. It is a country I have only seen through film and art, literature, and of course, food. I grew up drinking French wine and eating French food and reading French novels (mostly in translation), but what I have come to love most is the France as seen by Peter Mayle.
Strangely, I don't think I've ever read A Year in Provence, but Mayle's fiction and non-fiction has wandered in and out of my life for quite some time now. The novels are populated by rumpled Englishmen; you know they are the heroes because of their rumpled-ness and English-ness. The bad guys are smooth and suave and perfectly groomed and polished, the sort of men who wear custom-made Charvet shirts and always have an ex-model girlfriend hanging about. The women are always young and leggy and lithe and prone to wearing dresses and skirts the size of a handkerchief, tanned and toned and tall and gleaming with health. All the Americans are obsessed with hygiene and have perfectly straight, white teeth. And the food, oh the food. Truffles the size of baseballs, topped with foie gras. A civet of wild boar, dark with wine and thick with blood. Dinners that go on for hours and leave the guest comatose. And there is the wine and champagne and cognac and marc, aperitifs and digestifs and everything in-between. It's a wonder anyone has a liver at all.
As surreal as Mayle's fiction is, his non-fiction is even more so, because it's real. Festivals celebrating the frog and the snail and the poulet de Bresse, a marathon through the vineyards of Bordeaux, with stops at various châteaux along the way. The friend with the private jet who flies down to Nice and stocks up on oils and olives and jams and preserves. The lunch at Club 55 on the beach at St. Tropez, where women, both young and of-a-certain-age, waft about wearing, well, skirts and dresses hardly larger than a handkerchief, women who are tanned and toned and leggy and lithe and gleaming with health. No white-teethed Americans, though. It is a rarefied world, but Mayle makes you believe that if you chucked it all and left your mundane, everyday life and moved to France, this, too, could be your life. It is a fantasy, but one that almost seems within your grasp, and when I read his words I feel the Provençal sun slip its light through the grey gloom of an October morning and touch my face with its warmth.