Every once in awhile I go on a spree of visiting my old home of France in my mind by reading a bunch of books about it.
I did this over the summer again by finally picking up Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, the book that kicked off the trend in recent decades of Anglos writing about their quirky experiences of moving to France, often to the countryside. This is the granddaddy of that genre.
I’d read one of his Provence-centric books many years ago in preparation for the first time I ever visited France and although I don’t remember much of it, I do remember that I wasn’t impressed or interested in exploring his catalogue further. I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this one if it hadn’t shown up in my neighborhood’s Little Free Library (it’s been there at least twice, which made me a tad suspicious and unenthusiastic – why are so many people eager to part with it?).
This turned out to be the perfect book for some distraction during an uneasy time — it was light, funny, highly amusing, and peppered with lovely line drawings by illustrator Judith Clancy.
The gist is that Mayle and his wife, Jennie, buy a big but slightly fixer-upper house in the Provençal village of Ménerbes in the Luberon. The book follows their lives for a year, month by month, witnessing the seasons and traditions of the little village and the progress as the Mayles work on their home, or attempt to.
There was something so innocent to this, since now I tend to feel immediately annoyed at living-abroad-in-France stories until proven otherwise, I think it’s because there are just so many. There are a lot of jokes or gentle ribbing at the expense of the French, which may come across a bit dated or unfair, but it’s not worse than the kind of humorous stereotyping David Sedaris did during his time in France. And in fairness, he doesn’t spare his fellow English, either.
I haven’t gotten to the latter yet, but I think I enjoyed Toujours Provence even more than its predecessor: maybe because I read it while in the European summertime, but I just felt so there. I could picture, taste, and feel all of it, even the less desirable things (originally published in 1991, the south of France was already known for getting extremely hot, and Mayle squirmingly lets you know what that feels like).
Wild boars invade his yard and engage in unseemly activities, his privacy is encroached upon by fans after the popularity of his first book, and his dealings with his French neighbors aren’t always pleasant. There is a sense of the idyllic to his storytelling, of course — how can there not be when he’s describing drinking the ubiquitous pastis and swimming after a hot day in southern France? I could practically smell the lavender and feel the mistral all the way from Berlin.
It was also just so, so funny: I laughed out loud so much while reading it that I had to take a break, lest I get on my husband’s nerves. I can still make myself laugh remembering the scene where he engages a neighbor in searching his property for buried treasure after unearthing a valuable Napoleon coin. Are these accurate portrayals of what life there is or was like? I doubt it, these are outsider perspectives and certainly have that David Sedaris-like amplification of the funnier moments or playing up of caricatures. But there’s so much to enjoy here, and it’s easy to see why these have remained classics for decades and spawned so many imitators. Used or new @SecondSale.com
While immersing in Mayle’s Provence, I also came across the wonderfully titled One More Croissant for the Road by English food writer Felicity Cloake. Cloake, an avid cyclist, undertook a bicycle journey around France (~2,300 km!), working through a nationwide list of eateries and eating experiences, and of course layering in as many delicious (and sadly, less delicious) croissants as possible.
She was essentially searching for the definitive versions of classic French dishes, including ratatouille, cassoulet, and tarte Tatin, sourcing them to their roots and trying to find what makes the best so special. She visited restaurants and cafes alleged to have the most magical dishes, explores its culinary history, and folds in any number of other exciting, weird, challenging, and delicious experiences along the way. Each chapter includes a recipe she’s worked out for the dish she’s researching. This was a nice touch but I doubt I’d attempt any of them, aside from a frisèe salad, maybe. They’re all pretty involved, and generally meat-heavy. But I did learn so much about dishes I just took for granted or didn’t think were all that interesting or historically rich.
This was such a fun take on multiple genres: travelogue, foodoir, and France adventure, and it didn’t feel like any of them suffered for focus on the rest. Cloake ties everything together using her boundless sense of self-deprecating humor, which made this charming and much more relatable than it could have been otherwise. My only grievance was that as with a lot of travel writing, it can feel repetitive after awhile and I usually feel tired and burnt out right along with the author, or at least ready to stop traveling this route, and as much fun as I found this, that did happen here.
Plus I don’t know a lot of British slang or references that I felt cost me some understanding here and there, but I was also too lazy to look up very much. I’m happy I bought it and can skim it again (and use it as a travel guide next time!)
I also love when a travel writer is open and honest enough to include all the tough, unpleasant, tearjerking parts of a trip. Any vacation can elicit jealousy, especially if you’re a professional food writer who can get part of your trip comped by a magazine, but it still sometimes sucks, and Cloake doesn’t try to hide any of that. Although it’s tough to feel her exhaustion alongside her, I felt her joys and triumphs too: one of the sweetest moments, near the end of the book and her journey, as she’s almost to her end point in Paris, is a solo dinner she has on her birthday. She was worn out, tearful, and was treated with the kind of heartwarming kindness that reminds you of how wonderful travel can be, how strangers can prop you up when you most need it, and how food can be the best kind of connector.
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Any Peter Mayle or France-based memoirs you especially love?