Let’s Go to France (Mentally)

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 found it charming and delightful. Enough so that I immediately ordered the second and third books he’d written, Toujours Provence and Encore Provence.

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.
Used or new @SecondSale.com

Any Peter Mayle or France-based memoirs you especially love?

31 thoughts on “Let’s Go to France (Mentally)

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  1. I love Cloake’s food writing in the Guardian and have been eyeing her new book in an attempt to decide whether to pick it up – this has sold me! I haven’t been to France in a very long time, but am considering going next summer – this sounds like it would be a good companion.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wasn’t at all familiar with her writing, but I think if you already love it then you’ll absolutely love the book! It was really a lot of fun, and I realized halfway through I should’ve been marking things and places up, but it’s well worth a second pass. It’s one of those with so much going on that you can’t get all of it in one go!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very nice blog. No,I haven’t read those books. But it reminded me of an old French book we all read in Czech translation. Les Carnets du major Thompson by Pierre Daninos.
    It pretended to be written by am Englishman living in France . I read it in French later, because I couldn’t find it in English. It’s great fun. But I’ll check the books you wrote about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I hadn’t heard of that book, I’ll have to check it out! How interesting that it was so popular in Czech (a place I’ve only visited once but would so love to see more of!) Glad I could give you some other reading suggestions too 🙂

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  3. Oh, reading about France sounds like just the thing! Thank you for these recommendations – as always, I love reading your reviews. I even own One More Croissant for the Road and will now move it to the top of my TBR 🙂

    Have you read The Piano Shop on the Left Bank? That combines a slice of life in Paris with music, craftsmanship and a number of other things and I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was just the thing I needed right then! So glad I could give you some recommendations in that area too 🙂

      I haven’t read that one but the name does ring a bell! I realized how (surprisingly?) interesting reading about pianos could be when I read The Lost Pianos of Siberia a few years ago – such a treasure of a book if you haven’t come across it yet! I like the idea of a similar story with a Paris setting. Thank you so much for the recommendation!!

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  4. I read A Year in Provence many years ago—maybe more than 30. I had high expectations and didn’t really enjoy the book. I remember stopping one chapter before the end in a defiant act of “see how much I don’t care.” I no longer remember why the narrative bugged me so much but I highly respect your opinion and despite my initial distaste, perhaps I’ll give Mayle’s second book on Provence a try.

    One More Croissant Sounds like a great summer read. That one is definitely going on my list.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re not alone, it looked like a lot of my goodreads friends were less than enthused. I went in with really low expectations which probably helped versus the high expectations from the time when it was very new and hypeworthy, maybe? Id did have to laugh at your defiant act! But also to be fair, as I mentioned I was completely uninterested in him after reading Provence A to Z, I’m pretty sure it was. I wouldn’t ever have bothered with him again if this copy hadn’t shown up in the Little Free Library right when I happened to be missing France!

      One More Croissant is a perfect summer read, especially if you’ve got a France trip planned or on the radar…one of those travel books that makes you really excited to go!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I love these kind of memoirs too, and having done the move-and-start-over myself, I can highly recommend it and I hope you do it one day yourself if it feels right 🙂 Glad you enjoyed these as well!

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  5. I liked the books by Mayle. I remember laughing so much when he describes the hassle for the renovation of his house – because it was so faithful to my experience when I grew up in France.
    In the same genre, I would highly recommend 2 books by Keith Van Sickle:
    https://francebooktours.com/2017/08/21/keith-van-sickle-on-tour-one-sip-at-a-time/
    and
    https://francebooktours.com/2018/12/10/keith-van-sickle-on-tour-are-we-french-yet/
    As well as this one also set in Provence:
    https://francebooktours.com/2013/06/05/anne-marie-simons-on-upcoming-tour-taking-root-in-provence/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. His descriptions are hilarious! That’s really nice to know it reflects your experience growing up there too. I assumed he exaggerated a bit for comic effect but it makes me like these even more knowing he might not have 🙂

      Thanks for the recommendations – I hadn’t heard of any of those! Adding them all to my list!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your summary of the many repetitive books about Anglo-Saxons moving to France strikes me as just perfect. You didn’t mention that this bottom-feeding trend has spawned an even worse trend: fiction along the same lines, but (in my opinion) the fictions are about an invention — a nearly-mythical version of France. I really appreciate the way you covered this topic.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.om

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, Mae! I’m less familiar with the fiction side of this genre since it’s been so long since I’ve read fiction, but I can imagine it’s even more awful and unrealistic. Nearly-mythical sounds about right!

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  7. I’m glad you gave Mayle another chance and that his books worked for you this time. I think I read at least one of them but it was a long time ago — you make me want to revisit them.

    My favorite book in this genre that I can recall is My Life in France by Julia Child — her enthusiasm for the country and its food is just so inspiring, plus it was fascinating to read about the genesis of one of the twentieth century’s landmark books.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, hers is just the best! It surprised me with how much I loved it – maybe because I keep a low bar for this genre now, but Julia’s is really exceptional, and connected to so much historical importance, as you say.

      I would definitely say he’s worth a revisit – I didn’t expect to love them so much after being underwhelmed by him before but they were really delightful.

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  8. I’m laughing because I had the exact same response to one of Mayle’s Provence books years ago and never bothered to read any of his other works. I can’t remember a thing about it now, but it could have just been where I was in life at the time? You have me thinking I might need to give him another chance.

    One More Croissant for the Road sounds like a ton of fun, and it reminds me of an essay Jeffrey Steingarten included in one of his books where he discusses judging the Grand Prix de la Baguette in France. You wouldn’t think a longform discussion about examining yet another piece of bread would be interesting, and yet … There’s something irresistible about good food writing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s too funny you had the same experience with him! I almost wonder if I just needed to be older to appreciate him – there’s definitely something about his storytelling that speaks to a certain world weariness and longing for a quiet life! They’re not the most thrilling books but I think if you read them at the right time they have a weird appeal!

      I totally agree, some food writing is just so compelling and there’s really something to the especially esoteric ones like the nuances of baguettes or croissants! This essay sounds amazing and I don’t know Jeffrey Steingarten, must investigate 🙂 thanks for the tip!!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “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”<-Yes! I feel the exact same way and I think it really is simply because it's such a full sub-genre. I'm not sure if that makes it more likely that subpar examples will be published, but it certainly feels that way to me.

    The croissant adventure sounds delightful. Trying new food is one of my favorite parts of travelling and I think I'd be unlikely to feel guilty about it if I was also biking that much 🙂

    Like

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