Friday, February 20, 2009

Once upon a time in Provence

Vous connaissez les livres de Peter Mayle? I was walking with Olivier up the terraces to see Jules. He thought for a moment, frowning, then (probably having translated my American pronunciation into French), nodded. Jules est comme un personnage dans ses livres. Jules is like a character out of Peter Mayle's books.

Olivier chuckled. Exactement. C'est ça.

Peter Mayle's books on Provence have been among our chief references for the region and its culture; for conveying an outsider's sense of wonder and delight A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, and their confrères stand alone. G and E read the books when we first came, and have reread them since many times.

Mayle's characters are stock figures in our family stories. A few weeks ago, we took a day trip for C's birthday. We visited a couple of châteaux--wine making châteaux, not historic châteaux--in the morning (nothing like tasting a half dozen côtes de Provence to wake you up) and then, around noon, pulled into the village of Lorgues for lunch. As we got out of the car, G said: I hope we see some of those old Provençal men who spend all day playing boules and drinking pastis. Those guys are, of course, Mayleian standbys: the men of a certain uncertain age, between 50 and 90, pacing off the distance between the boules on the court across from the café.

And just as our steacks frites arrived at our table in the Hôtel du Parc, the men G had been talking about shuffled in. There were two of them, one short and stout, the other tall and ropey, missing their share of teeth, garbed in layers of flannel and wool and berets and sturdy boots, and they knew everyone in the place. We all looked at each other. There they are, she said.

We're not above using A Year in Provence as our travel guide. Last year, during one of the school vacances, the girls and I spent a night in Aix en Provence, and ate our dinner at the café Les Deux Garçons. Peter Mayle describes it thus:

The ceiling is high, and toasted to a caramel color by the smoke from a million cigarettes. The bar is burnished copper, the tables and chairs gleam with the patina bestowed by countless bottoms and elbows, and the waiters have aprons and flat feet, as all proper waiters should.

He doesn't mention the gilded mirrors that line the walls, or the leather banquettes, or the chandeliers whose soft light make everyone look like Audrey Tautou. We ordered drinks--a glass of red wine for me, Orangina and a Coca for the girls--and when the waiter (tall; black vest over white shirt; white floor-length apron over black pants; the tip of the third finger on his left hand missing, no doubt from a misadventure when he was in the Resistance during the War) brought the drinks, he picked up the bottle of Coca in his right hand. He put it over his shoulder and, in one movement, opened it with the bottle opener he had concealed in his palm, brought it back down, and poured it into its glass.

We would not have been any more starstruck if he had made a dove fly out of the bottle. It is now the standard by which all other restaurant tricks are measured. A waiter could balance a silver tray bearing an entire flaming roast turkey on one hand and we would cock our heads, consider it, and decide, upon reflection, that while it was no doubt difficult and quite clever, it was not, on the whole, as remarkable as that time the waiter at the Deux Garçons opened the bottle of Coke.

It's time for another vacances--they've been going to school steadily for seven weeks now, after all--and tomorrow morning we're off to Peter Mayle country. We'll be going to markets and visiting abbeys and hiking and eating and looking for old men playing boules and waiters who can do tricks. I doubt that we'll find anyone who surpasses our friend in Aix, but, after all, the pleasure is in the research as much as the discovery. We will be Internet-free for a few days, so, dear readers, I'll look for some good stories to tell you. And I'll see you back here next Wednesday.


  1. Love Peter Mayle's books. And I am enjoying your blog about life in France. Have a wonderful Mayleian vacation.

  2. It sounds like fun!

    We are just coming off the school holiday here. Sadly, not much adventure was had- not of the good kind, anyway. We did lots of painting and wallpapering. I wish we could have traveled a bit...

    Have a lovely time!