How’s this for an introduction?
“I think it was the sight of a man power-washing his underpants that really brought home the differences, cultural and otherwise, between the old world and the new.” (p1)
This is the captivating style of self-confessed ‘permanent tourist’, Peter Mayle, who has made Provence, the focus of much of his writing. Encore Provence is the third in the trilogy, following the popular A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence.
Encore Provence marks Mayle’s return to the south of France after some years in America which was in large part a place to get away from the fans that had streamed to his house in Ménerbes.
Mayle has an uncanny knack of finding humour and meaning in such ordinary things as corkscrews, extra virgin olive oil or a summer afternoon. It is this combination of subject and style that is quintessentially French. As Mayle says:
“To hear a good Provençal storyteller is to hear a performance given by a master of the art of verbal embroidery, a prince of the pregnant pause, the shocked expression and the belly laugh. Drama is extracted from the most mundane occasions—a trip to the garage, the gutting of a chicken, the discovery of a wasps’ nest under the roof. Coming from the right person, these small moments can take a dramatic significance more suited to the Comédie Française than a village bar, and I always find them fascinating.” (p21)
There is a grand convivialité about Peter Mayle. His writing has a joie de vivre and the merriment of a five course meal (with a triple-strength chocolat in a puddle of crème anglais), washed down with several glasses of French wine and the scent of a cigar.
Encore Provence is never a ramble as it bears unostentatiously thorough research and the fruit of Mayle’s conversations with the citizens of Provence. This life experience is what makes Mayle’s books quite different from tourist guide books put together by writers who have breezed in and noted the ‘must sees’. For Mayle and for the French, “the tourist is just a dollop of jam. Welcome but not essential.” (p11)
This book of fourteen, stand-alone essays is entertaining but educational as Mayle writes about fois gras, boules, the ‘orchestra of speech’, the speed of drivers, open-air pissing, the flirtatious habits of French butchers and the ‘recipe’ for a perfect French village. Mayle says, “If I had to choose a single example of what I missed most while in America, it would be a country market.” (p11) Of special interest are the chapters on ‘How to be a nose’ among the perfumes of Provence, a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Marseilles’, the idiosyncrasies of French real estate agents and the do’s and don’ts when you are looking to buy property in Provence.
Peter Mayle, Encore Provence (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1999)
Image: Front cover of Encore Provence; Peter Mayle.