THE YEAR BEGAN with lunch.
We have always found that New Year's Eve, with its eleventh-hour
excesses and doomed resolutions, is a dismal occasion for all the forced
jollity and midnight toasts and kisses. And so, when we heard that over
in the village of Lacoste, a few miles away, the proprietor of Le
Simiane was offering a six-course lunch with pink champagne to his
amiable clientele, it seemed like a much more cheerful way to start the
next twelve months.
By 12:30 the little stone-walled restaurant was full. There were some
serious stomachs to be seen-entire families with the embonpoint that
comes from spending two or three diligent hours every day at the table,
eyes down and conversation postponed in the observance of France's
favorite ritual. The proprietor of the restaurant, a man who had somehow
perfected the art of hovering despite his considerable size, was dressed
for the day in a velvet smoking jacket and bow tie. His mustache, sleek
with pomade, quivered with enthusiasm as he rhapsodized over the menu:
foie gras, lobster mousse, beef en cro?te, salads dressed in virgin oil,
hand-picked cheeses, desserts of a miraculous lightness, digestifs. It
was a gastronomic aria which he performed at each table, kissing the
tips of his fingers so often that he must have blistered his lips.
The final "bon app?tit" died away and a companionable
near-silence descended on the restaurant as the food received its due
attention. While we ate, my wife and I thought of previous New Year's
Days, most of them spent under impenetrable cloud in England. It was
hard to associate the sunshine and dense blue sky outside with the first
of January but, as everyone kept telling us, it was quite normal. After
all, we were in Provence.
We had been here often before as tourists, desperate for our annual
ration of two or three weeks of true heat and sharp light. Always when
we left, with peeling noses and regret, we promised ourselves that one
day we would live here. We had talked about it during the long gray
winters and the damp green summers, looked with an addict's longing at
photographs of village markets and vineyards, dreamed of being woken up
by the sun slanting through the bedroom window. And now, somewhat to our
surprise, we had done it. We had committed ourselves. We had bought a
house, taken French lessons, said our good-byes, shipped over our two
dogs, and become foreigners.
In the end, it had happened quickly-almost impulsively-because of the
house. We saw it one afternoon and had mentally moved in by dinner.
It was set above the country road that runs between the two medieval
hill villages of M?nerbes and Bonnieux, at the end of a dirt track
through cherry trees and vines. It was a mas, or farmhouse, built from
local stone which two hundred years of wind and sun had weathered to a
color somewhere between pale honey and pale gray. It had started life in
the eighteenth century as one room and, in the haphazard manner of
agricultural buildings, had spread to accommodate children,
grandmothers, goats, and farm implements until it had become an
irregular three-story house. Everything about it was solid. The spiral
staircase which rose from the wine cave to the top floor was cut from
massive slabs of stone. The walls, some of them a meter thick, were
built to keep out the winds of the Mistral which, they say, can blow the
ears off a donkey. Attached to the back of the house was an enclosed
courtyard, and beyond that a bleached white stone swimming pool. There
were three wells, there were established shade trees and slim green
cypresses, hedges of rosemary, a giant almond tree. In the afternoon
sun, with the wooden shutters half-closed like sleepy eyelids, it was
It was also immune, as much as any house could be, from the creeping
horrors of property development. The French have a weakness for erecting
jolies villas wherever building regulations permit, and sometimes where
they don't, particularly in areas of hitherto unspoiled and beautiful
countryside. We had seen them in a ghastly rash around the old market
town of Apt, boxes made from that special kind of livid pink cement
which remains livid no matter what the weather may throw at it. Very few
areas of rural France are safe unless they have been officially
protected, and one of the great attractions of this house was that it
sat within the boundaries of a national park, sacred to the French
heritage and out of bounds to concrete mixers.
The Lub?ron Mountains rise up immediately behind the house to a high
point of nearly 3,500 feet and run in deep folds for about forty miles
from west to east. Cedars and pines and scrub oak keep them perpetually
green and provide cover for boar, rabbits, and game birds. Wild flowers,
thyme, lavender, and mushrooms grow between the rocks and under the
trees, and from the summit on a clear day the view is of the
Basses-Alpes on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. For most of
the year, it is possible to walk for eight or nine hours without seeing
a car or a human being. It is a 247,000-acre extension of the back
garden, a paradise for the dogs and a permanent barricade against
assault from the rear by unforeseen neighbors.
Neighbors, we have found, take on an importance in the country that they
don't begin to have in cities. You can live for years in an apartment in
London or New York and barely speak to the people who live six inches
away from you on the other side of a wall. In the country, separated
from the next house though you may be by hundreds of yards, your
neighbors are part of your life, and you are part of theirs. If you
happen to be foreign and therefore slightly exotic, you are inspected
with more than usual interest. And if, in addition, you inherit a
long-standing and delicate agricultural arrangement, you are quickly
made aware that your attitudes and decisions have a direct effect on
another family's well-being.
We had been introduced to our new neighbors by the couple from whom we
bought the house, over a five-hour dinner marked by a tremendous
goodwill on all sides and an almost total lack of comprehension on our
part. The language spoken was French, but it was not the French we had
studied in textbooks and heard on cassettes; it was a rich, soupy
patois, emanating from somewhere at the back of the throat and passing
through a scrambling process in the nasal passages before coming out as
speech. Half-familiar sounds could be dimly recognized as words through
the swirls and eddies of Proven?al: demain became demang, vin became
vang, maison became mesong. That by itself would not have been a problem
had the words been spoken at normal conversational speed and without
further embroidery, but they were delivered like bullets from a machine
gun, often with an extra vowel tacked on to the end for good luck. Thus
an offer of more bread-page-one stuff in French for beginners-emerged as
a single twanging question. Encoredupanga?
Fortunately for us, the good humor and niceness of our neighbors were
apparent even if what they were saying was a mystery. Henriette was a
brown, pretty woman with a permanent smile and a sprinter's enthusiasm
for reaching the finish line of each sentence in record time. Her
husband, Faustin-or Faustang, as we thought his name was spelled for
many weeks-was large and gentle, unhurried in his movements and
relatively slow with his words. He had been born in the valley, he had
spent his life in the valley, and he would die in the valley. His
father, P?p? Andr?, who lived next to him, had shot his last boar at the
age of eighty and had given up hunting to take up the bicycle. Twice a
week he would pedal to the village for his groceries and his gossip.
They seemed to be a contented family.
They had, however, a concern about us, not only as neighbors but as
prospective partners, and, through the fumes of marc and black tobacco
and the even thicker fog of the accent, we eventually got to the bottom
Most of the six acres of land we had bought with the house was planted
with vines, and these had been looked after for years under the
traditional system of m?tayage: the owner of the land pays the capital
costs of new vine stock and fertilizer, while the farmer does the work
of spraying, cropping, and pruning. At the end of the season, the farmer
takes two-thirds of the profits and the owner one-third. If the property
changes hands, the arrangement comes up for review, and there was
Faustin's concern. It was well known that many of the properties in the
Lub?ron were bought as r?sidences secondaires, used for holidays and
amusement, their good agricultural land turned into elaborately planted
gardens. There were even cases of the ultimate blasphemy, when vines had
been grubbed up to make way for tennis courts. Tennis courts! Faustin
shrugged with disbelief, shoulders and eyebrows going up in unison as he
contemplated the extraordinary idea of exchanging precious vines for the
curious pleasures of chasing a little ball around in the heat.
He needn't have worried. We loved the vines-the ordered regularity of
them against the sprawl of the mountain, the way they changed from
bright green to darker green to yellow and red as spring and summer
turned to autumn, the blue smoke in the pruning season as the clippings
were burned, the pruned stumps studding the bare fields in the
winter-they were meant to be here. Tennis courts and landscaped gardens
weren't. (Nor, for that matter, was our swimming pool, but at least it
hadn't replaced any vines.) And, besides, there was the wine. We had the
option of taking our profit in cash or in the bottle, and in an average
year our share of the crop would be nearly a thousand litres of good
ordinary red and pink. As emphatically as we could in our unsteady
French, we told Faustin that we would be delighted to continue the
existing arrangement. He beamed. He could see that we would all get
along very well together. One day, we might even be able to talk to each
THE PROPRIETOR of Le Simiane wished us a happy new year and hovered in
the doorway as we stood in the narrow street, blinking into the sun.
"Not bad, eh?" he said, with a flourish of one velvet-clad arm
which took in the village, the ruins of the Marquis de Sade's ch?teau
perched above, the view across to the mountains and the bright, clean
sky. It was a casually possessive gesture, as if he was showing us a
corner of his personal estate. "One is fortunate to be in
Yes indeed, we thought, one certainly was. If this was winter we
wouldn't be needing all the foul-weather paraphernalia-boots and coats
and inch-thick sweaters-that we had brought over from England. We drove
home, warm and well fed, making bets on how soon we could take the first
swim of the year, and feeling a smug sympathy for those poor souls in
harsher climates who had to suffer real winters.
Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the north, the wind that had started in
Siberia was picking up speed for the final part of its journey. We had
heard stories about the Mistral. It drove people, and animals, mad. It
was an extenuating circumstance in crimes of violence. It blew for
fifteen days on end, uprooting trees, overturning cars, smashing
windows, tossing old ladies into the gutter, splintering telegraph
poles, moaning through houses like a cold and baleful ghost, causing la
grippe, domestic squabbles, absenteeism from work, toothache,
migraine-every problem in Provence that couldn't be blamed on the
politicians was the fault of the s?cr? vent which the Proven?aux spoke
about with a kind of masochistic pride.
Typical Gallic exaggeration, we thought. If they had to put up with the
gales that come off the English Channel and bend the rain so that it
hits you in the face almost horizontally, then they might know what a
real wind was like. We listened to their stories and, to humor the
tellers, pretended to be impressed.
And so we were poorly prepared when the first Mistral of the year came
howling down the Rh?ne valley, turned left, and smacked into the west
side of the house with enough force to skim roof tiles into the swimming
pool and rip a window that had carelessly been left open off its hinges.
The temperature dropped twenty degrees in twenty-four hours. It went to
zero, then six below. Readings taken in Marseilles showed a wind speed
of 180 kilometers an hour. My wife was cooking in an overcoat. I was
trying to type in gloves. We stopped talking about our first swim and
thought wistfully about central heating. And then one morning, with the
sound of branches snapping, the pipes burst one after the other under
the pressure of water that had frozen in them overnight.
They hung off the wall, swollen and stopped up with ice, and Monsieur
Menicucci studied them with his professional plumber's eye.
"Oh l? l?," he said. "Oh l? l?." He turned to his
young apprentice, whom he invariably addressed as jeune homme or jeune.
"You see what we have here, jeune. Naked pipes. No insulation. C?te
d'Azur plumbing. In Cannes, in Nice, it would do, but here . . ."
He made a clucking sound of disapproval and wagged his finger under
jeune's nose to underline the difference between the soft winters of the
coast and the biting cold in which we were now standing, and pulled his
woolen bonnet firmly down over his ears. He was short and compact, built
for plumbing, as he would say, because he could squeeze himself into
constricted spaces that more ungainly men would find inaccessible. While
we waited for jeune to set up the blowtorch, Monsieur Menicucci
delivered the first of a series of lectures and collected pens?es which
I would listen to with increasing enjoyment throughout the coming year.
Today, we had a geophysical dissertation on the increasing severity of
For three years in a row, winters had been noticeably harder than anyone
could remember-cold enough, in fact, to kill ancient olive trees. It
was, to use the phrase that comes out in Provence whenever the sun goes
in, pas normal. But why? Monsieur Menicucci gave me a token two seconds
to ponder this phenomenon before warming to his thesis, tapping me with
a finger from time to time to make sure I was paying attention.
It was clear, he said, that the winds which brought the cold down from
Russia were arriving in Provence with greater velocity than before,
taking less time to reach their destination and therefore having less
time to warm up en route. And the reason for this-Monsieur Menicucci
allowed himself a brief but dramatic pause-was a change in the
configuration of the earth's crust. Mais oui. Somewhere between Siberia
and M?nerbes the curvature of the earth had flattened, enabling the wind
to take a more direct route south. It was entirely logical.
Unfortunately, part two of the lecture (Why the Earth Is Becoming
Flatter) was interrupted by a crack of another burst pipe, and my
education was put aside for some virtuoso work with the blowtorch.
Excerpted from "A Year in Provence" by Peter Mayle. Copyright © 1991 by Peter Mayle. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.