Many readers are familiar with Peter Mayle's story of a life saved and savored in A Year in Provence. Answering his readers' inevitable yearning for another glimpse into his life, Mayle brings us his aptly named follow-up novel, Encore Provence.
This is a book of "second impressions." Mayle's first stint in the French region of Provence tamed his frantic urban pace. The refined and not-so-refined mannerisms of the Provençal people, climate, land, and culture fascinated him. Then, after a four-year hiatus in the U.S., Mayle returned to this land of lavender and leisurely lunches.
More than a return to a country, however, this is a return to a land of a simple and deliberate lifestyle, his second childhood. Mayle returns a bit wiser after surprise encounters and the luck of circumstance defined his initial experience. Encore Provence is a purposeful (and successful) quest to capture the conversations, time schedules, cuisine, and otherwise enchanting rhythms that flow together to create the music of life in Provence.
Mayle describes a world that does not fit with the French stereotype of high fashion and posh avenues. Paris this is not. There is no room for the perfection of Versailles-like gardens in this world where the scraggy olive tree thrives and fields of lavender overflow without any regard to borders. Likewise, if any of his characters lack in social graces, we are far too occupied with their quirky intrigues to notice. We learn of a man who refuses to let the nuisance of an aging body hinder his life's pleasure of truffle hunting. Mayle introduces us to a connoisseur whose sensitive palette is dedicated to the rich green subtleties of olive oil. We also welcome an exuberant storyteller as he gives his finest performance: enthusiastically detailing the perfect scenario for his own death. These are people of full, consuming passions.
Time is counted, doled, meted, and rationed in the outside world. But Mayle's Provençal clock is an invisible pacemaker that does nothing more than herald another glorious mealtime lest the stomach forget. And with Mayle running the show, you are not likely to overlook a culinary opportunity. His infatuation with the unhurried lunch time ceremony is as headstrong as a teenage boy's interest in a shapely pin-up girl. From bouillabaisse in Marseilles to truffles in Carpentras, food is as vital to the essence of Mayle's portrait as it is a necessity for human survival.
Almost as important as the food itself is how it is consumed. Mayle happily evaluates various eating tactics. For instance, the unexpected appetite of an American beauty editor earns two thumbs up. The silent reverence of a couple over their foie gras is panned as much too serious. And as the French businessmen clamor from the first course to the last, they win his approval for their exuberance.
Any attempt to discredit his admiration for Provence will undoubtedly be countered. This is evidenced in his witty, informative attack on New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl's conclusion that Mayle's dreamlike Provence "never existed." Current trends are on her side in this age where a jaded attitude makes for the most interesting fodder. But Mayle doesn't succumb, and Provence shines. He compiles a mini-guidebook categorizing his knowledge of Provençal essentials: wine, markets, cheese ... Ms. Reichl, he convinces us, must have lost her mind.
With a feast of characters, landscapes, and gastronomic delights to choose from, Provence seems a dream to depict. But Mayle's voice is as much a treasure as the Provençal culture it chronicles. To call him a mere narrator would be an insult. He forsakes the objectivity of a narrator by being an eager participant in his own story. He is a storyteller, a comic, a photographer of the senses, a Brother Grimm of travel writing.
Mayle's lyrical account of lifestyle and land ensures that those of us who have visited Provence will relive its most endearing nuances and charms. And for those of us who have yet to experience its pleasure? We are just as lucky. Encore Provence leaves us with the feeling that we have experienced this irresistible land anyway.
Kristen Zecchi is a consultant and freelance writer living in Boston.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
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.
It was a cold, still morning in early winter, and the pulsing thumpthump, thumpthump of a high-pressure hose echoed through the village. Getting closer to the sound, it was possible to see, over a garden wall, a laundry line totally devoted to gentlemen's underwear in a stimulating assortment of colors. The garments were under attack, jerking and flapping under the force of the water jet like hanging targets in a shooting gallery. Standing some distance away, out of ricochet range, was the aggressor, in cap and muffler and ankle-high zippered carpet slippers. He had adopted the classic stance of a soldier in combat, feet spread apart, shooting from the hip, a merciless hail of droplets raking back and forth. The underpants didn't stand a chance.
Only a few days before, my wife and I and the dogs had arrived back in Provence after an absence of four years. Much of that time had been spent in America, where we were able to slip back into the comfortable familiarity of a language that was relatively free--although not entirely--from the problems of being socially appropriate or sexually accurate. No longer did we have to ponder the niceties of addressing people as vous or tu, or to rush to the dictionary to check on the gender of everything from a peach to an aspirin. English was spoken, even if our ears were rusty and some of the fashionable linguistic flourishes took a little getting used to.
A friend of below-average height told us he was not considered short any more but "vertically challenged"; the hour, previously a plain old sixty minutes, had sprouted a "top" and a "bottom"; you were not seen leaving a room, but "exiting" it; the economy was regularly being "impacted," as though it were a rogue wisdom tooth; great minds "intuited" where once they had merely guessed; "hopefully," an agreeable word that never harmed a soul, was persistently abused. Important people didn't change their opinions, but underwent a significant "tactical recalibration."
There were many and hideous outbreaks of legalese in everyday speech, reflecting the rise of litigation as a national spectator sport. "Surplusage" was one of a hundred of these horrors. I noticed also that sophisticated and influential Americans--those whose comments are sought by the media--were not content to finish anything but preferred to "reach closure," and I have a nasty feeling that it won't be long before this affectation is picked up by waiters in pretentious restaurants. I can hear it already: "Have you reached closure on your salad?" (This, of course, would only be after you had spent some time bending your "learning curve" around the menu.)
We met, for the first time, the "outster," although we never saw a trace of his more fortunate relative, the inster. We were taught to give up our hopelessly old-fashioned habit of concentrating and instead try "focusing." Every day seemed to bring new and exciting vocabulary options. But these minor curiosities didn't alter the fact that we were surrounded by at least some version of the mother tongue and therefore should have felt quite at home.
Somehow we didn't, although it certainly wasn't for lack of a welcome. Almost everyone we met lived up to the American reputation for friendliness and generosity. We had settled in a house outside East Hampton, on the far end of Long Island, a part of the world that, for nine months a year, is quiet and extremely beautiful.
We wallowed in the convenience of America, in the efficiency and the extraordinary variety of choice, and we practiced native customs. We came to know California wines. We shopped by phone. We drove sedately. We took vitamins and occasionally remembered to worry about cholesterol. We tried to watch television. I gave up taking cigars to restaurants, but smoked them furtively in private. There was even a period when we drank eight glasses of water a day. In other words, we did our best to adapt.
And yet there was something missing. Or rather, an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday-morning markets. Very few weeks went by without a twinge of what I can best describe as homesickness.
Returning to a place where you have been happy is generally regarded as a mistake. Memory is a notoriously biased and sentimental editor, selecting what it wants to keep and invariably making a few cosmetic changes to past events. With rose-colored hindsight, the good times become magical; the bad times fade and eventually disappear, leaving only a seductive blur of sunlit days and the laughter of friends. Was it really like that? Would it be like that again?
There was, of course, only one way to find out.
From the Trade Paperback edition.