For a time, Francophile extraordinaire Peter Mayle left the South of France and the pleasures and the pastimes he has chronicled to international renown. But not a day passed without a pang of longing for the home he had left behind. And so he returned to France and fell in love all over again with la vie Provencale.
In Encore Provence, Mayle presents his most appealing tribute to date on the joys of Gallic life. Here is a glimpse into the secrets of the truffle trade, a parfumerie lesson on the delicacies of scent, an exploration of the genetic effects of 2,000 years of foie gras, and a small-town murder mystery that reads like the best fiction. Here, too, are Mayle's latest tips on where to find the best honey, cheese, or chambre d'hìte the region has to offer. Lyric, insightful,sparkling with detail, Encore Provence brings us a land where the smell of thyme in the fields or the glory of a leisurely lunch is no less than inspiring.
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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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Mayle writes "Memory is a notoriously biased and sentimental editor, selecting what it wants to keep and invariably making a few cosmetic changes to past events" [p 6]. Do you think this is true of your own memories of favorite times and places?
2. How do Mayle's experiences in America sharpen his appreciation of Provence? Why does he cite the bustling, colorful country markets as the best example of what he missed most during his time in America [p. 14]? How do the markets embody what he loves about Provence?
3. What insights does Marius's story about the murder of the handsome butcher give you into the ways of life in a small French village? How does his detailed scenario of his own death shed light on the traditions and values of Provence [p. 173-5]?
4. How does Mayle's "recipe for a village" compare to your own version of an ideal spot? Do you think it is possible to find such a place in America, or have we "advanced" too far to reclaim the kind of simple pleasures Mayle finds in abundance in Provence?
5. Discuss Mayle's sharp attack on Ruth Reichl's assessment of Provence [p. 38-43]. Is he overly defensive about his beloved home or do you think that Reichl, a well-known critic, in fact failed to prepare herself properly for her trip and lacked the curiosity and the skills to seek out all that Provence has to offer?
6. Mayle offers "Eight Ways to Spend a Summer Afternoon." Which of Mayle's recommendations appeal to you the most and why? What other outings described in the book--for example, the trip to the olive oil factory--would you add to your list of things to do while in Provence?
7. Do Mayle's descriptions of the people he meetsconform to the impressions you may have formed on visits to France or through books and movies? Mayle suggests that the leisurely pace of life, the sunshine, and the abundance of the south encourage the general good humor and cheerfulness of the Provenceaux [p. 12]. Do you think a similar dichotomy between north and south exists in this country?
On Thursday, June 3rd, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Peter Mayle to discuss ENCORE PROVENCE.
Moderator: Welcome, Peter Mayle! Thank you for joining us online this evening to chat about your new book, ENCORE PROVENCE. How are you doing tonight?
Peter Mayle: I am doing as well as can be as expected on a book tour. They are strange things -- you frequently lose track of where you are. It is nice, a great privilege for a writer, and I am very happy about it.
Mary Abend from Sparta, NJ: I really enjoyed your book A YEAR IN PROVENCE. Do you think fans of that book will also enjoy your new one?
Peter Mayle: I hope so! It is the same subject and same writer. I have found a lot of new things to write about and I have been very careful not to repeat myself. It is new and like the others it smells faintly of garlic. Anybody who liked the first couple will like this one.
Nancy Malone from Haverford, PA: Why do you think the French love to drive so fast?
Peter Mayle: They are probably late for lunch. No, I think they are Latin by character, and their temperament is one of impatience, and they like to go fast. What else can I say? They don't want to hang around while on the road; it is a great contrast with the sedate and disciplined way of driving in America. The speed of those little French cars is quite impressive.
Nelson from Hanover, NH: Have you gotten much feedback from the native Provençals? Has it generally been positive?
Peter Mayle: By and large, from the local French folks and from the French people generally, I have been treated very kindly. The folks who own the bars and restaurants I write about are quite fond of me, and I think in a general way the people in Provence are maybe surprised but also happy that a foreigner has taken to their region with such enthusiasm. I think they are generally pleased -- but there are some exceptions -- but on the whole they have treated me very kindly and are happy with how I have described their piece of the world.
Bart McAllister from New York City: Was it your dream while working in advertising that one day you would leave all of it and go to Provence and write for a living? How did that all work out?
Peter Mayle: By accident! I had a good time in advertising and enjoyed it very much. But there came a moment when I wanted to write something more lasting, and I was always attracted to the idea of being a writer because of the independence that it offers and the choices it gives you in life. So wanting to write was an ambition that I had had for many years, and then that combined with the discovery of Provence 20 years ago. And it was one of those instant attractions, and I thought, What a wonderful place. And I thought, How marvelous it would be to accomplish such things: One to live there, and two to earn my living as a writer. So over a period of about ten years, after I'd left advertising, I did my best writing books; then I got to the stage that both me and my wife felt that if we didn't move now, we never would. So we took a deep breath and jumped, and I had the intention when I first got there of writing a novel. But we got so intrigued with daily life that I ended up writing about that instead, and that is how the first book came about. And much to everyone's surprise, including my publisher and me, other people wanted to read about the way we had been living. What started as a very small book just seemed to be attractive to people over the world. It was a 3,000 copy first printing in England, and it has now sold more than four million copies, and I still find that quite astonishing.
Rose from RoseW@hotmail.com: What to Peter Mayle is the ideal vacation?
Peter Mayle: I take a continuous vacation. There is no country in the world as pleasant and interesting as France. I guess my ideal vacation is staying home in France. That is where I have chosen to live. I have traveled a fair amount in my life, and I have made a deliberate choice to live there. I am happy to stay there and enjoy life on a daily basis. And it is very pleasant not to have travel ambitions. I would rather be at home in Provence most of the time.
Jan Crider from Fort Wayne, IN: I would like to let you know that I love your stories and hope that you keep writing them for a long time. Some day I would love to go to Provence and see all the things that you have talked about in your books. Thank you!
Peter Mayle: Thank you too! I enjoy writing very much. It is a subject that I have a tremendous affection for. The older you get, the better you become as a writer, so I can see myself -- with a bit of luck -- continuing to write for years to come. Also I realize the longer I live out there the less I know about the place -- there are still many more stories to tell.
BarkingFish from Amagansett: Is this online interview a harbinger of your upcoming Internet presence? Perhaps a virtual Provence is on the horizon?
Peter Mayle: I doubt it somehow because I don't understand anything about modern technology, and the whole idea of being on the Internet is really weird for me. I am very old-fashioned in terms of technology and I am only mastering the basics of a laptop computer.
Niki from Niki_palek@yahoo.com: What to you is the biggest misconception about southern France that is commonly held?
Peter Mayle: Well, France for starters, I think most people think that the French are slightly difficult, and I think that impression comes from the experience that many first-time visitors have when they go to Paris and they get a snotty waiter, but the rest of France is not like Paris. The French people in the country are very friendly people, so I think any conception of the French as a race as being difficult or aloof is not the case. If you go halfway to being pleasant to them, they will be pleasant to you. The South of France? If you say the South of the France, you think about the coast and the Cannes Film Festival and all that sort of glamour, which I guess certainly does exist, but where we are, which is well back from the coast, it is a totally different life. Much more normal, and an agricultural society. That is the side of France I had never heard about when I first went out there, but a society of France that I love and have written about.
Joana Harblin from Chesterfield: Fess up. Do you really like all of the French stuff? You know -- the rudeness to Americans, the disgusting foie gras, the loads of cholesterol in all of the food? Don't you find it all to be a tad bit pretentious?
Peter Mayle: It is anything but pretentious. It is the way they live. I don't know if it is true to say that the French are rude to Americans; they are rude to people in the same ratio as New Yorkers being rude to people. It is often that they are in a hurry or distracted. The French down south are polite and agreeable people. As for the cholesterol, all you have to do is look at the statistics and you will see that the rate of cardiac problems connected to food in the diet is infinitely lower in France than in America. While it may seem that eating foie gras and other things might seem alien to many people who live on an America diet, it hasn't done the French very wrong, and it hasn't done me very wrong. But to go back to that thing about pretentious, it isn't really pretentious, that is just how they are. It is curious to see how fascinated the French are about what they put in their stomachs, and I feel that on a normal basis, you don't find much pretentiousness. I have been to much more pretentious restaurants in New York than I have in France.
Pac87@aol.com from xx: Are you a fan of travel writers? What contemporary authors in your genre do you enjoy reading?
Peter Mayle: I like some of them. There are many contemporary writers apart from Bill Bryson, who I think is a very, very good writer. Bruce Chatwin, I like him.
Steve from New York City: What initially drew you to Provence? And what brought you back again?
Peter Mayle: My wife and I were on vacation off the coast, like all good English people do, and we hit a patch of bad weather and instead of staying we decided to drive around. We drove up to Provence, and it was one of those wonderful shocks to the system, where the village that we stumbled across was a perfect medieval village, and it had a tremendous effect on both of us, so that was the initial impression. Subsequently we came back to the same area, and the more we looked at it, the more we liked it. We were also attracted to the climate, which was very Mediterranean. We liked the food and the wine was not bad either and we liked the people, so after five or six years of taking vacations down there, we decided to live there. But I remember that first evening, and it was a case of love at first sight.
Martha Clemin from Short Hills, NJ: Hello, Peter Mayle. I loved ENCORE IN PROVENCE -- I read it in two nights. I particularly enjoyed the section where you question the all-powerful [former New York Times] restaurant critic Ruth Reichl's low opinion of Provence. What is your relation like with Ms. Reichl?
Peter Mayle: Nonexistent. I have never met the lady. The only reason I came to write that piece was that several people in America sent the piece from the Times to me and asked what happened? Then I read the piece and thought it was unfair and deserved to be replied to. It gave a very misleading picture of what is available down there. Maybe she just had a lousy vacation, but it wasn't a fair piece at all. I thought since it came from the Times it needed to be replied to, so I did and that is it. An honest disagreement.
Molly from Philadelphia: Ira Einhorn certainly seems to be enjoying the pleasures of France. Too bad he was convicted of murdering his girlfriend in the USA. Why is the French government harboring this criminal? He should be returned to Philadelphia ASAP. Is France above international decency?
Peter Mayle: I think there are many aspects to these situations where we don't know the full details; normally I thought France always falls into international decency, but I don't know enough about the case to reply in any useful way. That is it. If I knew more about it, I could give a better example.
Moderator: Are there any books you have been saving to read this summer?
Peter Mayle: I am hoping to buy them in America. I like reading biographies very much. I just finished TRUMAN CAPOTE by George Plimpton. I haven't had a chance to see what is available at the moment, but the one guy I always wait for new books from is Patrick O'Brian. But nothing specific. I like all sorts of stuff. I love Tom Wolfe; I wish he could write one per year.
Joe Benyak from Philadelphia: Do you still live in Provence?
Peter Mayle: We do now. We have been living in America for four years and we are at the moment doing the split between America and Provence. We just bought a new house there, and we will be well settled by the end of the year.
JGCrider@AOL from Fort Wayne, IN: How long does it take you to write your books?
Peter Mayle: It splits into two -- six months of research, then another six months of writing. It just happens to work at that way, so about a year...
David from Marlboro, MA: Did you enjoy writing about the art scene in CHASING CÉZANNE? Also, do you have any future plans to continue writing fiction?
Peter Mayle: I enjoyed writing it very much. It was such an interesting experience for me to find out about a business that combines money with taste. The small amount I did find out while researching the book, I found very interesting. I will be thinking about a fiction book in the near future. If you have a great idea, let me know, but it is very pleasant for me because you aren't constrained by the facts, like when you write nonfiction. I just find it very stimulating to switch from one to the other.
Valerie Doucette from Ontario: What advice would you give to a young writer?
Peter Mayle: Write every day. Because the best practice of being a writer is writing, whether it is a journal, short story, or something more ambitious. Establish the discipline of writing, when somebody is not breathing down your neck, a self-imposed discipline that is an essential habit for any aspiring writer. It is not good waiting for inspiration to strike. I find that I have to have a regular working day when I sit down, and if I am lucky I get 1,000 words that I don't want to throw up about, but the best thing to do is to try. Also, read a lot because reading good writers is an inspiration yourself. So in short, the only answer to that is to read more and write regularly, and hope for the best.
Jamie from Bryn Mawr, PA: Have you read any books lately that you would recommend to fans of your writing?
Peter Mayle: Bill Bryson, whom I mentioned previously, anything by E. B. White, who I think is a wonderful writer. Graham Greene, Patrick O'Brian, and that is about it.
Moderator: Thank you, Peter Mayle! Best of luck with your new book, ENCORE PROVENCE! Before you leave, do you have any parting comments?
Peter Mayle: This has been my first time online, and it would be nice to see a face, but it has been a very pleasant experience. Thank you very much.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have traveled in this part of France on foot, car, and train. It was charming to read and delightfully funny. If you can't go, this is one of the next best things.
This book focuses on all that Provence has to offer rather than what it is like to live there. You travel through several regions meeting some interesting people, finding interesting events, some great places to eat and some intrigue. There is a section dedicated to the making of perfumes which I found fascinating. He describes the growing of olives and the process of making olive oil. He takes a tour of vineyards best loved by the locals and makes some very good discoveries of amazing wines. The section on truffles was very interesting, as well. The whole process of marketing truffles was a story in itself.
Rejoice, armchair travelers - Provence's most engaging booster is at it again! With deft pen and quick wit intact Peter Mayle offers another paean to his promised land, Encore Provence, in which, among other Provencal perks, he delineates the salubrious effects of a 3-hour lunch, and the gastronomical satisfaction found at a village boulangerie. After a four year hiatus in America, Mr. Mayle has returned to the lavender fields and picturesque dwellings of his chosen paradise on earth - southern France. As he describes his second residency with great good humor and affection, Encore Provence becomes a billet-doux to the places and people of that region. No longer the wide-eyed, exuberant Francophile we found in A Year In Provence(1995)and Toujours Provence (1991), he is now a more sophisticated, experienced resident - on to recalcitrant workmen who say neither yes or no, but only 'c'est possible,' and now convinced that 'hurried eating has ruined more digestive systems than foie gras.' That enlightened mecca where wine's first sip is greeted with a 'shudder of appreciation' has welcomed him home. He warmly returns its embrace, as he delightedly attests through anecdotal narrative and assiduously drawn, smile-provoking portraits of idiosyncratic Gallic friends. For starters, we learn of a handsome village butcher who favors housewives with more than choice cuts. Such generosity results in his untimely demise, but 'everyone turned out the day they buried the butcher. They all had their reasons.' We are inducted into the mysteries of buying a new car, cheerfully informed of the essentials of a proper village, and taken on a cook's tour of Marseille, where it is suspected 'that not only fish are changing hands at the daily market on the Quai des Belges.' Lucien Ferrero, we discover, has 'a nose in a million,' having 'personally created more than two thousand perfumes,' and we accompany the author as he zealously pursues the elusive perfect corkscrew. When asked by future visitors when the best time is to come to Provence, Mr. Mayle sidesteps that persistent query with 'after lunch.' 'Only then,' he explains, 'can you take full advantage of the long and unencumbered afternoon that lies ahead. The bill is paid, the last mouthful of rose' swallowed, the empty bottle upended in the ice bucket as a farewell salute to the waiter.' The author finds that one of his most daunting tasks is trying to convince guests of the necessity of a siesta, for they've arrived in Provence 'with their work ethics intact and their Anglo-Saxon distrust of self-indulgence poised to resist undisciplined, slightly decadent Mediterranean habits.' For those wishing to be convinced - the line forms behind me. As always, Mr. Mayle is a witty, convivial, boon companion. Save for one chapter in which he lambastes a former New York Times food critic for her criticism of the area (perhaps a gentle braising would have sufficed rather than a full roast), Encore Provence is pure pleasure.
I've read all of Peter Mayle's titles with the exception of 'Up the Agency,' and they all share a wonderful charm that is uniquely French and infinitely readable. Once again, with 'Encore Provence', Mayle's wry and simple storytelling transport you to lovely places you wish you could visit and dine at, too. I'm still hoping to get to the south of France someday. All of his books...travel and fiction are great summer reads!
Third in the series, this book is as enjoyable as the first two books about Peter Mayle and his wife's experiences as expatriots living in France. Their adventures and friendly advice to tourists make for a relaxing read!