The first line is: "The year began with lunch." And with that Peter Mayle's 1989 book A Year in Provence had me and millions of other readers, at "hello." With relaxed amusement Mayle tells the tale of how in 1987 he and his wife Jennie were fed up with the urban rat race and moved to Ménerbes, a village in the Provence region of France. They had long promised themselves that one day they'd live in rather than visit Provence and Mayle recalled that "In the end, it happened quickly - almost impulsively - because of the house. We saw it one afternoon and had mentally moved in by dinner." The couple knew that the 18th-century stone farmhouse required renovation, but Mr. Mayle intended to write a novel while employing local craftsmen to make the couple's clever updates. If you haven't read it, you simply must come get it because of course, he discovers that Provence time, including that of hired plumbers, builders and lawyers runs rather by seasons and not days. When he wrote to his agent that his novel was no where near ready and explained, in his charming way that:
"Following some primeval springtime urge, the builders had migrated, leaving us with some token sacks of plaster and piles of sand as proof of their intention to come back. We made a conscious effort to become more philosophical in our attitude to time, to treat days and weeks of delays in the Provencal fashion - that is, to enjoy the sunshine and to stop thinking like city people. This month, next month, what's the difference? Have a pastis and relax. It worked well enough for a week or two, and then we noticed that the building materials at the back of the house were turning green with the first growth of spring weeds."
His book agent loved it and Mayle was told to write more about the house and the local townsfolk, including truffle and boar hunters, goat-racers, the divine local cuisine and the characters that cooked it, and neighbors who worked his new home's ancient grape vines into liters and liters of wonderful red wine. And boy, did he - with wit and delightful style, he fondly recalls the entire year it took to complete his farmhouse renovation. You'll love every minute (it is quintessential Mayle when he describes a Provencal's elastic explanations of dates and deadlines on page 45, "the behavior of his hands is all-important.").
I have a story about my first read of A Year in Provence (in a minute!) but before I get to that, like so many we at PPB were saddened to learn that Mr. Mayle passed away in January. Yet we were heartened to hear of the publication of his last book, coming June 26: My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now. To celebrate of course we need to have a party, feting not only Peter Mayle and his personal tales of Provence, but also his sunny novels and mystery series - what delicious summery reads. Plan to come to our Peter/Provence Party, featuring Provencal cuisine from the cookbooks of the great Patricia Wells. More on that below, but first my story.
OK so in the summer of 1989 I was a second-year summer law associate at a big firm in Chicago and back in that day, lucky law students were actively recruited to join firms - and I mean recruited with a full-court press that included fancy restaurant meals and private museum tours and Cubs games and other posh gatherings. I grew up modestly and none too worldly but I was game to give grown-up life a go. My office-mate was a great pal from my undergrad days and we had a blast together, him being none too posh either. In fact that summer his main food group was Garrett's cheesy/caramel popcorn and he got powdery orange goo all over our shared keyboard and I yelled at him often. He went on to graduate from Oxford as a Marshall scholar, attend Harvard and become editor of its Law Review, then serve as a Supreme Court Clerk (Scalia), then as a U.S. Attorney, federal judge and even United States Attorney General for awhile. I'm pretty sure it was my influence .... Anyhoo, down the hall was another summer associate who was the current Harvard Law Review editor in 1989, and he ended up being an Illinois State and U.S. Senator and then, well, President of the United States. I bring this up as context to the heady times I happily lived in when I read A Year in Provence that summer. Feeling perhaps more confident than I should, or maybe it was just me being me -- I was chatting at one of said posh gatherings about this great new book (of course I was), just out in Britain. I gave the group a grinning, spirited book review before we all finished our drinks and made our way to the dinner tables. I probably was feeling trendy and well-read, as the British book wasn't yet released in the U.S.: I sure showed that this University of Illinois gal had lots to offer, you betcha!
And then, I'll never forget it --as we broke up and the group wandered off, someone in the group (I can't remember who!) touched my elbow and very kindly whispered, "Provence is pronounced "prah-VAHNS."
So wow, yep. I can't remember how I had been saying it - probably "PRAH-vince," but the shame quickly swallowed my blithe confidence. What a blow to my unsophisticated self and tender ego; the word naif comes to mind. As I recall I re-grouped and kept smiling, and of course now find it still wince-worthy but hilarious. More important, especially in these lately days, I think how classy the person was not to call me out in front of everyone but with a private voice made sure I'd know the right pronunciation should I rhapsodize over the book in the future. How marvelous. That night I learned a forever lesson in gentility, civility, and breeding that I hope I've payed forward once or twice.
It's funny how a favorite book, sort of like a favorite song - the best ones at least, can bring us straight back to the time in our lives and the person that we were when we read it. If you've not yet experienced Peter Mayle's one-of-a-kind tales praising the French pace of life, with its regular town cafe visits and deadlines ignored in favor of lingering conversation accompanied by good crusty bread and a bottle of wine — you must. Come join us for this grand event, and these others too:
Baking with Karen: "Summertime and Baking is Easy"
Thursday, June 14 at 6:00 p.m.
Cooking Demo: "The Provence Cookbook"
Wednesday, June 27 at 6:00 p.m.
Cooking Demo: What do Italians eat int he summer?
Thursday, July 12 at 6:00 p.m.