Savoring Provence's life in the slow lane
There is nowhere else in the world where you can keep busy doing so little and enjoying it so much. One day you'll understand.
– Uncle Harry's advice to Max in Peter Mayle's 'A Good Year.'
In the 15 years since his best‑selling book "A Year in Provence" made this region a tourism magnet, author Peter Mayle often has been pilloried by the French: Mayle casts Provence as a trifle, it's been said, buoyant but lacking in depth. His characters are exaggerated. He first profited from the region, and then left it behind when crowds of tourists converged on the places he'd helped make famous.
But in truth the characters of Provence are exaggerated, often making their own statement, consciously and with humor. Life here is buoyant and lived dehors, on country walks and in outdoor city squares. And if Mayle stole some of Provence's privacy, he clearly boosted the tourist trade in return.
As with Uncle Harry's advice, delivered to a young Max years before he inherits the somewhat faded Provençal estate of his long-forgotten relative, Mayle's characterizations of this region often strike me as uncannily on the mark.
Nearly 10 weeks into our stay here, my wife, Kathy, and I are living life in the slow lane, trying to measure each day by what we perceive rather than what we produce. In its way, that poses the most insurmountable challenge. For, as the humorist Art Buchwald wrote in his final column, published a few days after his death, "What's it all about, Alfie?"
For now, I'll settle for three loads of wash, drying in the breeze on a sunlit patio, hung to the unrelenting serenade of songbirds in the soft light of a spring morning, with the fragrant smell of laurels for which our lane, Chemin du Vallon des Lauriers – street of the little valley of laurels – was named. (Time: about 90 minutes to hang, three days to dry.)
I'll settle for throwing open and latching the shutters each morning as the sky takes color, dodging the bees that seek amour on our screenless sills (10 minutes).
I'll settle for our daily walk to town, past the old women wheeling carts for shopping, past the teens playing cards on the sidewalk of l'école Paul Cézanne during a break, or the middle schoolers, jostling and giggling a few blocks farther on (45 minutes).
I'll settle for Aix-en-Provence's grand Saturday morning market, as I weave through the crowds, knapsack on my back, a white shopping bag in each hand, looking for the plumpest strawberries, inhaling at tables laden with Provençal herbs, and listening to the man pounding the keys of an upright piano plunked in the street. Relishing, too, the music of the country vendors – ruddy-faced, rough-handed – saying nothing more profound than "Voilà. Merci, monsieur. Bonne journée. Au revoir." Their music is all in the tenor and cadence of delivery of this most routine exchange of pleasantries. Oh, yes ... time: three hours.
Life here is not so much different from in the States as it is slower-paced, lived with more style and more grace. There is always time for an afternoon coffee, the young and old sitting in the outdoor cafes that dot Aix's dozens of squares, talking animatedly or reading one of the dozen or so newspapers sold at newsstands on every main square.
There's time here for parents to walk their children home from school, holding hands, talking about their day. And there is time for charm, like a moment with the manager and stylist at JB Coiffure, the salon where Kathy had her hair cut just once. When she entered to set up a second appointment, he crossed the room to shake her hand, tell her he was glad she had returned, and ask about our stay in Aix.
Young or old, male or female, the people of Provence seem to understand the art of life and their place in it. Their eyes smile. Their hands speak. They stop and talk between food stands, forever planting light kisses on one another's cheeks (two kisses identify town people, three the country folk).
As I try to perceive, to make sense of life here, sometimes my understanding falters. Words, in English and French alike, often fail me, too. I can understand why the Impressionists painted these street scenes; I can't always capture them in words.
Take, again, the market: the dogs curled at the feet of the vendors or carried in the handbags of shoppers. The crowded cafes, where people watch the crowds and the crowds look back. The children, waiting wide-eyed but patiently in line for their turn at the rotisserie chicken stand. The rich and succulent greens, reds, yellows, and oranges of vegetables and fruits brought straight from the field. The sunlight, playing off buildings and cafe umbrellas. The fresh-cut flowers that cover one entire square in a blanket of color.
And, as winter turns to spring, the silly tourists, fellow Mayle fans no doubt, who try to capture the grace and charm of southern France in a graceless moment of point-and-shoot photography.
They will fail, of course, as have I at similar moments.
Like all of life here, market day has to be lived, not transported. Halfway through our stay here, this I know already. We will return in June with Provençal tablecloths, a glossy coffee-table book, hundreds of photos, posters of storefronts, and, perhaps, even a decent painting.
But Provence cannot be bottled, cannot be shipped home. It has to be lived, one day at a time, doing so little and enjoying it so much.