To continue with this discussion of travel books, I’m going to talk about a more traditional travel book: Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It’s a humorous autobiographical novel about a British ex-pat living in Southern France with his wife. Some may consider it to be a little unflattering to the French but I really think that he means well in this book. I think he really loves the region and its people but can’t help but to detail all the wondrous and crazy aspects of Provencal life. The book (and its brothers) popularized Provence outside of France (for better or for worse). It describes an entire year with adventures such as: buying a car, dogs, and the sumptuous food. He really tries to give you a sense of the region.
For instance, Peter Mayle talks about a common feature of Provencal winter life: the Mistral. It’s a cold, bitter wind from the northern Mediterranean. It’s a wind that gets into your bones, finds the holes in your home, takes off shingles of the house. Generally, it makes you suffer. It is said that the wind has driven people mad.
Peter Mayle spends a lot of time talking about the food, which helps to deepen my appreciation for Provencal cuisine. In one of his books about Provence, he talks about how there are festivals for various culinary items in each town. There is the truffle festival in one place, an asparagus festival in another, and a snail festival in a different town. It’s really emphasized one of the great things about Provence, and France in general. Each town and region has its food that it specializes in and they revel in that food’s glory. It’s something missing in US society on the same scale. There are definitely regional foods that are celebrated but not in the same way or magnitude as the French. Aix-en-Provence is famous for its nougat, unlike any brittle or tooth destroying candy you’ve had. Marseille is known for its bouillabaisse, a fish and seafood soup.
But Peter Mayle also adds a funny twist to the stories. He notes that all the festivals have to have a beauty pageant with a relevant name. The snail festival proved a problem since Miss Snail doesn’t quite work. They eventually decided on Miss Shell.
Peter Mayle also talks about these incredible restaurants hidden away, truly meant for locals. These places do not have a menu; you eat what the chef feels like cooking that day. I’ve always wanted to go but it has never happened. Someday it will.
As he progresses through his year, he really evokes the beauty of the region with each season. You can get lost in his descriptions of Provence.
Anyway, go read A Year in Provence if you are going to Provence. Or read it anyway because it is hilarious.