Monday, 8 March 2010

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Either the beginning of a hugely successful publishing and real estate phenomenon, or the moment the rot set in, depending on your point of view, Mayle's A Year In Provence charts the gentle ups and downs of the author and his wife during their first year in the south-east of France.

Mayle still lives in Provence, twenty years on ("I've been accused of causing everything from the village baker running out of bread to a surfeit of Germans in the café") and comes across as a genuine Francophile. The book is a relaxed account of the year; disappearing builders, their fox eating neighbour and a stream of visitors from back home. At heart it is a testament of two people who had bought a house, taken French lessons, said our goodbyes, shipped over our two dogs and become foreigners.

My reasons for its inclusion in 120 Units revolve around the French appreciation for wine and food. Especially wine. And other alcoholic drinks... An account of a very long dinner at a neighbour’s house finishes with a slug of firewater. Mayle isn’t entirely sure it’s going to sit too well on top of a seven course meal.

With the coffee, a number of deformed bottles were produced which contained a selection of locally-made digestifs. My heart would have sunk had there been any space left for it to sink to, but there was no denying my hosts insistence. I must try one particular concoction, made from an eleventh-century recipe by an alcoholic order of monks in the Basses-Alpes. I was asked to close my eyes while it was poured, and when I opened them a tumbler of viscous yellow fluid had been put in front of me. I looked in despair round the table. Everyone was watching me; there was no chance of giving whatever it was to the dog or letting it dribble discreetly into one of my shoes. Clutching the table for support with one hand, I took the tumbler with the other, closed my eyes, prayed to the patron saint of indigestion, and threw it back.

Fortunately, it’s a fake glass (ho ho!) which has everyone in stitches. Still, the propensity to crack open a bottle of wine at any given social opportunity is mentioned frequently. Giving blood in June comes to mind. An old man in the line in front of them has just had a sample taken from his thumb, but the nurse is not impressed with the contents of his arteries:

“How did you come here?” she asked the old man. He stopped sucking his thumb. “Bicycle,” he said, “All the way from Les Imberts.” The nurse sniffed. “It astonishes me that you didn’t fall off.” She looked at the tube again. “You’re technically drunk.” “Impossible,” said the old man. “I may have had a little red wine with breakfast, comme d’habitude, but that’s nothing. And furthermore,” he said, wagging his bloodstained thumb under her nose, “A measure of alcohol enriches the corpuscles.”

Pronounced sober and fit to give blood, Mayle and his wife take their place in the line. They notice that instead of the cup of tea and a biscuit they are used to at home, after a donation of claret is given, donors get to fill their boots with croissants, brioches, sandwiches of ham or garlic sausage, mugs or red or rosé wine...

A young male nurse was hard at work with the corkscrew, and the supervising doctor in his long white coat wished us all bonne appétit. If the steadily growing pile of empty bottles behind the bar was anything to go by, the appeal for blood was an undoubted success, both clinically and socially.

Undoubtedly, a lot has changed in France in the past two decades, including reports that wine consumption is down. I somehow doubt that blood drives are as much fun these days...

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