Another year in Provence - and nothing's changed

In the afternoon people succumb to the siren call of the siesta, a Provencal word for `afternoon kip'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TODAY WE are beginning the serialisation of Peter Mayle's wonderful new book Toujours Provence!, which, readers will be glad to know, is very reminiscent of his wonderful old books Welcome to Provence, An Afternoon in Provence, This Is Provence, and Sorry, John Thaw.

Story so far: Peter Mayle goes to France to learn French, but instead writes a best-seller about trying to get hold of plumbers in the French countryside. Provence becomes so flooded with readers of his best-sellers that poor Peter is driven out, tries writing novels and moves to America. However, none of his new books ( such as `A Year in California', `Welcome to California', `This is California' and `Still Very Sorry, John Thaw') manages to hit the best-seller list, so, driven by nostalgia and tax bills, Peter Mayle returns to Provence in disguise under an assumed name and writes his wonderful new book `Toujours Provence!'.

Now read on...

Returning to France after an absence of four years, you cannot help noticing that they still drive on the right-hand side of the road here. There is something wonderfully wilful about the French. Never mind about the rest of you, they seem to say; we shall do our own thing.

I decided to consult my old friend Rene, who knows more about wild mushrooms than any man alive, and see what he thought about the way the French drive on the right.

"Peter, mon vieux," he said, "In California they drive on the right. In Germany they drive on the right. Everywhere they drive on the right. Only in England do they drive on the left. If anyone is wilful and arbitrary, it is the English. Go write a book about them !"

This was not at all the sort of thing I wanted for my new book Toujours Provence!, so I asked him the question again.

"Voyez-vous, Peter" he said, "although we French drive on the right like everyone else, we do it differently from everyone else. The Germans, they drive on the right as if they are invading Italy. The Americans drive on the right as if God had told them to. But it is only the French who drive on the right... as if they are making love to their car."

This was much more the sort of thing I wanted, as it sounded full of traditional French folk wisdom, and I wrote it down in my notebook on one of those glorious Provencal summer lavender-scented afternoons that stretch away into the distance until they meet the evening. France goes very quiet in the afternoon as people succumb to the siren call of the siesta, an old Provencal word meaning "afternoon kip". On this particular afternoon, I was feeling more than usually somnolent, as I had just returned from an impromptu four-hour lunch at one of my favourite little restaurants, Chez Patrick.

"Patrick! Therese! Petit Jacques! You haven't changed at all!" I cried out as I burst through the front door of the old bistro, tucked away in the little village of St-Jean-en-Croute. To my surprise, there was nobody there to greet me except for a man in a dark suit who asked me suspiciously whether I had booked.

"But where are Patrick, Therese, and little Jacques?" I cried in distress.

"Long gone, monsieur," he said. "They sold up when the English writer, Monsieur Mayle, mentioned their little restaurant in his book, and it became unbearably popular. Now there is a chain of Chez Patrick eating houses all over France, and the English need drive only as far as Normandy to find one. Indeed, I believe they are going to open a Chez Patrick in Guildford... Now, I could let you have a table at two o'clock..."

It being one of those glorious summer days that come so frequently in Provence six months after Christmas, we decided to have a picnic instead, and went to the local market to put together a heavenly repast of melon, baguette and pate. However, when we arrived we found there was no sign of the local market. Only a very large supermarket.

"Alas, monsieur Mayle," said Antoine, the local poacher, historian and blackmailer, when I consulted him. "The old market became so popular after your book that it was torn down and replaced by this mammoth structure."

"That is terrible," I said.

"Au contraire, monsieur Mayle, it is very good," he said. "Now at last we can get shoelaces and paperclips at any time of day and night. In the old days, we could get only horrible home-made honey with bits of dirt in, and cheese that dripped all the way home. Vive le supermarche!"

Yes, Provence has not changed at all during my absence. At least that is what I shall be saying in my book Toujours Provence!

Tomorrow: Out truffle-hunting with a maverick priest!