postcard from provence

Helena Drysdale is travelling Europe in a motorhome with her husband and two daughters. Their mission: to investigate the re-emerging "tribes" of the continent
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Every Tuesday evening Mme Herault drives from Cabasse to Le Luc to meet friends who share her passion. Every Tuesday they speak Provencale, read Provencale literature, sing Provencale songs, just enjoy being Provencale.

Mme Herault's family has lived in Cabasse for generations. We met her when we spent three weeks there last spring, parked in my cousin's vineyard. A square woman with a freckly beaming face, she rattled her false teeth at Xanthe, who was strapped to my chest in a sling. "Boun Dieu! Que sies poulido." This translated as "My God, she's pretty," which Mme Herault found very funny, nearly as funny as my attempts to imitate her. "No, not poulido, pouleedo. That's right, we'll have you speaking Provencale in no time."

My cousin, Mathieu, is half-English, married to a Quebecoise. Their mixed blood seems typical of Provence, invaded as it is by hordes of Peter Mayles and other itinerant Europeans, plus 200,000 North Africans. "Oh no, no, no," cried Mme Herault. "Here we all speak Provencale, especially when there's a stranger around. Heh, heh, heh. We tell them in the shops to get a move on and they haven't a clue what we're talking about." Struggling to make a living from his vines, Mathieu has no time to learn Provencale. His neighbours don't resent this, but he'll never belong.

Mme Herault showed me her Provencale costumes: a quilted skirt of her great-grandmother's and a bonnet, which she put on. It framed her face in white lace, and, with her wiry hair poking through, she looked like an over-grown Mrs Tiggywinkle. There was a bang on the door. "Oh, it's my husband," she gasped. (He was waiting to be taken to hospital.) But he was still in the car. It was a curious Tallulah.

Mathieu introduced us to a neighbour, Annie L'Antoine, a red-haired Ingrid Bergman. Passionately Provencale, she urged us to attend a festival in Apt, where her husband, a Provencale poet, would be reciting. So we went to Apt, and watched the troupes parading through the town in 19th-century dress. Who was it for? There were few bystanders. It was for the Provencaux themselves. But it was also for the Algerian woman out shopping under her veil, and the Algerian man who crossed the square, determinedly ignoring the proceedings. This was about establishing territory. After all, this is the heartland of support for Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Front National.

Up on a podium, in a traditional, black, broad-brimmed hat, stood poet Ferdinand L'Antoine. "For all that you are, Provence, my country," he declaimed, "for all that you give, at every instant of life, we give you love and recognition."

Last week, we passed by again. What had become of them all? Mme Herault's husband was expected to die any day. Annie L'Antoine's husband, her beloved poet, had left her. And Mathieu's grapes had been eaten by wild boar. Plus ca change...

Helena Drysdale

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