Maybe one day I will actually pack my bags but for for now I remain a wistful arm chair traveler. As such, Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence has become one of my favorite trips. An Englishman by birth, he vacationed in France often and one time decided not to leave. His intent was to work on his fiction but he found the people and customs of Provence so captivating that he began to record stories about them and his first book was born.
I consider this an Englishman’s book about France. Mayle is patient. Good god he is patient. He is not entirely comfortable with touching as the French are. And at least in the beginning, while still learning the customs of country life, he has a typical English ‘charm’ about him. This is something akin to bull in a china shop compared to the French.
A large part of the book, and of his education, revolves around the renovation of his home. After finally settling upon some locals to perform the remodel, Mayle and his wife mostly wait. For months. Completely unlike anyone I would dream of hiring, these folks show up when ever they feel the urge. They might lay or stone or two or maybe build a wall if they’ve brought the correct materials. But work is generally secondary to visiting. And to drinking. And to eating. If this is life in Provence I’m ready to pack. Assuming, of course, that one can pay one’s bills like this.
The writing is enchanting and simple. Mayle sees the world as mostly happy and it shines through his writing. Having to wait in line for another ten minutes doesn’t upset him nor does having to park the car while the goats pass. There are a lot of worthwile lessons to learn here.
A thoroughly enjoyable book.
Another recent trip to France: A Gift From Brittany review. A little sentimental but a nice weekend read.
A cross-state cousin to Provence and Brittany – my review of In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore. If you really want to live like the country French here’s a good start.
Depending on my mood and the day of the week I could be a Francophile, Anglophile, Russophile, or even an Emerald City o-Phile when the Seahawks and Mariners are winning. I’ve always been interested in other cultures and languages. I haven’t traveled outside the country so I read about other places – I’m a lowly armchair tourist. I recently finished Marjorie Price’s A Gift From Brittany and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s an easy read, a bit melodramatic, and surprisingly human. It tells the true story of a Midwestern American girl who moves to France in the early 1960’s to paint and marries a French artist. They purchase a 300 year old estate that probably hadn’t been updated since it was first built. Just as they start to find their way together as artists/farmers her husband’s Latinesque penchant for drama erupts and he demands that she quits painting and dedicate herself to meeting his needs as a painter and genius. His constitution is just not made for such mundane things as paying rent and rearing the child. The rest of the story follows threads of real friendship and of a young woman who finds inner strength unfolding in response to the constant barrage of large and small disasters.
A Gift From Brittany can be viewed from many angles. Francophiles will love the descriptions of 1960s French country life. The author, Marjorie Price – Midge – moves to the French countryside where electricity is not a given, running water is rare, and outhouses are common. For the same reasons, advocates of Slow philosophy will nod in agreement with life set to the tempo of seasons and cows. It’s easy to miss, though, that this is very much a feminist book.
Imagine the early 1960’s in Midwest America. Marjorie Price grows up with a burning. She wants to paint. Her parents are wealthy enough to send her to good schools and she is set to marry a pleasant and safe schoolmate. The entire family shakes when she moves to France where she neither knows anyone nor knows the language. She quickly falls in love with a Parisian artist and dreams of a life of painting and love. Above her protests her husband buys a dilapidated 300 year-old farm in Brittany. They set to rebuild the farm and work on their painting until her husband – afflicted with ‘cyclic personality’ – cuts her canvases with a machete and forbids her to ever paint again. Her job, he says, is to support his genius. His extraordinary ability is too fragile to be bothered by such common things as marriage, child rearing, cooking, or money. (A Wiki search turns up nothing for the man or the artist.) After the family returns to Paris she takes their child and moves back to the farm without her husband.
Alone at La Salle she befriends a local elderly woman named Jeanne and learns about deep friendship. Though different in most ways – maybe because they are different -they accept each other without reservation or judgment. Marjorie learns about farming and country life and Jeanne learns about cars, boats, and ocean sand between your toes. Their friendship deepens through real and near disasters and is a theme threading through the remainder of the story.
Deeper than the narrative is the story of a woman finding strength amid cultures that don’t necessarily enjoy strong women. As dictated as her life might have been in America she was unprepared for the patriarchy of France where, with cultural acceptance, her husband rules over her as a king. French wives, it seemed, were to look good in bikinis and practice the art of the canapé. But Marjorie Price has other desires. She maneuvers among the customs and conventions but pursues her own dreams as best as she can. A Gift From Brittany is a story for every human being who wants to live authentically to their own desires.
What is the gift from Brittany? Real friendship? An awareness of your own abilities? Expanding your horizons to see that the world is wider than your own two arms? I’m not sure but my copy has a guide with thoughtful questions for readers. More importantly she includes the recipe for Les Quatres Quarts – the favorite dessert made by local women for every event.
The book is written with an easy prose. Descriptions are charming and bucolic and sometimes melodramatic. Any flaws, though, are enormously overcome by the warm humanity of the story.
My Amazon profile here
The book on Amazon here
Marjorie Price website with art and photos here Tourisme Bretagne official site here