A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

The very first book that a friend recommended I read when I said I was planning a trip to France was A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. This book is now 20 years old, and was so successful that it has been succeeded by three follow-up volumes, a mini-series, and a radio show. Mayle's friendly intellectualism, self-deprecating wit, and obvious love for his subject matter make the book a delight to read. I dare you not to recommend it to your friends when you're done -- I already have. In 12 chapters (one for each month), the author tells the story of the first year after he and his wife moved to Provence from England, giving up an urban lifestyle in London for a rural adventure in the South of France.

From this book I got an entertaining and interesting picture of life in Provence, from the crusty old neighbor who teaches Mayle how to cook a fox to the many restaurants and merchants that feed him well and the contractors that take a year to renovate his house. I have no misconceptions about the existence of the Provence in this book, or its accessibility to me as an American tourist, not a permanent resident, or a resident who intends to be permanent like Mayle does. It made me feel wistful for the experiences they had -- discovering local spots to which they could return again and again, and the sense of the world opening up in a completely new direction, with so much to learn and do for the first time.

The value of this book is not in its factual information or in its realistic presentation of a region you yourself might want to explore. You can't replicate or follow in the footsteps of Mayle and his wife -- it's not a guidebook. But it is a great example of a pioneering spirit, a willingness to pay the necessary cost, both in money, convenience, and discomfort, to experience something truly other. Mayle is relentlessly cheerful, totally unbothered by rude visitors, tardy contractors, weather, fire, and other setbacks. What could have been, in a different voice, a litany of whines, becomes a happy record of one obstacle after another joyfully met and wittily documented. I highly recommend it -- it was a great read.

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