Thursday, December 7, 2017

Living in Provence

It was a stone house that was big and old with walls as thick as a fortress. We lived there for a year in a small village in a corner of Provence about an hour from Avignon. It was a lovely way to live, in a house that had been built 200 years ago, hewn out of stone found not in quarries but in the fields. It wasn’t easy at first, though. The village life seemed as durable and unchanging as the house, and as mute. It was a while before the woman I loved and I could begin to fathom the rhythm of its ways. Why didn’t the villagers respond to our greetings, except for the briefest answers? Why weren’t they the least bit interested in us? Why didn’t they accept us with open arms?
Our house in Provence

A village in Provence can be exquisite and maddening. It took time for us to see that our sojourn was merely a blink in the villagers’ unwavering eyes. We did, at last, and it was the land that led us. As she and I woke up day after day to a sun-flooded room, our casement windows open to the new morning, we began to become part of Provence. We couldn’t look out onto the softly undulating hills, with their legions of precisely-lined vine plants, without giving away our hearts. We couldn’t smell the subtle morning air, a perfume of everything that grew there, without becoming a little more lost in love. We couldn’t have our vision enhanced by the marvel of the light without wanting never to leave.

The gap between their ways and ours lessened, and that was in part due to the power of the place. We were under its sway, and so many of the things that were important to the villagers became important to us. We walked the rough little hills above the village and saw wild thyme growing. The plant is like a dwarf version of a stunted tundra tree, all twisted and leaning. It’s a tough thing, difficult to cut. I began using it in my cooking. I soon found the taste is not the same as domesticated thyme. Like many wild versions of a plant or spice we know, its flavor is more subtle and quieter, and more interesting. It’s a good metaphor for some of the villagers we met. They were wild thyme. Their tastes weren’t revealed just by a single encounter.

No, we’d never be paysans—as the villagers unhesitatingly called themselves. Not farmers, peasants. They were people rooted to the land. Eventually, most everything in Provence comes back to the land. It is as basic as the thyme that grew above the village. Pays, the root word of paysan, means “country.” Before you leave Provence, walk in the maquis or the garrigue, the scrub hills, full of dry wonders and simplicity. Let yourself become part of this remarkable land. Day by day, we surrendered to its spirit.
Side view of the house

In surrender, Provence simplified our lives. That’s what the place will do. Simplicity will come over anyone who stays there for even more than a few days. “Only in this sun-steeped country,” Colette writes, “can a heavy table, a wicker chair, an earthenware jar crowned with flowers, and a dish whose thick enameling has run over the edge, make a complete furnishing.” And we began to understand, like everyone else who has become attached to Provence, that there is no place on earth like it. No one can possibly prepare you for this consistently ethereal level of beauty. Not any book, movie, or essay.  No painting. Not these words.  Nowhere else do you find such a confluence of pellucid air, fierce sun, ravishing smells and tastes, and grace.

We had a used car we had bought, scruffy and prone to seizures, but on the whole reliable. In it, we ventured near and far in the South of France and came to see much more of the land beyond our village during that year. We went to nearby Avignon first. What a shock it was to go from our little hamlet, with its stubbornly self-important ways, to a city that has had such a prominent role on the world stage! We—at least I—felt Avignon is a sad place. Even though it’s on the lyrical Rhône, that magnificent water, the city has a melancholy air. Cities have lived lives, too, and when you walk them, you begin to see exactly who they have become. I think of Avignon as not at peace with itself. For that very reason, it’s impossible to forget.

We drove to Aix, that exquisite town, then on to palm-lined Nice and to Menton. We went to the Gorges du Verdon in Haute Provence, Colorado in France, except that Colorado is far too young to have the ancient sense those small, high villages possess. Haute Provence, walking realm of Provence’s greatest writer, Jean Giono, whose rare, dignified sensibility reflects the land and the people he loved. We drove to Apt and to old Gordes, and wound our way to its top as so many others have, rapt. We drove to Arles and to les Baux and to the Camargue, and to the moving village of Aigues Mortes, and to the gypsy enclave at St.-Marie. 
Marie, or town hall

 But no matter how far we went, we always came home to our village. To the well-wrought house that now was our home. To the simplicity and timelessness of a life that unfolded before us. We met everyone in the place, and we began to piece together their lives. We were even luckier to find work in the fields, so we experienced Provence’s light and air and scents throughout the long days. The wine tasted better in our dirt-caked hands, and so did the daube I cooked for us when the day was through. They paid us, too, in francs, by God!

It was a privilege to go to sleep weary in our village, and to wake up with that slight feeling of regret physical labor bestows on you every morning. We had the gift of responsibility in Provence, and how much luckier can two people get? You cannot steal idle moments when everything is given to you. We were not used to the hard work, to the bending, pulling, digging and planting. We were old people for an hour every morning, but nothing in the world would have induced us to quit. We went home to lunch midday as the villagers did. We spooned our soup and devoured our bread happily with the morning’s cool still hovering over us. Sundays became as precious to us as long-waited vacations. Nothing that year was sweeter than buying villagers we liked a pastis with money we earned working their land. If you can work in Provence, even for a single day, you should do it.
Playing petanque, or boules, in front of the school

Despite the fact that we were frugal and that we worked, we could see our money dwindling. This alarmed us, and saddened us. We didn’t want to leave. We wanted to stay forever. We had brought a dog with us to Provence, and in our desperation to stay longer, we hatched a plan. We decided to teach her to hunt for truffles. Dogs as well as pigs hunt for truffles in Provence, and if we could turn our Brooklyn-born stray into a truffle-finder, we’d be flush. We heard that a man had a dog in a village not far from us who could find truffles, but we never found him. We bought a jar of cheap truffles in our local supermarket—perhaps they were from Bulgaria—and made her sniff these oily black things six or seven times a day for a week. Then one day we drove her to the woods where the villagers said if there were truffles, they had to be there. We whispered in our dog’s ear, “Go find truffles! Find truffles!” and let her go. She ran about, delighted. She paused at a spot near the foot of a small oak tree. Hadn’t she? Perfect! We brought our shovels and began to dig.
Five holes later, truffleless, and drenched in sweat, we drove home.

So, we had to leave. We had to say goodbye to Provence, and to the village we had grown to love and that had taken root in our souls. We all have to say goodbye to places we love sooner or later, and when we come home we all spend the next months or years dreaming of the place. We dote on our memories like political exiles that long to return to the mother country. We’ll talk to anyone who will listen to us about its marvels. Sooner or later, we’ll come back, we know. It’s just a matter of when. It might be ten years, or twelve, but we’ll come back. So far, Provence is stronger than anything we have brought to it, or done to it. Pray that never changes.

Go. Submit. Surrender.
View as you leave the village

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