By Julie Michaels
An English journalist once asked expatriate writer Peter Mayle to describe the difference between the French and the English in a single word.
Mayle, author of the best-selling memoir, "A Year in Provence," thought for a moment, and replied, "Lunch." Especially Sunday lunch, which for him best exemplifies la vie doucement - the good life - in the south of France.
Those of us who have dined within view of the vineyards and cherry orchards of Provence know his meaning. Fresh produce from the market, figs from a local tree, a baguette handed to you by the baker who made it that morning, and a long afternoon with nothing to do but enjoy a fine bottle of wine.
So when Peter Mayle arrived in Boston last week to read from his new book, "French Lessons," to standing-room-only crowds at the French Library, we invited him to Sunday lunch. We chose Biba's for the occasion. Though the restaurant's menu is more fusion than French, it has an excellent wine list; and if there were no olive trees to admire from Biba's picture windows, the Public Garden was an honorable substitute.
Mayle, 62, may have a French soul but he has a British tailor. Silver-haired and handsome, he arrived for lunch in a brown tweed jacket, gray slacks and tasseled loafers, delighted at the prospect of a decent meal to launch his American book tour. ("I think I'll have the veal," he declared. "In France, those Normandy cows seem to have aged past veal by the time they reach Provence.")
In the 12 years since Mayle published "A Year in Provence," his life has changed dramatically. He first arrived in the south of France in 1986, a British-born former advertising executive who'd decided to exchange the damp chill of England for life in a French country village. Mayle and his wife had enough money to last six months, during which time he hoped to write a novel. The couple bought a 200-year-old farmhouse and started fixing it up.
The novel was put on hold, as Mayle grew increasingly fascinated with the cast of local characters whom he'd hired to repair his house. He decided to write a "small" book about the experience.
"My British publisher didn't have much hope for it," Mayle said, over a glass of white wine. "He did an initial printing of 3,000 copies. I thought I'd give them as Christmas presents."
That "small" book eventually sold more than a million copies in England, almost five million worldwide (in 27 languages), followed by a second best-seller, "Toujours Provence," which combined to make Peter Mayle a very wealthy man. "A Year in Provence" also launched a slew of copycat memoirs that have amused even Mayle. "Tales of converted pigsties in Ireland, nunneries in Italy," Mayle said with a laugh, "there's no end to the manuscripts they send me."
Not so amusing was the fact that success forced the Mayles to leave the south of France. "Right before the book was published, my wife urged me to change the names of the village and the people I wrote about," Mayle recalled. "I didn't want to because I thought it would damage the authenticity. Besides, I never expected that anyone would actually read the book."
Read it they did - and travel to Provence by the busload. "At first it was exciting," Mayle recalled. "We had people come up the drive from Japan, from Australia, from Germany, England, Sweden. America. Then it just increased in volume until we have four, five, six visits a day."
The final straw came when the Mayles were sitting down to Sunday lunch with friends. Hearing splashing from his backyard, Mayle went outside to discover a group of Italians frolicking and videotaping themselves in his swimming pool.
The Mayles fled, not back to England, but to the United States, where they settled in a beach house on the eastern tip of Long Island. It was a logical move, since four of Mayle's five adult children from two previous marriages live in the U.S. His daughter, Mary, is a fashion designer in New York, where Mayle actually began his career. "I didn't have a university degree," he said, pausing to inquire whether Biba's had a cheese course. (They didn't.) "The Brits are sticklers for that sort of thing, so I couldn't get an advertising job in London."
In fact, one of the suprising things about Mayle is that, despite the bespoke tailoring and the Oxbridge accent, he doesn't feel very English. His father worked for the British Colonial office, and while the young Peter was educated in England, his family lived all over the world. By the age of 16, Mayle had moved 17 times. "So, you see," Mayle explained, "there is no quaint little village in England calling me home."
But there was a quaint little French village tugging at his heart. "There's such texture to life in France," said Mayle, "the architecture, the cuisine, the landscape. In America, I felt deprived of oxygen."
The Mayles returned to Provence in 1997, their reentry celebrated in another bestseller, "Encore, Provence," and they have lived there, happily, ever since. Of course, not in the same home. Their first house, in Menerbes, has become practically a tourist shrine. And the natives are still a bit prickly about Mayle's deft sketching of their manners. ("Yes, it's true the café owner is upset because I described him as being brusque," Mayle said. "Which he is.") The Mayles now live, more discreetly, in Lourmarin, a village several miles to the south, "where nobody makes much of a fuss," said Mayle.
In his new book, "French Lessons," Mayle, perhaps wisely, has wandered farther from home. Subtitled "Adventures With Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew," it chronicles Mayle's travels all over France, attending village festivals to celebrate the local specialty, be it snails, frogs legs, or a particularly pungent cheese. The idea for the book came to the writer one Sunday, when a friend invited him to church in the village of Richerenches. He was told, rather mysteriously, to bring a truffle.
"I arrived at the church," Mayle recalled, "and there were five giant truffles lined up in a row waiting to be blessed. When they took up the collection, we all donated our truffles to be auctioned for the poor. Then, of course, we sat down to a glorious lunch."
Mayle appreciated that these festivals were seldom held for the benefit of tourists - in many instances, he was the only foreigner in the crowd. "The French simply love a good meal," he explained, deflecting Biba's dessert menu for a second glass of Burgundy.
And so does Peter Mayle. In fact, it's the author's almost schoolboy enthusiasm for his subject that so endears him to readers. Can the cheese really be as transcendent as Mayle describes? Can the bouillabaisse be as sublime? Who cares? The man so obviously enjoys living his fantasy - okay, our fantasy - that we can forgive him his adjectives.
And the fact is that Mayle gets Provence and the Provencal just about right. Full disclosure: this reporter has owned a house in the south of France for the past decade (fulfilling her husband's French fantasies) and reading Mayle's books makes for a pretty good crib sheet. He seldom bothers with the high-end, three-star restaurants (nor do we), but Mayle can capture the ambience of market day in Carpentras better than just about anyone.
Nor does the author take himself too seriously. Mayle shrugs off the parodies and frequent carpings of the (mostly British) press that claim he has lured a locust of tourists to the south of France. He knows there's still plenty of the French lifestyle to go around.
"Recently, a German journalist was interviewing Jacques Chirac and mentioned he was coming to the south of France to interview me," Mayle said, as the waitress delivered his double espresso. With great disdain, it seems, the French President sniffed, "Ah yes, my wife reads him
I don't need an Englishman to explain my country to me." Mayle roars with laughter as he retells the slight.
But if the President of France doesn't need him, we're happy to take as many of Peter Mayle's insights as he's willing to share. After all, how can you not like a guy who, upon thanking us for lunch, announces that he's going for a stroll in the Public Gardens to look at the ducks?
"You know," said Mayle in a parting thought, "when an American looks at a duck, he says, 'Oh, how cute.' When a Frenchman looks at a duck, he wonders, 'How shall I cook him?'"