After finishing Graham Greene’s rather depressing The Heart of the Matter, I thought an antidote – something a little lighter and brighter – was necessary. A Year of Provence was on hand (one of those books many years ago that I never got around to reading), and had the advantage of being both very British and very French. Now that I’ve gained a bit of geographical and emotional distance from Britain, where I spent four years, I’m starting to feel a vague nostalgia for the quirks of the British, especially their capacity for understatement, irony and self-deprecation. And since I’ve never been to the legendary French countryside and may never get to go, the next best thing might just be to read gorgeous descriptions of it.

The last part didn’t work out so well, though: you feel keenly that reading about Provence is merely second best. Is there any possible reaction to A Year in Provence other than to feel a terrible compulsion to go there yourself? It’s not all because of the pretty scenery or the great food either. Mr. Mayle is a veritable font of amusing anecdotes about living in the Lubéron. Some of them revolve around the renovating and upgrading misadventures that come of moving into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse with uninsulated pipes and no central heating, but most of them are variants on the theme of the bemused foreigner encountering the strange (in both senses: new and weird) ways of the native inhabitants. He is an eager observer of as well as enthusiastic participant in the practices and customs of his newly-adopted country, and does it all with gentle good grace, moderate unflappability and a sense of humour. That’s the best kind of travelling companion in real life, and evidently in travel writing too.

Mr. Mayle’s neighbours feature heavily in the book. As he says, and as I know from experience, ‘You can live for years in an apartment in London or New York and barely speak to the people who live six inches away from you on the other side of a wall. In the country, separated from the next house though you may be by hundreds of yards, your neighbors are part of your life, and you are part of theirs.’ A memorable bunch they certainly are, and if Mr. Mayle flirts a little with caricature, these people’s antics are so enjoyable that you don’t mind. They include:

The helpful, clarinet-playing, plumber Monsieur Menicucci, who prefaces all his estimated deadlines with the disclaimer normalement (i.e. in the absence of any imaginable cause of delay), taps you with an admonitory finger in the chest while expounding on one of his theories, and is the source of what is possibly the best synonym for ‘nonsense’ in any language, patati-patata;

The disagreeable and ferociously anti-social Massot, who contemplates sowing his garden with mines (and putting up a warning sign too, which after all is the only fair thing to do) to discourage German backpacking tourists, whom he considers the bane of his life;

And the inveterate worrier Faustin, a farmer who like all born-pessimists actually feels somewhat disappointed when his predicted weather-related disasters don’t come to pass and the crop harvests are successfully conducted.

I wonder if we will encounter them again in the sequel, Toujours Provence, which is absolutely going to be added to my reading list.

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