In the late 1980’s English author Peter Mayle, and his wife, decide to live out their fantasy –leave the harried and gloomy city world of London and move to the south of France. They’re no longer simply the dreamy tourists who must bid adieu after only weeks in the Mediterranean sun, but take the plunge to become inhabitants of a beautiful old stone cottage in the lush landscape of Provence.
Mayle, with intentions on writing a novel, produced instead a memoir of their first year as expatriates in a strange new land. The Mayles discover how to survive the collision between tourist expectations and the ways of an actual native while living A Year in Provence.
A Year in Provence – The Movie and the Book
While the book is divided into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year, the 1993 television mini-series is split into four blocks – one per season – and each block into the three corresponding months. Each month is 30 minutes long, a perfect 360 minutes to come full circle on their year-long French adventure.
The movie stars the late English actor John Thaw as Mayle and Lindsay Duncan as his wife. Although the movie has a slow start, the fun begins as soon as they arrive in France and partake in a beloved French tradition – eating.
The celebratory sights and sounds of corking wine, toasting flutes, slicing bread and plate after plate of meats, cheeses and delicate desserts parade through their table. As with any movie or book set in France, food and wine co-star and take the delicious focus off people at times. As one scene proves how much food takes center stage, Thaw’s Mayle stared blankly at his computer screen for a few moments before bellowing, “Honey – what’s for supper?”
The movie does a fine job of interpreting the memoir’s themes of language barrier, quirky neighbors, and becoming familiar with “Provence-time” –the time-frame when one may expect an actual appointment to be kept in laid-back, slow country life. Could be tomorrow, could be in a month – depends mostly on mood. For the Mayles, their frustration over this phenomenon was mainly over the huge project of remodeling their French cottage which took all year.
Their growing affection for the contractors and their losing struggle against a society’s tradition, forced the Mayles to let go of their accustomed rigid schedules and adapt to country life. Their entanglement into the personal lives of the workers and their community become a frequent source of simple absurdity as they communicated not just with language but with gestures and wine.
Living the Provincial Life
Mayle describes an episode where he searches for the French equivalent of gold – truffle mushrooms. Because this fungus grows underground, certain “hunters” use dogs or pigs to sniff them out. Mayle, in keeping a promise made to an English friend, goes through shady secret meetings with truffle “smugglers” to being heaved around the forest by an enormous sniffing pig to accumulate enough truffles to take back to London.
The Mayles spend much time enwrapped in the house remodeling, tracking down French fungi, trying to learn the old world way of wine-making and competing against the favorite village champ in a bocce ball shoot-out. One rarely sees Mayle doing any actual writing – expect for the time in September when he finally sits down to work and is seen blowing off the dust on his computer.
The end product of course is Mayle’s most popular and beloved work; a descriptively and lively narrative that casually captures the seemingly unhurried yet busy year in Provence as only a master storyteller can.