By Richard Goodman
It was a stone house that was big and old with many rooms and 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?
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 and rooted 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.
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. Not these words. No painting. Nowhere else do you find such a confluence of pellucid air, fierce sun, ravishing smells and tastes, and grace.
It may not be your country, but it is not altogether foreign to you, either. As M.F.K. Fisher said of her first visit to Aix-en-Provence, “I was once more in my own place, an invader of what was already mine.” It may be singular, but you can become its citizen. You may feel as if you were born there, and perhaps you were.
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.
We went to St.-Rémy in search of van Gogh’s ghost, and then walked the sun-scorched hills nearby, the Alpilles, which he painted. We drove to Marseilles, a city as unjustly feared as New York, and that’s a pity, because Marseilles is so sharply flavored and so alive. M.F.K. Fisher described the Marseilles she loved as “mysterious, unknowable,” and it will haunt you and draw you back as it did her. We went to Nîmes and walked into its amphitheater and felt dread and awe at the Roman Empire. We drove to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and watched trout swimming in the cool little stream and stayed in that pretty place until dusk at a table outdoors. We saw all these wonders and many more, and we continued to make forays into the heart of the heart of Provence all year.
Travelers’ Tales Provence mirrors this diversity in its own wide-ranging and eclectic choice of stories. These stories waft the air of Provence your way, introducing you to just a few of the myriad characters who inhabit Provence, taking you from coast to mountain, vineyard to city, just as our own journeys did.
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.
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 Provence 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.
Colette’s words I quoted are from her book, Break of Day. If you love Provence, or you are going to Provence for the first time, you must read it. The prose is as potent and sensual as those Dionysian scents distilled from Provençal flowers in Grasse. Colette had a house in St.-Tropez, and she began staying there before that fishing village was anointed by Parisians to become famous. Break of Day was published in 1928, but not an observation is obsolete. Her house was above the village, and she writes about gardening, the movements of the day, her animals, and the people who come and go, and the delicious sensual tastes of the place. Here, Mother Nature doesn’t wear a silky dress, she walks naked. Colette writes with a pen dipped in sun, oil, sweat and salt.
“What a country!” she exclaims. “The invader endows it with villas and garages, with motorcars and dance-halls built to look like Mas. But during the course of the centuries how many ravishers have not fallen in love with such a captive? They arrive plotting to ruin her, stop suddenly and listen to her breathing in her sleep, and then, turning silent and respectful, they softly shut the gate in the fence. Submissive to your wishes, Provence…they have no other desire, Beauty, than to serve you and enjoy it.”
Go. Submit. Surrender.
Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of Franceas well as a contributor to Travelers’ Tales France; Food: A Taste of the Road; and The Road Within. He wrote the Introduction to Travelers’ Tales Provence. He has written on a variety of subjects for many national publications, including The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Commonweal, Vanity Fair, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Michigan Quarterly Review.
Introduction Richard Goodman
PART ONE: ESSENCE OF PROVENCE
Aix-en-Provence — M.F.K. Fisher
The Dangers of Provence — Peter Mayle
The Shepherd’s Mantra — Francesca Rheannon
Provençal Dawn — Lawrence Durrell
The Baker — Connie Wilson
Relish the Rhône — Clive Irving
Pressing the Olive — Carol Drinkwater
Days of Pastis and Lavender — Yvone Lenard
Winemaking in the Luberon — Piers Letcher
On Eye-Opening Art — Alain De Botton
PART TWO:SOME THINGS TO DO
Cassis — Kermit Lynch
Hidden Among the Hills — Olivia Gatti Taylor
Holier than Thou — Claire Berlinski
Loving the Middle Ages — Jo Broyles Yohay
Côte d’Azur — Don George
Sportif!— Geoff Drake
Taureau, Taureau!— Indu Sundaresan
More Cheese, Please — Julie Jindal
PART THREE: GOING YOUR OWN WAY
Routes de Lavande— Patricia Cleveland-Peck
Beyond the Côte d’Azur — Deborah Abello
Spies, Salads, Old Cars, and French In-Laws — Laura Higgins
A Double Surprise — D-L Nelson
Christmas in Provence — Yvonne Michie Horn
Problem-Solving in Aix — Rosemary Lloyd
How to Tame a Tarask — Miranda Mowbray
The Saints and Spectres of the Alpilles — Constance Hale
The Provençal Sky — Michele Anna Jordan
PART FOUR: IN THE SHADOWS
Vincent at the End — Paul Gauguin
Another French Revolution — Jeffrey Tayler
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD
Tomatoes — Richard Goodman
Index of Contributors
The Shepherd’s Mantra
by Francesca Rheannon
I hesitated to say it before — thinking that perhaps I was being deceived by a late January winter thaw — but, no, Spring has arrived. I have been ensconced in this corner of Provence since September, not the gentle, sybaritic Provence of the Côte d’Azur and Avignon, but Haute Provence, a rude and wild country, where the dark alpine hills stream like a school of humpback whales toward the distant shores of the Mediterranean and sheep and lavender share the land. The wind is fierce, the people few, the soil stony. I was quickly snared by the region’s stark enchantment.
For the past week, the weather has been glorious. Warm, sunny – even when the mistral blows it has lost its winter bite. Today the sky is hazed over with a thin film of white so I decide to take advantage of the weather before it changes. I start off in the direction of Lardiers with ambitious plans to hike the three miles to that neighboring commune. But, five minutes into my walk, I get waylaid. I hear the bells of sheep, a seductive sound, archaic and wistful, and immediately a net of tranquility settles over me, stopping me in my tracks. I look across the narrow valley and there, splayed out over the hillside, undulates an intricate pattern of wooly shapes, a school of sheep-fish grazing in the deeps of the meadow. The colors of their barrel-like bodies mimic the duns of their winter forage: tans, yellows and browns, offset by the lighter stick legs flickering underneath as they munch and move.
The shepherd reclines on the earth, propped on one elbow, facing away from me. I steal up behind him to get a closer look and then remain standing some 100 meters away, watching, for perhaps 30 minutes. I have been puzzling over the shepherds around here for some time. They spend all day, every day, out with their sheep and their dogs, wandering the hills and dales of the region. When I pass them on my hikes, they respond to my “bon jour” with a warm glance of greeting flashing from their eyes, but no word passes their lips. Perhaps they have lost the knack of human speech, I wonder, fallen into disuse during the days and years of solitary roaming. (Later, my friend Génia tells me that for many years she walked the hills with an old Andalusian shepherd who joked to her that he only spoke “Sheep”.)
What do they do to keep from getting bored, I have wondered, out there with their ba-a-a-nal charges? They don’t have any earphones peeking out from under their caps, no radios that I can see or hear. I never see them carrying any books or magazines. They are always just there with their crook and their dog and the sheep. Now, observing my subject as he goes about his business, I see what shepherds do to keep themselves from getting bored: they watch sheep. Intently. With the same one-pointed absorption as his dog, the shepherd is attuned to every shift and shudder in the massed animals before him. There is a force field out there, palpable, that is composed of man-dog-sheep; it is not only the herd that acts as one organism, but the whole triad.
The shepherd calls out something. At first, I think he is talking to his sheep, and they seem to be answering him with a chorus of bleats. One group strikes up the tune, then another on the other side of the herd, then another, as a wave of ba-a-as sweeps through them. Hervé mimics them playfully. He ba-a-as; they ba-a-a back. Then he laughs.
A stream of sheep begins to pour into the adjacent meadow, and I notice the swift black shape of the dog glancing along the edges of the herd. The troop swirls in a muttonish ballet. Hervé calls out another command as one small group of rebels begins to move in the opposite direction. The dog streaks to the left, neatening up the borders of the herd as he goes. But, caught up in the excitement of the game, he gets a bit overzealous. The sheep, pressed, start to become agitated. It only lasts a second, for the shepherd sings out a warning to the dog, who drops back immediately. Then “à droit!” and the dog streaks to the right where the front flank of the herd is beginning to spread out raggedly toward a lavender field. “Arête!” And the dog drops to the ground like a stone between two wintry rows of lavender bushes. Then man and dog go back to a watchful stillness.
The minutes stretch out as I stand, transfixed, waiting. It occurs to me that while it looks like nothing is happening, something is going on all the time: observation and action are seamless. The shepherd spends his days in meditation; sheep are his mantra.
As I move off finally, I notice a pile of dead lavender wood lying at the edges of the adjacent field. It contains a resin that makes for excellent tinder, so, my hike forgotten, I return home to snatch a bag to carry my find back to the wood stove. As I walk, I ponder the life of a shepherd, my thoughts tinged with envy and admiration. Its timelessness and tranquility lures, although I know that I am irrevocably time-bound in the modern world. “He lived a life of husbandry and liberty, inhabitant and hermit, half-sage, half sorcerer, always poet…” Is it merely coincidence when the next day I pick up a book about Provence in the home of a friend and find this description of a shepherd?
A few weeks later, I take a walk in the high hills above Banon with a friend who is a visiting nurse. She tells me the story of an old shepherd who lived all alone in an ancient stone hut on the top of a mountain until well into his eighties. There, without electricity or running water, heating his little home with an old wood stove, he lived in utter contentment. One day, on one of her appointed nursely rounds to see the old man, she asked him if he ever missed having a television. “If they would show sheep on the TV, I would buy one,” he answered. Then she asked him what was the happiest moment of his life. “It was night, there was the moon, and I was with my sheep,” was his reply.
When I return to the lavender field, I see that the sheep are swarming homeward, a seemingly endless line stretching along the contours of the landscape, bells tinkling in the deepening afternoon light. The black silhouette of the dog stands sentinel alongside in the dip of a narrow valley. I look for the shepherd, but he seems to have vanished. Then, out of the bushes, I see him moving toward me, staff in hand, his sun-and-wind brown face visible now under his broad brimmed hat, his jacket slung around his shoulders like a cape. It is a figure out of the Middle Ages, or older, ancient and beautiful. With a nod of acknowledgement, we move off, each to our own direction.
Francesca Rheannon is a mid-fifties writer and teacher, independent scholar, and avid “randonneur” [hiker].
James O’Reilly, president and co-publisher of Travelers’ Tales, wrote mystery serials before becoming a travel writer in the early 1980s. He’s visited more than forty countries, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, and hanging out the laundry with nuns in Florence. He travels extensively with his wife Wenda and their three daughters. They live in Palo Alto, California when they’re not in Leavenworth, Washington.
Born to traveler parents, Tara Austen Weaver crossed her first international border at five weeks of age. She has since lived in San Francisco, London, Vienna, high in the mountains of central Japan, and on a small island off the coast of western Canada. She first traveled to Italy as an art history student and lost her heart to Tuscany while sipping Chianti on the terrace of a friend’s villa at sunset, the music of Monteverdi playing in the background. She has traveled to thirty counties and is coeditor of Travelers’ Tales Tuscany. She has been published in both the U.S. and Asia, most recently in Pilgrimage: Adventures of the Spirit.When not dreaming of future travel, she works, plays, and writes near the beach, on the foggy side of San Francisco.