Chapter 7 – A Week in Provence
You know you have arrived in Provence when you reach Montélimar, a town famous for its nougat but better known as the gateway to the south.
Passing through Montélimar in summer is like crossing into a territory whose climate and colours are strangely different. Suddenly the world is bathed in warm honeyed sunlight. When you reach the town of Orange, the fragrant scent of lavender sweetens the air and the heat throbs with the familiar sound of cigales pulsing in the trees. You are in Provence.
“We’re in the south now David,” I said. “The land of the Romans.”
David looked sideways at me and made a vague grunting sound to acknowledge my comment. He was gazing, as if hypnotised, at his iPod. Oscar and Leo were sleeping in the back seat. We’d been on the motorway for more than five hours.
I’ve never actually considered Provence as part of France. I have the same attitude toward Corsica, which to me is a Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy that has more affinities with Sicily and Sardinia than with France. When I’m in Provence I feel like I’m another country that just happens to be administered by the French republic. Provence was once a transalpine extension of Rome. When Caesar was charging with his armies up to northern Gaul to conquer the rebellious Celtic tribes, lavender-perfumed Provence was already Romanised. Towns such as Vaison-la-Romaine, Orange, Arles and Nimes were Roman trading centres with their own amphitheatres. Paris and London, cold and harsh northern places, were military outposts where Roman legions were preoccupied by the constant annoyance of putting down Barbarian rebellions.
The first time we drove through the south of France on a family holiday, Rebecca was seated next to me in our hired car and David was a small boy in the back seat with his attention riveted on his Gameboy. That was in the late 1990s, before Oscar and Leo were born. It was impossible to imagine that, a decade later, we’d be here again, this time David seated next to me and Oscar and Leo in the back seat – but without Rebecca.
I wasn’t sure David remembered much of our summers in Provence with his mother, but the subject seemed off limits. After his mother died he’d moved away to London to live with his father – Rebecca’s first husband – who had remarried and started a new family. There had been a couple of return holidays to Toronto, which at the time David still considered home, yet he pretended not to hear whenever I mentioned his mother. I concluded he was still emotionally blocked. He showed more interest in playing with Oscar and his new friend Leo. One year after he returned home to London, he referred to Oscar and Leo on his Facebook page as “my dogs”.
David was a teenager now, though still a little boy in my eyes. It was my fault to regard him as a child, of course, and he was right to insist that he was grown up now and would I please stop talking to him like he was seven years old. He was now at school in Essex, near Colchester, and was talking about a career as a sound engineer in a music studio. The last time we came here with Oscar and Leo, David was wearing black T-shirts and raving about Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. This summer he’s been listening to David Bowie. A great improvement, in my opinion.
“So you’re an Essex Man now,” I said, making another lame attempt to break the silence on the motorway.
“Oh please!” he said. He retreated back into his iPod music.
The trip south this time had been much easier than I’d feared. I’d been worried not only about David who was prone to sulky boredom, but also about Leo who needed an extra dose of his medication to bolster his immune system for the long drive. We made pit-stops every two hours to break the monotony – and to let Oscar and Leo lift their legs against a tree. When we stopped I cast a worried look around the grassy picnic areas for abandoned dogs, and was relieved when I saw none. We glided through Lyons, taking the tunnel through the city centre, and were soon winding around Valence and heading towards Montélimar.
By late afternoon we finally made it to our destination, the small village of Séguret in the Vaucluse. The cigales greeted us with their shrill symphony as my Peugeot snaked up the steep and narrow road toward the top of the village clinging to a massive shard of craggy rock. I parked the car next to a medieval stone church. When I pushed open the car door the air was hot and hissing. David climbed out and lurched toward a precipice overlooking the surrounding vineyards. Oscar and Leo scampered behind him.
“Awesome,” said David.
“Some of the best French wines come from those fields,” I said.
Like many medieval towns, Séguret was built on top of a commanding rock formation with its fortress perched on the summit. The town overlooks the Côte du Rhone wine countries that boast vintage names such as Gigondas and Vacqeyras. The historical curiosity of this region is that, for five centuries until the French Revolution, it was administered by the Pope. Starting in the 14th century the Pope – a de facto vassal of French king Philippe le Bel – was installed in the papal palace in Avignon. The famous Châteauneuf du Pape wines were named after the town where Pontiffs spent the summer months. Pope John XXII, the second Avignon Pontiff, was evidently a great enthusiast for the wines of his papal vineyards – and not only during the celebration of mass.
Another, less spiritual, particularity of the region is the dry mistral wind that whips down the Mont Ventoux and can reach speeds of ninety kilometres per hour. The mistral is so powerful that, according to legend, it can drive a man to madness – and “blow the ears off a donkey”. The trees in the area are frequently bent southward by the mistral’s force. Farmhouses in Provence have their backs to the mistral, and village bell towers are made of open wrought iron so the winds can pass through. For many residents of the Vaucluse, the pleasantly numbing effects of the pungent local wines must fortify them against the mistral’s blast.
Our rented house in Séguret was owned by Jacques Rivaud, my friend in the theatre who had offered me the Stravinsky flat in the 14th arrondissement as a rental. Jacques had quite a real-estate portfolio. He and his male companion Renaud had bought the Séguret place years ago to use as a summer home. Renaud was an old friend of mine, in fact we’d met decades ago in Paris. In those days he was working in a boring office job as a financial director at some nondescript French company. When he chucked everything to go into the theatre I wasn’t surprised. I have followed Renaud’s acting career with mounting interest, occasionally on television. He sometimes lands bit parts as periwigged French aristocrats in costume dramas. Every time we meet, I bow graciously and address him as “Monsieur le Marquis”.
At first my plan had been to find a place near Bédoin where Rebecca and I spent our honeymoon. But Jacques insisted that I take their place in Séguret. I thought it extraordinarily gracious of him given the embarrassment when I’d turned down the Stravinsky flat. I vaguely suspected Jacques was offering me the house in Séguret to show that there were no hard feelings. I accepted his offer but insisted on paying for our stay.
“Will my dogs be okay there?” I asked. Jacques and Renaud knew Oscar and Leo from garden parties in Fontainebleau.
“No problem,” said Jacques. “There’s a big black dog in the house just below and a lot of cats everywhere. But you can lock the terrace door so Oscar and Leo can’t get out.”
Jacques showed a fastidious attention to detail with practical information about the house. For the ceremonial handing-over of the keys, he asked me to come to his elderly mother’s apartment in Fontainebleau. As Maman looked on, Jacques launched into a well-scripted account of every conceivable detail of the Séguret house: door handles and locks, light switches, window shutters, coffee machine, refrigerator, television remote control, swimming pool, you name it. I left with the keys and four pages of copious notes, feeling rather like a novice stage actor who had just received instructions from a seasoned director. Doubtless how Renaud felt when he made his debut in the theatre as Jacques’ protégé.
I took the house for only a week. I didn’t want to keep Oscar and Leo in the hot Provençal climate any longer, especially with Leo’s fragile health. I realised the wisdom of this decision as soon as we arrived in Séguret. More luxury villa than standard lodging, the house was situated at the summit of the village. Given its location, it wasn’t surprising that the place had no land. A mas farmhouse in Provence – like the one I’d rented near Goudargues when last in the south of France with David and the dogs – typically featured a built-in swimming pool and a few acres of garden. The Séguret house, by contrast, was a tight and vertically constructed pad with a tiny swimming pool dug into a cement terrace. The pool looked like a large Jacuzzi. Moving through the rooms was a vertical challenge: a steep descent going down, a sharp climb on the way up. One room contained a black grand piano positioned in front of three rows of chairs – evidently used by Jacques and Renaud as an impromptu recital hall for local artistic events. I was more satisfied with the spacious master bedroom on the top floor offering a spectacular view of the Provençal countryside. David chose for his holiday headquarters a sombre guest room on one of the lower floors.
The place, in short, was perfect for a well-off gay couple in the theatre. It was somewhat less ideal for a single middle-aged university professor, his two bichons, and teenage stepson down from London. No matter, my plan was to spend the week driving through Provence, not hanging about the house in Séguret.
We had a busy social schedule. Several friends were in Provence for their holidays. Claude and Nicky were spending a couple weeks near Beaumes de Venise. And my old friend Owen Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman who owned a mas in the tiny village of La Roque Alric, was in Provence for the summer. I had been tempted to invite Camille down for a visit, and had even given her my address in Provence. But I didn’t press it with her, worried about the inevitable awkwardness with David. It was an irrational anxiety, I know. David had become someone else – no longer a small falsetto-voiced boy, now a barrel-chested teenager with baritone intonations and hair on his legs. He probably didn’t give a damn about my personal life. Still, since his mother died he’d never seen me in the presence of another woman. And for some reason I wanted to keep it that way.
As soon as we arrived and unpacked, I crashed head-heavy onto the king-size bed in the master bedroom and lapsed into a dreamy sleep. When I awoke a few hours later, night had fallen on Provence. Oscar and Leo were lying next to me on the bed, the pulsing of cigales was coming through the open windows. A magnificent vista of Provence stretched into the distance under a purple crepuscular sky.
I could hear David downstairs, he was sitting at the grand piano tapping gently on the minor notes, making the plaintive music that I recognised from my dream.
The next day we drove to Vaison-la-Romaine to meet Claude and Nicky for lunch. The restaurant, called Le Beffroi, is literally embedded in the side of the rock promontory overlooking the ancient Roman town. I knew the restaurant well. We’d had lunch on the terrace fifteen years ago with Rebecca. I suspected Claude and Nicky had chosen it for that reason. The setting, with a round fountain at the centre of a shaded courtyard, was perfect for Oscar and Leo for they had plenty of room to run about on the stone terrace.
When we arrived Claude and Nicky were already seated at a large round table with a splendid view of the town. David shyly acknowledged compliments about how much he’d grown since Claude and Nicky last saw him. When a small boy David used to actively seek the attention of adults. Now he feigned boredom at the slightest expression of interest in his life.
I looked around the terrace and thought of Rebecca. She had been right here with me. In fact, we were seated at the very same table.
“Little Leo is looking jolly,” said Nicky.
We watched the dogs dance around the small fountain, discovering new scents.
“How is the little boy?” said Claude.
“I’ve given him a double dose of the medication,” I said. “He’s reacted quite well to it. They’re both over-excited by the novelty of all these new places. I’m a little worried about the heat though.”
The waitress put down a large gamelle filled with cold water for Oscar and Leo. A few minutes later she came back and said sweetly, “Je vous écoute.” I always thought that expression odd: “I’m listening.”
I ordered a salade d’encornets with a glass of Cote du Rhone rosé. Claude and Nicky both ordered a chèvre chaud salad. David, as usual, ordered a Croque Monsieur. French cuisine was not his thing. When Rebecca and I first took him to the south of France, he was only five or six, still in his McDonald’s Happy Meal phase. When he eventually graduated to Croque Monsieurs we welcomed it as a great culinary leap forward in his personal development. Today he was still stuck there.
Claude made an attempt to draw David out with questions about his favourite songs. It was a subject that at least interested him. He told us about a file-sharing website that we’d never heard of.
“Is it legal?” asked Claude.
“Of course not!” David shot back, triumphantly. A few minutes later he wandered off with his iPod.
Nicky said: “He’s such a big boy now, every time we see him he’s shot up again.”
I said: “I sometimes try to imagine Rebecca’s reaction if she saw him now.”
Claude said: “Yes.”
A silence fell among us.
“You remember that afternoon when we were here with Rebecca?” said Nicky.
“Yes, very much,” I said.
That day was during our first holidays in Provence, before we were married. I still had a vivid image in my mind of Rebecca standing in front of the Roman ruins in the ancient city below. I had other memories. Looking at her squeezing the fruit at the morning markets in Malaucène. Watching her cross under the arched entrance leading into the ancient arena in Nimes. Standing next to her as she inspected antiques in Ile-sur-la-Sorgue. And looking down and glimpsing her painted toenails and tanned calves in the passenger seat as we drove past fields of sunflowers and lavender on the way out of Avignon.
After lunch at Le Beffroi we descended the steep, cobbled incline leading to the centre of Vaison-la-Romaine which was packed with people, mostly tourists, snaking through the crowded market streets. As we navigated through the throng I held Leo in one arm while David had Oscar on a lead. Claude and Nicky trailed us. The market stalls were brimming with the usual assortment of Provençal summer products: mountains of olives, peppers and courgettes; peaches, melons and strawberries; ropes of garlic; lavender-scented soaps; strings of every imaginable sausage and vast assortments of pungent cheeses. And of course, unlimited supplies of local of wines on offer – Gigondas, Cairanne, Vacqeyras, Châteauneuf du Pape, Rasteau, and Beaumes de Venise. The ambrosia of the gods. While Nicky was poking about in the stalls, picking up and smelling soap, Claude took out his camera and took an impromptu photo of me sitting down for a rest with Oscar at my feet and Leo in my lap, both looking like small lambs.
We came onto a clearing near the Roman ruins where we bade Claude and Nicky farewell. Leo, as usual, panted excitedly to show that he wanted to go with them. On the way back to my car we walked past the ruins of a Roman residential district. I stopped to give David a brief history lesson.
“This is where the ancient Romans lived,” I said, pointing to a flat area of ruins. “You can see we’re down below in the city. There is a reason for that. Vaison-la-Romaine was a Roman town. The Romans controlled everything, they feared no one. That’s why they established the town down here. Now look up to where we had lunch today, way up on the rock. That is the medieval city, built after the Goths destroyed Rome. During the medieval period there was no more Roman civilisation. People lived in constant danger of invasion and attack. That’s why they moved to the highest points. They built their fortified towns at the top because they could be easily defended. You see, where people lived tells us a lot about their civilisation.”
David listened carefully, then said: “I think I would have preferred being a Roman.”
“But I thought you were a Goth,” I said.
“Ex-Goth,” he replied.
I had programmed the entire afternoon around the same Roman theme. Our next stop was Orange, founded by the Romans in 35 BC not long after Caesar conquered Gaul. We visited the Roman amphitheatre but most of all I wanted to show David the massive Arc de Triomphe with its inscription dedicated to the emperor Tiberius. Local traffic in Orange is obliged to snake around the triumphal arch, which stands 20 metres high just north of the town centre. I parked nearby and we approached the monument on foot. As we drew close I kept Oscar and Leo tight on their leads to avoid embarrassment. I was worried one of them would dash ahead and pee on the ancient vestige to the glory of Rome.
“Look at the form,” I said. “Does it remind you of something?”
David contemplated the monument. Oscar and Leo were tugging on their leads to get closer.
I continued. “This is the kind of triumphal arch that inspired Napoleon when he had the Arc de Triomphe built in Paris. Both were constructed to celebrate military victories. This Roman arch celebrated victories over Germanic barbarians. The Arc de Triomphe celebrated Napoleon’s victory over the Germans at the battle of Austerlitz.”
“Are the people around here descended from the Romans?” said David.
“Undoubtedly some of them, but two thousand years is a long time. The town was invaded and pillaged by your friends the Goths in the sixth century. By then the Roman Empire had collapsed. This arch is one of the remaining ruins of Rome.”
When we reached Nimes, fatigued by the heat, I had the car’s air conditioning on full blast – especially for Leo. We drove straight to the Roman coliseum where a clutch of Japanese tourists looked to be in mild shock while emerging from the ancient toilettes, tip-toeing as if to avoid contamination. The Nimes coliseum, even better preserved than the one in Rome, was a fully functioning arena that seated more than 16,000 spectators. Today, the gladiatorial spectacles of ancient Rome have been replaced by corridas where bulls are cruelly put to death before the local barbarians of the modern French republic.
Nimes and the surrounding region were once a Protestant bastion in a Catholic country. During the 16th century, the town was so associated with the Calvinist faith that it was known as “Little Geneva”. That was before the massacres and expulsions. During the Camisard rebellions in the early 18th century, the French dragonnades rounded up 300 women, children and elderly people in a local mill and burnt them alive. Today, there are still Protestant churches – or églises reformées – in the region. If you linger in the local boulangeries and other shops you will often overhear Dutch being spoken. They are not tourists. They are Dutch descendants of the Huguenots expelled from this region by Louis XIV in 1685 with the Edict of Fontainebleau. Nearly 100,000 of the French Protestants expelled from France in the 17th century fled to Holland. The Dutch who own property here have stubbornly maintained a link with their “home” country. Today the “NL” licence plate – for the Netherlands – is the most common plate in these parts after the French ones.
On our way home we made a final stop at the picturesque town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for an early dinner. David had visited the town as a small boy with his mother and me. We came here one Sunday for the antique market where Rebecca bought a few bibelots including a small wind-up music box for David. She thought its soft plaintive melody would calm him before going to bed at night. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was unchanged in the passing years, the town looked like we’d been here only last week. I parked my car right in front of the same restaurant on the river in the town’s centre where we had taken lunch with Rebecca.
“Do you remember this place?” I said.
David mumbled and fell silent. He surprised me by switching from a Croque Monsieur to a plate of French fries.
After I gave Leo another half pill of fludrocortisone, we walked along the quay and crossed over where a large water wheel was turning. Though purely decorative today, these water wheels once were the main engines of the local silk and paper industries. The churning contraption covered in a soft slime of green algae intrigued Oscar and Leo. We stopped and I took a few photographs of the three of them, David and his dogs.
We were exhausted. It was time to return to Séguret.
I learned long ago that you should be careful about giving your Parisian address to friends and acquaintances – because one day they will actually show up.
Usually it’s acquaintances, people you haven’t seen in years, who suddenly get in touch and express delight at finding you still in Paris – and hint, of course, that they’d be happy to stay at your place for a week instead of all the bother of taking a hotel room. When you live in Paris, you eventually learn to say no.
I wasn’t unaware that the same rule applied to Provence. I’d read Peter Mayle’s bestselling book A Year in Provence whose popularity triggered an Anglo-Saxon stampede to the south of France in search of semi-retirement utopia. Some of them had showed up on Mayle’s doorstep, expecting him to serve as their literary tour guide. Still, I hardly expected to have my week in Provence disrupted by unwelcome intruders. Which is why, when the doorbell of the Séguret house sounded, my first thought was that it must be Camille.
My God, I thought, she has actually come down for a visit. I pictured her standing at the door, sultry and gorgeous in a light summer dress and sunglasses. As I got to my feet and started climbing the steep stairs to the top of the house, my mind was racing with expectation, rehearing how I was going to welcome her. Camille’s presence was going to be a surprise for David. But he would adjust – he was a teenager now. Oscar and Leo followed me up the stairs, sensing my nervous energy. The frisson was exciting. This holiday was about to turn into something wonderfully unexpected.
When I pulled the door open with a welcoming smile, ready to boom my surprise and delight, I was so confused that I just barely managed conceal my astonishment. It was my Fontainebleau neighbour Olivier.
“Olivier!” I said. “What a surprise.”
Standing next to Olivier was a beautiful, long-limbed brunette who he introduced as Pétronille. She purred a greeting while fixing me with her large brown eyes.
“Hope you don’t mind,” said Olivier. “We’re just passing through Provence on our way to the coast.”
“Not at all,” I said. “Delighted to see you. Please come in.”
Now I remembered. I had told Olivier about my Provence plans. I’d even given him the address in case – in the unlikely event – he might be passing through. And there he was, passing through with his latest squeeze.
“C’est beau,” said Olivier, taking in the view of the Vaucluse countryside from the balcony. He looked like a well-tanned French film star breezing through on his way to the Cannes film festival. They were, in fact, on their way to Saint-Raphael not far from Cannes.
Oscar and Leo were delighted by the sudden commotion of new visitors. David was slightly more cautious, though Pétronille quickly won him over with her attentions in English. After a few minutes he was infatuated. When Olivier went out to fetch two cases from his car, I realised they would be staying the night. I showed them a spare room close to mine.
“So tell me, where did you two meet?” I said as we sat on the balcony drinking chilled rosé.
“You won’t believe it,” said Olivier, “we met at the Sunday market in Fontainebleau.”
“How charming,” I said.
I had shown up at that Sunday market with Oscar and Leo many times, but had returned home with nothing more than olives, apples and soft Brie. I turned to look at Pétronille, who was languorously stretching her long and shapely pins and wiggling her toes.
“You know,” I continued, “that’s what I miss most about Fontainebleau since moving up to Paris – the Sunday market.”
Pétronille vanished after drinks to have a shower. An hour later she re-emerged like a French film actress in a camisole and loose shorts. When the sun started to soften I suggested heading out to a restaurant, perhaps to Malaucène, but Olivier insisted on making dinner for everyone at the house. In fact, he and Pétronille had already planned it and done the shopping. Pétronille made an avocado salad in a huge bowl while Olivier put merguez sausages on the balcony barbeque. There was plenty of Vacqueyras wine purchased at the market in Vaison-la-Romaine.
After my initial reaction of mild astonishment, the evening turned out to be an unexpectedly enjoyable. The presence of Olivier and Pétronille provided David with a timely distraction from my pedantic lectures about Roman history. It actually felt good to have a familiar face at the house. I was at first surprised when Olivier and Pétronille went to bed early, though quickly discovered the reason. When I retired to my room, just above theirs, there was an unmistakable sound of muffled groaning coming up through the ceiling. I knew Olivier was an athletic seducer of women, and very successful at it. On this night he was in Olympian form. The following morning the lovebirds were up early, stretched out on towels next to the tiny swimming pool.
“We made some coffee, hope you don’t mind,” said Olivier. Pétronille smiled at me brightly, then yawned.
They were gone by noon. They left in purposeful haste, just as they had arrived. Pétronille gave David a tight hug and kissed him on both cheeks. I stood mechanically at the door, holding Leo in one arm and waving with the other, watching Olivier’s black Lexus creep down the steep incline towards the bottom of Séguret.
The strange thing was that, after they had gone, I actually missed them.
We had a busy day ahead of us. First on the programme was a trip to the top of the Mont Ventoux, then to La Roque Alric to visit Owen. The Provençal heat was throbbing, not unusual for late July, but for David used to the English weather it was a shock to his system. It didn’t help that he refused to get out of his black T-shirts and heavy jeans. Oscar and Leo were taking the heat hard too. I was constantly taking them into the bathroom and hosing them down with cold water, which meant that most of the time they both looked like drenched rodents.
A drive to the peak of Mont Ventoux, I thought, would expose us to a fantastic view and some cool air.
“You can cool off up there,” I told David. “It’s like going skiing, but without the snow.”
The Mont Ventoux, named after the ancient pagan god Vintur, rises above upper Provence like Vesuvius over Pompeii. In the 14th century the Italian poet Petrarch, famous for his infatuation for the lovely Laura, climbed Mont Ventoux where he read from Saint Augustine. In modern times, the mountain has defeated more than a few cyclists as the most punishing and gruelling segment of the Tour de France. The British cyclist Tom Simpson died mysteriously at the summit in 1967, allegedly from lack of fluids though the exact cause of his death was never elucidated. I first encountered the mountain during our honeymoon when we were staying in a large rented house near Bédoin nestled at the foot of Mont Ventoux. We were so close that we couldn’t see the peak.
I hadn’t anticipated how frightening a drive to the top of a mountain could be. It was like Dante’s Inferno in reverse. As my little Peugeot crawled slowly up hair-raising inclines of white limestone, David gripped his seat and gasped while Oscar and Leo barked with anxious excitement.
“Wow man – this is scary!” said David.
“Just let me concentrate – please!” I said.
My main goal was to make it to the top without losing my nerve, terrified of hurtling off the edge and plummeting into the cedar and beech trees below. When we finally reached the top, it was like landing on the chalky surface of the moon. There was very little except a domed weather station and, mercifully, a small shop where we could buy coffee and cakes. The view was magnificent. Oscar and Leo, racing about on the calcified ground in the cool wind, were as happy as polar bear cubs. I took David to a spot where we could look out across the vast stretches of Provence’s vineyards. Directly below we could see the town of Bédoin.
“Your mother and I once spent a summer in that town,” I said.
David said nothing, but contemplated the view.
The drive back down was, much to my relief, easier on my nervous system. The greater danger was the reckless drivers of Vaucluse. Even by Parisian standards, drivers in the south of France are absolutely mad. They take hairpin turns at Formula 1 speeds. If they are directly behind you on a rural road while you have the effrontery to keep to the speed limit, you are treated to rude honking, exaggerated hand gestures, and violent verbal abuse. Cars with “84” licence plates for the Vaucluse are the worst. The locals here are devoid of even the most basic courtesies behind the wheel of a car. When I see an 84 plate behind me I get out of the way because I know a lunatic is coming. It’s something they don’t tell you about in all those lavender-coloured travel books about the paradise of Provence.
Driving on these roads, a week in Provence is enough for me.
“I’ve brought an Englishman with me, I hope you don’t mind,” I called out as we approached Owen’s house near the top of La Roque Alric.
I was referring to David, who despite growing up in London still spoke with a Canadian accent. Owen smiled warmly and welcomed us with open arms like a Celtic warlord.
As we climbed the sharp incline towards Owen’s house, Oscar and Leo scampered madly ahead. I spotted places where I’d taken photos of Rebecca. Nothing had changed.
La Roque is a tiny village of two dozen stone houses that cling to an enormous craggy rock like barnacles to the hull of a shipwreck. The village, lofted high on the jutting rock, possesses a spectacular view of the Dentelles de Montmoreil, the jagged ridge of limestone mountains that embroiders the foothills of Mont Ventoux.
I hadn’t seen Owen for nearly a year and frankly felt guilty about it. Like many of my old friends in France, we’d met in Paris more than twenty years earlier. At the time Owen was a young academic who’d worked as an anthropologist in Madagascar, spent some time in Holland, and eventually found a research job in Avignon. I first met him when he showed up one night at a boozy British expat party at a friend’s place near the Square des Innocents. Owen was remarkable for his physical appearance, part Viking, part Trappist monk. His beard was crowned with a medieval crop of thick hair framing a face that could have inspired the creators of the Bayeux tapestry. He was, above all, immensely engaging, always interesting, and sometimes impossibly uncontrollable – especially when he got on to the subject of “Anglo-Saxons”. Owen despised the English, more out of Welsh historical duty than genuine sentiment.
The term “Anglo-Saxon” is admittedly contestable, and perhaps not even advisable. As Owen once observed, “Anglo-Saxons don’t exist, they are a Germanic people who invaded Britain in the sixth century and expired in the eleventh century.” Historically, I suppose, he was right – 1066 and all that. And yet the Anglo-Saxon endures as a mythic Anglo-American specimen that dominates the world. When I was a small boy one of my cousins, Margaret, solemnly explained to me that one day all English-speaking countries – Britain, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – would join together to form a great power called “Anglo-Saxonia”. I was about nine or ten at the time, Margaret was perhaps eleven. I took her prediction very seriously. It seemed plausible. In primary school in Toronto I sang “God Save the Queen” every morning and every classroom featured a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and a large map of the world showing the British empire in red.
The French make no distinction between Americans, British and the rest of the English-speaking world. I’m now used to hearing the term “Anglo-Saxon” and even use it when speaking in French. I am careful around Owen – especially in late-night drinking sessions. Just hearing the term can set him off like a tinderbox. You know Owen is drunk when he starts railing against “English bastards”. He once told me that, at the outset of every academic term, he warns his French students that if they ever use the phrase “Anglo-Saxon” in an essay they will fail the course.
Owen expected me, born to Scottish parents, to be resolutely behind the Celtic revolt against the English bastards – and was always disappointed when I was cool to the cause. I’ve enjoyed playfully putting him before the historical facts – notably, that the conquest of Wales and Scotland occurred after the French Normans had established themselves on the English throne. The Anglo-Saxons were out of power by then. His beloved Wales was crushed by the “Norman fist”.
French history was no different – a violent saga of conquest, oppression, and nation-building by the victors. Foreigners tend to regard France as a single nation, a republic united and indivisible. But that’s a myth. France is cut in two pieces. You have only to watch the French evening weather forecast to know that. The weather lady on French television gives you the forecast for two regions: north and south of the Loire river. Historically, France was two linguistic zones based on the same dichotomy: the langue d’òc was spoken in the south, and the langue d’oïl in the north. The northern langue d’oïl was a form of Old French. In the southern regions of Occitan, the langue d’òc was a romance language descended from Latin and the Roman empire. Both tongues were named after the word “yes”. We know, of course, which language triumphed. France is a nation forged by the victorious Franks whose capital was Paris. The people of the Romanised south were conquered by the northern French. Perhaps that’s why Owen liked living in the south, amongst his ancient Celtic brethren.
Fortunately for Owen, there were not many English people in the Vaucluse. Many of the Peter Mayle groupies in Provence had returned to Britain after the collapse of the pound devastated their retirement income. Occasionally there was a story in one of the London papers about a City investment banker buying a château in the Loire. But Provence had lost its cachet for the well-to-do British, who today seemed to prefer Tuscany.
Provence was never a natural home for Brits anyway. The expat British colony that still exists in France is on the west coast in Aquitaine where the Anglo population today is more than 30,000. Many of them live in the Dordogne region, which is so English that it’s referred to as “Dordogneshire”. Aquitaine is a natural home for nostalgic Brits. Historically, the region was once English territory and Brits still call Bordeaux wines “claret” – a word rarely used in France. I’ve often wondered whether the English have an instinctive homing instinct for Aquitaine, like the Dutch Huguenots who buy land and spend summers in the region around Nimes.
It was a relief to get inside the cool interior of Owen’s old mas, which once had been an uninhabitable ruin with crumbling stone walls, broken shutters, and bottom rooms open to the wind like an old barn. For centuries the house had been used, like many homesteads in the Vaucluse, for the artisanal manufacture of raw silk supplying the international market via Lyon. Owen fixed up the place with his own hands and a few tradesmen hired locally. Many of these small Vaucluse towns, like Séguret, have been colonised by wealthy Parisians who – like Jacques and Renaud – come south mainly in the summer.
There is no commercial activity in La Roque Alric, not even a boulangerie. The only non-residential buildings are the Mairie just across from Owen’s place and a small church at the highest point sculpted into the rock. I have a photo at home of Rebecca and me standing together in front of that Mairie building. Perhaps it was Owen who took it, I couldn’t recall. It shows me standing on a step behind Rebecca with my hands affectionately on her shoulders. When I was here last summer with David and the dogs, I posed with David at exactly the same spot in precisely the same pose – but with David standing where his mother had stood more than a decade earlier. I kept the two photos displayed side-by-side in my Parisian bedroom.
I put down a bowl of water for Oscar and Leo and we settled into Owen’s comfortable sitting room with a stunning view of the Dentelles. David wandered into the family room and switched on a satellite television channel in English.
“I heard on the radio driving down that the Vaucluse has become a bit dodgy,” I said.
I’d read in one of the local papers about a double murder in the nearby town of Le Pontet. An old couple had been found tied up on their bed that had been torched by the murderer. The couple, who everyone in the town said were friendly and quiet, had been brutally tortured before being burnt alive. The suspect apparently was their mysterious Korean neighbour – a woman.
“Horrifying,” I said. “I didn’t know you had a Korean population down here. North Korean?”
“Le Pontet has seen worse,” he said. “During the war the Italians occupied the Vaucluse, they got here before the Germans. In Le Pontet, the bloody Italians killed and ate every local cat – except the one belonging to the local butcher. The residents later credited that cat’s survival partly to the fact that it sat in the butcher’s window all day, and partly to the fact that the Italians feared they would get no non-feline meat from the butcher if they killed and ate it.”
“I imagine the dog and cat population decreased considerably around here during the war,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” he replied, “Oscar and Leo are safe. We eat cats only.”
I instinctively glanced across the room at Oscar and Leo, who were lying in the shade near the kitchen.
Owen fetched a bottle of Beaumes de Venise wine. I had come partly to help him celebrate a great victory. Until very recently, he had been homeless. Or rather, he’d been legally barred from entering this house. After three years of acrimonious legal battles, Owen had finally reclaimed possession of his house from the tenant who was stubbornly refusing to move out. That’s why Owen’s wife Anne wasn’t here. For most of the year they lived in Montreal where Owen now had a faculty position as a professor of anthropology at McGill University. Anne was at home in Quebec waiting for him to clear out the “grosse vache”, as he called the French woman who’d been squatting in the house. Owen was here to get the house cleaned up and back in working order. I was arriving with David and the dogs only a week after he’d finally kicked out the Grosse Vache and taken back his domicile.
We savoured the Beaumes de Venise nectar while Owen recounted his Herculean stable-cleaning.
“I’d tried everything,” he said, “Cajoling, playing nice, offers of money, implied threats. Nothing worked. The only thing left was murder – or a lawyer.”
I failed to comprehend why they’d rented the house in the first place, though I suspected it was because Owen and Anne wanted the rental income. They had once lived year-round in Provence but that lasted only a couple years before the boredom of long winter months in the south of France defeated Anne’s spirits. She finally compelled Owen to move back to Montreal so she could be closer to her work in book publishing. Owen had been reluctant at first, but when an academic chair at McGill was dangled before his eyes they packed up and moved back to Canada.
That’s when the Grosse Vache came into the picture. She was a local French woman who had been recommended to them indirectly. Based on first impressions she had seemed reliable and, most importantly, had agreed to vacate the premises the following spring so Owen and Anne could move in for the summer. That didn’t happen. The Grosse Vache refused to budge. A polite epistolary exchange followed. She still refused to move out. Courteous formalities turned sour, then hostile. Owen and Anne quickly learned what many landlords in France have known for decades: it’s almost impossible to evict a tenant in this country. It’s even harder when you are foreigners who live in Canada and your cleverly stubborn tenant is French. The Grosse Vache not only refused to move out, she also stopped paying the rent.
“Didn’t you know how difficult it is to dislodge a tenant in France?” I said.
“It was worse,” he said. “She was not even a tenant. There was no lease. We asked her to just move in and watch the place for us, like a friend, and pay us an agreed sum as rent. When we asked for the place back, she actually claimed it was her home. And the French law took her side!”
I was beginning to grasp the nature of their predicament. Owen had opted for a “friend” using their house to avoid paying tax on rental income. I refrained from putting the question to him.
“But why on earth did you trust someone you didn’t know?” I said. “You know how it is in France – tenants are always screwing landlords, and landlords are always screwing tenants.”
“I had nothing to do with it – it was Anne who arranged everything. I’m the one who had to fix the problem. Three bloody years.”
Owen filled my glass again.
“Tell me one thing,” I said, “was the Grosse Vache really a fat cow? I mean, what did she look like?”
“A cunt,” he snapped.
“What about the people in the village, couldn’t you get them on your side? If they had given her the cold shoulder, surely she would have found life unbearable in a tiny village like this.”
“She won them all over,” he said. “She probably slept with half of them.”
“So how did you finally get her out?”
“Persistent legal threats. We finally had a court date and she didn’t want to spend money on lawyers. So she did a runner.”
“Thank God for that,” I said. “At least you’ve avoided a long prison term for manslaughter – or womanslaughter, in this instance. I trust you’ve changed the locks.”
After dinner, and a second bottle of Beaumes de Venise, we went out for a late evening walk with Oscar and Leo to the top of the village, lurching up the pathway like a band of ancient Celts. Looking out over the vineyards stretching towards the Lubéron to the south, the night sky was corrugated with luminous hues of blue and purple.
David looked awed as he gazed into the distance.
“You don’t get views like that in Muswell Hill,” I said.
I picked up little Leo and held him up with both hands so he could look out over the vast tableau of Provence on this luminously purple night.
“Bloody gorgeous,” said Owen.
After we ambled back down the narrow path, Owen wished us good night and we headed towards my car to make the short drive home. I took Leo in my arms and David carried Oscar.
When I turned and looked back, Owen was lurching head-heavy towards his door. He was finally master in his own house.
On our final day in Provence I had only one last thing to do. I was feeling anxious all week about this moment. Now it had arrived.
It was early morning and David was still in his bedroom. I popped my head in and told him I was taking Oscar and Leo into town to fill up my tank before we set off after lunch. I wanted to get it done in the morning, I said, because in Provence the shops shut down from noon till three o’clock due to the heat. If you drive into a town like Beaumes de Venise or Bédoin at noon to do grocery shopping, you will find yourself in a shuttered ghost town.
I was anxious during the drive into Bédoin. I couldn’t return home to Paris without visiting La Madeleine. Yet I was terrified of gong back there.
La Madeleine was the house where Rebecca and I had spent our honeymoon. It took its name from the 11th century Roman-style chapel on the same private grounds. We rented the house for the entire month of July that summer and stayed for part of August. In the mornings we drove to the nearest town having its market that day to buy olives, lettuce, red peppers and cheeses. In the early afternoon, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, we relaxed on the spacious walled terrace under a canopy of trees reading books – I remember Rebecca was reading A Year in Provence – as the lavender scent filled our nostrils and the sweet taste of rosé moistened our tongues. On Bastille Day, we sat on our bedroom balcony watching the fireworks lighting up the republican sky with magnificent colours above the church of Saint-Pierre in Bédoin.
To steady my nerves I drove into Bédoin and parked to take Oscar and Leo for a walk in town. We started at the war memorial and passed the market stalls busy with the usual morning commotion. An old peasant man was deftly peeling off slices of goat’s cheese with a small knife and leaving the carvings on a plate for passers-by to taste.
“Fromages fermiers!” he called out.
I stepped up, nodded amiably, and performed a ritual degustation.
“Excellent,” I concluded. I bought a ronde of Banon cheese, a regional speciality in the Vaucluse.
The drive into the foothills was a trance-like experience as the car moved through sunlight and shade. Each curve in the road, every patch of brush, every boulder along the road seemed strangely familiar. I was certain that Rebecca, seated next to me as we took this same road many times, had looked upon all these same things. I glanced to my right to confirm that she was not there. Then I reached back to caress Leo’s paw. Faithful to ritual, Leo licked my dry knuckles with his soft pink tongue.
When we reached La Madeleine, I drew up on a patch of gravel at the side of the road and switched off the ignition. I must have sat in the car for ten minutes, silent, staring across the road at the gate we had once passed through many times. Oscar and Leo did not move. They remained quiet in the back seat. I pressed the button to roll down the back windows a few inches to let in some cool air.
I finally got out and walked across the road towards the gate. I noticed a small sign with information about tourist visits to the Madeleine chapel. It was closed on this day, however. I couldn’t use it as a pretext for pushing the gate open and walking onto the property. I would have to be a discreet trespasser and hope nobody was there to stop me. I started to rehearse in my mind what I might say if spotted and questioned. Perhaps I should just tell the truth, explaining that I’d spent my honeymoon here, that my wife was deceased, and that I’d come back to reconnect with cherished memories.
I pushed open the gate and walked softly down the footpath. The small medieval Madeleine chapel was perched on the right. The sun was pounding and the fields were pulsing with the sound of cigales. The small apricot orchard was still there. Rebecca and I had picked fruit from those trees. I could see her standing under the branches in her sunglasses and wide straw hat, reaching up to pull down ripened apricots. Just beyond the orchard stood the large pale stone house, blanketed in vines and surrounded by cypress trees.
I kept moving forward, a benign intruder, as the gravel crunched softly under my feet. The house seemed unoccupied. Soon I was on the terrace where Rebecca and I had spent so many long, idle afternoons relaxing in the shade. Nothing had changed. This was the setting of the happiest moment in my life. And here I was, more than a decade later, at this sacred place, alone. I stood gazing at that terrace for what seemed like ten or fifteen minutes.
On my way out, walking at a quicker pace, I felt the presence of someone watching me. I glanced to my left and caught sight of a figure in the doorway of the chapel. I didn’t look up. I put on the plausible air of a naïve tourist inspecting the grounds out of historical curiosity.
When I reached the car, Oscar and Leo were still sitting in the back seat waiting quietly. I sat in the car for five minutes before driving off, making my way along the twists and turns of the torturous Col de la Madeleine on our way back to Séguret.
My pilgrimage was over. After lunch, we were on the motorway heading north toward Paris.
Matthew Fraser’s Blog