I recently overheard a row in our village square. I’ll set the scene: beautiful sunny day, around about that time in late afternoon when the shadows are getting longer and one’s mind turns to having a drink. The trees are throbbing with cicadas, and the café terraces are full. Young children chase around the central fountain and a dog stirs lazily to swat a fly away with its paw.
A loud chorus of “Happy Birthday to you” echoes out in English.
The row begins. A thin gentleman in overly tight jeans, wearing the ubiquitous Panama hat of the summer visitor, loses his temper and rises from his chair: “Will you shut-up, you’re the worst kind of tourists, you think you own Provence, can’t you see that people are trying to enjoy the place?” he gestures around him to tables seething with pink-faced drinkers. His accent is American.
“You see my mother is a little deaf, so we have to sing loudly,” stammers a red-faced English gentleman also rising to his feet.
“Don’t you get passive aggressive with me,” retorts the American.
“I’m not being passive aggressive, just aggressive,” hits back the Englishman with impressive wit.
“I’ve taken down bigger than you, don’t test me,” says the Yank shoving his face into that of the Englishman.
The kids stop their game and stand staring. The dog sniffs the air, anticipating blood. Only the cicadas continue as before.
The Englishman backs down, his mum’s birthday celebrations ruined. The American returns to his iPad.
Now this scene can simply be interpreted as an over-stressed and out of place Yank overstepping the mark, but the accusation of ownership of Provence was revealing. For many, Provence sits on a pedestal as a form of earthly paradise. A reputation that has been bestowed on it by a rich literary and artistic heritage.
Each generation of writers has updated the utopia until, for Anglophones at least, we have arrived at what may be described as the Maylean consensus. In Peter Mayle’s and his imitators’ books, the locals are charming, a little too partial to wine, and prone to take the odd liberty with work on foreigners’ houses but they are essentially harmless and account for the wonderful vibrancy of the place. Provence is a benign sun-kissed environment.
The modern art movement and its contemporary successor – Metamodernism – has propagated the same myth. In art gallery after art gallery, fields blaze and blur into each other in swathes of colour, shapes are suggested, tangible lines avoided, the landscape laid open to possession by the individual imagination. When people are depicted, they are the rounded jolly figures of the naïve art movement, who bounce through life impregnable to all damage.
I’ve been writing about Provence for ten years now and only gradually come to realise how much this artistic and literary heritage frames what’s published and what people expect to read. Overstep the mark with an article and shatter somebody’s personal image of the place, and the response can be swift and aggressive. “This trash is not worthy of your website” is a response I had recently to an article by a journalist for my site www.provenceguru.com. His offence was being honest about his experience of moving his family to Provence.
Book publishers act as the guardians of the fantasy of the Provençal paradise. My first editor, an eminent figure in the London publishing industry, told me, “Don’t be afraid to make it all up for the sake of creating the right feeling,” and ever since I’ve largely complied. To my shame, whenever I’ve suggested a book closer to the truth of life in Provence I’ve quickly been dissuaded from continuing with a project.
Artistic and literary representations of Provence were, I believe, at the heart of the row I overheard in the square. They account for the American’s firmly held belief that Provence is a place where people do not chant “Happy Birthday” loudly in English. Once the theatrical scenery has been hung by the writers and artists, utopia is moulded by each individual to suit his or her desires. In the modern world the lure of a haven, however fictional, is a powerful one. And Provence is the ultimate escapist retreat.
So my tip is to be careful how you behave. A misplaced word or deed might just bring somebody’s personal vision of paradise on earth crashing down with potentially disproportionate consequences.
Jamie Ivey is the author of Ten Trees and a Truffle Dog and runs the website www.provenceguru.com
Photo: Benh Lieu Song