I suffer from a predictable francophilia. It's true. I'm a sucker for the language. Not only does it sound good, it feels good to speak. I'm a Tour de France junkie, even though I really don't understand the way it works. I know the geography of the country almost the way I know my home state. And if someone offered me the chance tomorrow to jump on a plane and head to the Dordogne or back to Provence or Languedoc, I'd saymais oui, pack my bag, pop a Xanax (mais oui, I have a fear of flying) and go.
But it's also easy to romanticize a place. When I was in Provence in 2006 I rented a house, La Colle, that was twenty minutes down a 'white road' (which translates from the English into 'narrow, rock-studded, rain-gutted wildlife-infested track not suitable for a rental car'). This was accessed after climbing into the mountains on successively smaller roads and making a right turn at the petrol pump. A petrol pump. Not a gas station.
The house itself was an old barn with a stone vault where the animals had been kept and though it had been skillfully re-habbed, there was nothing to be done about the scorpions and wolf spiders, wasps and mice, frequent thunderstorms and power outages and general shortage of water. I confess I didn't last the week there. In fact, I made an exquisite ratatouille with produce picked up at the market in Forcalquier, the last outpost of civilization, spend two unquiet nights at La Colle, then drove back to Arles, thankfully never having had to use the epi-pen on a scorpion bite.
I thought of La Colle when I re-read A Pig in Provence over the weekend. Georgeanne Brennan's thoughtful memoir describes the years she and her first husband (and children) spent in Provence in the 1970's (in other words, way before the Peter Mayle-ing of Provence. They came to make goat cheese, having no previous experience of know-how and though they lieved in the Alpes-Maritime and La Colle is in the Luberon, both places, at the time Brennan lived there, were thoroughly rural and rugged.
Her affection for the land and nostalgia for the fascinating experiment--she and her husband did succeed as cheesemakers, but circumstances forced them back to California after a few years and she has not lived there full-time since--make compelling reading. The first time I read it, I had fantasies of doing something similar in a similarly-outback part of Provence or Languedoc. But as with Carol Drinkwater's captivating memoir, The Olive Farm, the harsh realities of living off the land, as well as the sheer work and expense involved can never be fully obscured nor fully captured by the prose.
Reading A Pig in Provence this time, with its detailed descriptions of a sheep's breech, the annual pig slaughter and the rugged transhumance in which large herds of sheep and goats are shepherded from lower Provence into the mountains of Haute Provence, remind me that I never made it through a week at La Colle and that it takes a person of resilience, devotion and a writerly's eye to pen such a memoir.