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Authors: Peter Mayle

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It is perhaps because of these perplexing twists and turns that French was for centuries the language of diplomacy, an occupation in which simplicity and clarity are not regarded as being necessary, or even desirable. Indeed, the guarded statement, made fuzzy by formality and open to several different interpretations, is much less likely to land an ambassador in the soup that plain words that mean what they say. A diplomat, according to Alex Dreier, is “anyone who thinks twice before saying nothing.” Nuance and significant vagueness are essential, and French might have been invented to allow these linguistic weeds to flourish in the crevices of every sentence.

But it is a beautiful, supple, and romantic language, although it may not quite deserve the reverence that inspires a course of French lessons to be described as a
“cours de civilisation”
by those who regard it as a national treasure and a shining example of how everyone should speak. One can
imagine the dismay of these purists at the foreign horrors that are now creeping into everyday French.

The rot probably started when
le weekend
slipped across the Channel to Paris at about the same time that a nightclub owner in Pigalle christened his establishment
Le Sexy
. Inevitably, this led to the naughty institution of
le weekend sexy
, to the delight of Parisian hotel owners and the despair of their counterparts in Brighton and other less erotically blessed resorts.

The invasion of the language hasn’t stopped in the bedroom. It has also infiltrated the office. The executive now has
un job
. If the pressure of work becomes too much for him, he will find himself increasingly
stressé
, perhaps because of the demands of being
un leader
in the business jungle of
le marketing
. The poor, overworked wretch doesn’t even have time for the traditional three-hour lunch, and has to make do with
le fast food
. It is the worst kind of Franglais, and it goads the elders of the Académie Française into fits of outrage. I can’t say I blame them. These clumsy intrusions into such a graceful language are
scandaleuses
; or, to put it another way,
les pits
.

The gradual spread of Franglais is helped by the fact that there are many fewer words in the French vocabulary than in English. This has its own set of problems, because the same word can have more than one meaning. In Paris, for instance,
“je suis ravi”
will normally be taken to mean “I am delighted.” In the Café du Progres in Ménerbes, however,
ravi
has a second, uncomplimentary translation, and the same phrase can mean “I am the village idiot.”

In order to disguise my confusion and to avoid at least some of the many verbal booby traps, I have learned to grunt like a native, to make those short but expressive sounds—those
sharp intakes of breath, those understanding clickings of the tongue, those mutters of
beh oui
—that are used like conversational stepping-stones in between one subject and the next.

Of all these, the most flexible and therefore most useful is the short and apparently explicit phrase,
ah bon
, used with or without a question mark. I used to think this meant what it said, but of course it doesn’t. A typical exchange, with the right degree of catastrophe and gloom, might go something like this:

“Young Jean-Pierre is in real trouble this time.”

“Oui?”


Beh oui
. He came out of the café, got in his car, ran over a
gendarme
—completely
écrasé
—drove into a wall, went through the windscreen, split his head open, and broke his leg in fourteen places.”

“Ah bon.”

Depending on inflection,
ah bon
can express shock, disbelief, indifference, irritation, or joy—a remarkable achievement for two short words.

Similarly, it is possible to conduct the greater part of a brief conversation with two other monosyllables—
ca va
, which literally mean “it goes.” Every day, in every town and village around Provence, acquaintances will meet on the street, perform the ritual handshake, and deliver the ritual dialogue:

“Ça va?”

“Oui. Ça va, ça va. Et vous?”

“Bohf, ça va.”

“Bieng. Ça va alors.”

“Oui, oui. Ça va.”

“Allez. Au ’voir.”

“Au ’voir.”

The words alone do not do justice to the occasion, which is decorated with shrugs and sighs and thoughtful pauses that can stretch to two or three minutes if the sun is shining and there is nothing pressing to do. And, naturally, the same unhurried, pleasant acknowledgment of neighborhood faces will be repeated several times in the course of the morning’s errands.

It is easy to be misled, after a few months of these uncomplicated encounters, into believing that you are beginning to distinguish yourself in colloquial French. You may even have spent long evenings with French people who profess to understand you. They become more than acquaintances; they become friends. And when they judge the moment is ripe, they present you with the gift of friendship in spoken form, which brings with it an entirely new set of opportunities to make a fool of yourself. Instead of using
vous
, they will start addressing you as
tu
or
toi
, a form of intimacy that has its own verb,
tutoyer
.

The day when a Frenchman switches from the formality of
vous
to the familiarity of
tu
is a day to be taken seriously. It is an unmistakable signal that he has decided—after weeks or months or sometimes years—that he likes you. It would be churlish and unfriendly of you not to return the compliment. And so, just when you are at last feeling comfortable with
vous
and all the plurals that go with it, you are thrust headlong into the singular world of
tu
. (Unless, of course, you follow the example of ex-President Giscard d’Estaing, who apparently addresses even his wife as
vous
.)

But we stumble along, committing all kinds of sins against grammar and gender, making long and awkward detours to avoid the swamps of the subjunctive and the chasms in our vocabularies, hoping that our friends are not too appalled at
the mauling we give their language. They are kind enough to say that our French doesn’t make them shudder. I doubt that, but there is no doubting their desire to help us feel at home, and there is a warmth to everyday life that is not just the sun.

That, at least, has been our experience. It obviously isn’t universal, and some people either don’t believe it, or even seem to resent it. We have been accused of the crime of cheerfulness, of turning a blind eye to minor problems, and of deliberately ignoring what is invariably described as the dark side of the Provençal character. This ominous cliché is wheeled out and festooned with words like dishonest, lazy, bigoted, greedy, and brutal. It is as if they are peculiarly local characteristics that the innocent foreigner—honest, industrious, unprejudiced, and generally blameless—will be exposed to for the first time in his life.

It is of course true that there are crooks and bigots in Provence, just as there are crooks and bigots everywhere. But we’ve been lucky, and Provence has been good to us. We will never be more than permanent visitors in someone else’s country, but we have been made welcome and happy. There are no regrets, few complaints, many pleasures.

Merci, Provence
.

BOOKS BY
P
ETER
M
AYLE

“Peter Mayle [is] something of
a wonder … chronicling the scene around
him in irresistible prose.”
—Time

ANYTHING CONSIDERED

Set in the South of France, Mayle gives us Bennett, a suave English ex-pat who, running low on cash, places an ad reading “Unattached Englishman … seeks interesting and unusual work. Anything considered except marriage.” Soon Bennett finds himself impersonating a wealthy stranger and is faced with numerous complications along the way, including Sicilian
and
Corsican mafias, and the loveliest woman ever to drive a tank.

Fiction/0-679-76268-X

A DOG’S LIFE

A Dog’s Life
, enhanced by the splendidly whimsical drawings of Edward Koren, is the irresistible memoir of Boy, Peter Mayle’s adopted dog of uncertain origins and dubious hunting skills, who has clearly inherited Mr. Mayle’s gift for pedigree prose and biting wit.

Fiction/Pets/0-679-76267-1

HOTEL PASTIS

In this novel of romance, adventure, and tongue-in-cheek suspense, Simon Shaw has decided to chuck it all and transform an abandoned police station in the Lubéron into the small but world-class Hotel Pastis, only to discover the hard way that an inept band of bank robbers have chosen the neighboring village for their next heist.

Fiction/0-679-75111-4

TOUJOURS PROVENCE

Taking up where his much-loved
A Year in Provence
left off, Peter Mayle offers the reader another funny, beautifully (and deliciously) evocative tour of life in Provence. This is an enchanting portrait of a place whose characters are full of the wit, charm, and tales only those who live there could possess.

Travel/0-679-73604-2

A YEAR IN PROVENCE

In this witty and warm-hearted account that was a major national bestseller, Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the French countryside.
A Year in Provence
transports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days.

Travel/0-679-73114-8

Available at your local bookstore, or call toll-free to order: 1-800-793-2665 (credit cards only).

A luscious novel that gives us the sensual
wonders of Provence while telling a
fascinating tale of the competitive
boutique-wine trade.

A GOOD YEAR

A NOVEL

BY
PETER MAYLE

Available June 2004 in hardcover from Knopf
$2.4.00 (Canada: $34.00) • 0-375-40591-7

PLEASE VISIT
www.aaknopf.com

A selection of titles available in Vintage paperback:

Anything Considered • 0-679-76268-X
Encore Provence • 0-679-762.69-8
French Lessons • 0-375-70561-9
A Year in Provence • 0-679-73114-8

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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ads

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