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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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“My God, you’re looking old,” he said. “Do you mind if I make a quick call? I left my swimming trunks at the house where I was staying last night. They’re khaki, like General Noriega’s underpants. Very unusual. I’d hate to lose them.”

While Bennett was on the phone, we rounded up our two houseguests and three dogs and packed them in the car for the drive up to Buoux, where we were meeting the others. Bennett came out of the house and adjusted his baseball cap against the glare, and we set off in convoy, the Land Rover
and its chauffeur attracting considerable interest from the peasants, waist-deep in the vines on either side of the road.

After Bonnieux, the scenery became wilder and harsher, vines giving way to rock and scrub oak and purple-striped lavender fields. There were no cars and no houses. We could have been a hundred miles away from the chic villages of the Lubéron, and it pleased me to think that so much savage, empty country still existed. It would be a long time before there was a boutique or a real estate agent’s office up here.

We turned down into the deep valley. Buoux dozed. The dog who lives on the woodpile just past the
Mairie
opened one eye and barked perfunctorily, and a child holding a kitten looked up, small white saucers in a round brown face, at the unusual sight of traffic.

The area around the Auberge resembled a casting session for a film that had not quite decided on plot, characters, wardrobe, or period. There was a white suit and a wide-brimmed Panama; there were shorts and espadrilles, a silk dress, a Mexican peon’s outfit, scarves and bright shawls, hats of various colors and ages, one immaculately turned out baby, and, leaping from his Land Rover to supervise kit inspection, our man from the desert.

Maurice appeared from the horses’ parking area, smiling at us and the glorious weather. He was dressed in his Provençal Sunday best—white shirt and trousers, black bootlace tie, plum red waistcoat, and an old flat straw hat. His friend, who was to drive the second carriage, was also in white, set off by thick crimson braces and a magnificent salt-and-pepper moustache, a dead ringer for Yves Montand in
Jean de Florette
.

“Venez!”
said Maurice. “Come and see the horses.” He led us through the garden, asking about the state of our appetites. The advance party had just left by van to set up the picnic,
and there was a feast on board, enough to feed the whole of Buoux.

The horses were tethered in the shade, coats glossy, manes and tails coiffed. One of them whinnied and nosed at Maurice’s waistcoat, looking for a sugar lump. The youngest guest, perched on her father’s shoulders, gurgled at the sight of such a monster and leaned forward to poke one tentative pink finger into its shining chestnut flank. The horse mistook her for a fly and whisked a long tail.

We watched as Maurice and Yves Montand hitched up the horses to the open
calèche
, black trimmed with red, and the seven-seater
diligence
, red trimmed with black—both of them oiled and waxed and buffed to a state of showroom finish. Maurice had spent all winter working on them and they were, as he said,
“impecc.”
The only modern addition was a vintage car horn the size and shape of a bugle, for use when overtaking less highly tuned carriages, and to
éclater
any chickens who were thinking of crossing the road.
“Allez! Montez!”

We climbed in and moved off, observing the speed limit through the village. The dog on the woodpile barked goodbye, and we headed out into open country.

To travel in this way is to make you regret the invention of the car. There is a different view of everything, more commanding and somehow more interesting. There is a comfortable, swaying rhythm as the suspension adjusts to the gait of the horse and the changes of camber and surface. There is a pleasant background of old-fashioned noises as the harness creaks and the hooves clop and the steel rims of the wheels crunch the grit on the road. There is the
parfum
—a blend of warm horse, saddle soap, wood varnish, and the smells of the fields that come to the nose unobstructed by windows. And there is the speed, or lack of it, which allows you time
to
look
. In a car you’re in a fast room. You see a blur, an impression; you’re insulated from the countryside. In a carriage, you’re part of it.

“Trottez!”
Maurice flicked the horse’s rump with the whip and we changed into second gear. “She’s lazy, this one,” he said, “and greedy. She goes more quickly on the way back, when she knows she will eat.” A long scarlet field, dense with poppies, unrolled slowly in the valley below us, and in the sky a buzzard wheeled and dipped, wings outstretched and still, balancing on air. As I watched it, a cloud covered the sun for a few moments and I could see the rays coming out behind it in dark, almost black spokes.

We turned off the road and followed a narrow track that twisted through the trees, and the sound of the horse’s hooves was muffled by ragged, fragrant carpets of wild thyme. I asked Maurice how he found his picnic spots, and he told me that every week, on his day off, he had been exploring on horseback, sometimes riding for hours without meeting anyone. “We’re only twenty minutes from Apt,” he said, “but nobody comes up here. Just me and the rabbits.”

The forest became thicker and the track narrower, barely wide enough for the carriage. Then we turned past an outcrop of rock, ducked through a tunnel of branches, and there it was, spread out before us. Lunch.

“Voilà!”
said Maurice.
“Le restaurant est ouvert.”

At the end of a flat, grassy clearing, a table for ten had been set in the shade of a sprawling scrub oak—a table with a crisp white cloth, with ice buckets, with starched cotton napkins, with bowls of fresh flowers, with proper cutlery and proper chairs. Behind the table, a long-empty dry stone
borie
, originally a shepherd’s hut, had been turned into a rustic bar, and I heard the pop of corks and clink of glasses. All my
misgivings about picnics vanished. This was as far away from a damp bottom and ant sandwiches as one could possibly imagine.

Maurice roped off an area of the clearing and unhitched the horses, who rolled on their backs in the grass with the relief of two elderly ladies released from their corsets. The blinds of the
diligence
were drawn, and the youngest guest retired for a nap while the rest of us had a restorative glass of chilled peach champagne in the tiny open courtyard of the
borie
.

There is nothing like a comfortable adventure to put people in a good humor, and Maurice could hardly have hoped for a more appreciative audience. He deserved it. He had thought of everything, from an abundance of ice to toothpicks, and, as he had said, there was no danger of us going hungry. He called us to sit down and gave us a guided tour of the first course: melon, quails’ eggs, creamy
brandade
of cod, game
pâté
, stuffed tomatoes, marinated mushrooms—on and on it went, stretching from one end of the table to the other, looking, under the filtered sunlight, like an implausibly perfect still life from the pages of one of those art cookbooks that never sees the kitchen.

There was a short pause while I was presented with the heaviest and most accurate birthday card I had ever received—a round metal road sign, two feet in diameter, with a blunt reminder of the passing years in large black numerals: 50.
Bon anniversaire
and
bon appétit
.

We ate and drank like heroes, getting up in between courses, glasses in hand, to take recuperative strolls before coming back to the table for more. Lunch lasted nearly four hours, and by the time coffee and the birthday
gâteau
were served we had reached that state of contented inertia where
even conversation is conducted in slow motion. The world was a rosy place. Fifty was a wonderful age.

The horses must have noticed the increased weight of their loads as they pulled out of the clearing toward the road that led back to Buoux, but they seemed more frisky than they had been in the morning, tossing their heads and testing the air through twitching nostrils. Sudden gusts of wind plucked at straw hats, and there was a growl of thunder. Within minutes, the blue sky turned black.

We had just reached the road when the hail started—pea-sized and painful, stinging the tops of our heads in the open
calèche
and bouncing off the broad wet back of the horse. She needed no encouragement from the whip. She was going full tilt, head down, body steaming. The brim of Maurice’s straw hat had collapsed into bedraggled ears, and his red waistcoat was bleeding onto his trousers. He laughed, and shouted into the wind, “
Oh là là
,
le piquenique Anglais
!”

My wife and I made a tent out of a travel blanket, and looked back to see how the
diligence
was dealing with the downpour. The top was obviously less weatherproof than it looked. Hands appeared from the side, tipping hatfuls of water overboard.

We came down into Buoux with Maurice braced, stiff-legged, hauling the reins tight against the headlong enthusiasm of the horse. She had scented home and food. To hell with humans and their picnics.

The sodden but cheerful storm victims gathered in the restaurant to be revived with tea and coffee and
marc
. Gone were the elegant picnickers of the morning, replaced by dripping, lank-haired figures dressed in varying degrees of transparency. Showing through a pair of once-white, once-opaque trousers, red-lettered knickers wished us all Merry Xmas.
Clothes that had billowed now clung, and the straw hats looked like plates of congealed cornflakes. We each stood in our own private pools of water.

Madame and Marcel, the waiter, who had driven back in the van, served an assortment of dry clothes along with the
marc
, and the restaurant was transformed into a changing room. Bennett, pensive under his baseball cap, wondered if he might borrow a pair of swimming trunks for the drive home; the Land Rover was awash, and the driver’s seat a puddle. But at least, he said, looking out the window, the storm was over.

If it was over in Buoux, it had never happened in Ménerbes. The drive up to the house was still dusty, the grass was still brown, the courtyard was still hot. We watched the sun as it balanced for a moment in the notch of the twin peaks to the west of the house before disappearing beneath a flushed sky.

“Well,” said my wife, “now do you like picnics?”

What a question. Of course I like picnics. I love picnics.

The Singing Toads
   of St. Pantaléon

Of all the bizarre events organized to celebrate the mass decapitation of the French aristocracy 200 years ago, one of the most bizarre has so far gone unreported. Not even our local paper, which frequently makes front-page stories out of incidents as minor as the theft of a van from the Coustellet market or an intervillage
boules
contest—not even the news-hounds of
Le Provencal
were sufficiently well informed to pick it up. This is a world exclusive.

I first heard about it toward the end of winter. Two men in the café opposite the
boulangerie
at Lumières were discussing a question that had never occurred to me: Could toads sing?

The larger of the two men, a stonemason from the look of his powerful, scarred hands and the fine coating of dust that covered his blue
combinaisons
, clearly didn’t think so.

“If toads can sing,” he said, “then I’m the President of France.” He took a deep pull from his glass of red wine. “Eh, madame,” he bellowed at the woman behind the bar, “what do you think?”

Madame looked up from sweeping the floor and rested her hands on the broom handle while she gave the matter her attention.

“It is evident that you’re not the President of France,” she said. “But as for toads …?” She shrugged. “I know nothing of toads. It’s possible. Life is strange. I once had a Siamese cat who always used the
toilette
. I have color photographs of it.”

The smaller man leaned back in his chair as if a point had just been proved.

“You see? Anything is possible. My brother-in-law told me there is a man in St. Pantaléon with many toads. He is training them for the
Bicentenaire
.”

“Ah bon?”
said the big man. “And what will they do? Wave flags? Dance?”

“They will sing.” The smaller man finished his wine and pushed back his chair. “By the 14th July, I am assured that they will be able to perform the ‘
Marseillaise.
’ ”

The two of them left, still arguing, and I tried to imagine how one could teach creatures with a limited vocal range to reproduce the stirring strains that make every patriotic Frenchman tingle with pride at the thought of noble severed heads dropping into baskets. Maybe it could be done. I had only heard untrained frogs croaking around the house in the summer. The larger and perhaps more gifted toad might easily be able to span more octaves and hold the long notes. But how were toads trained, and what kind of man would devote his time to such a challenge? I was fascinated.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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