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THE MAYLE ON SUNDAY (Tour de France 7)

The Quest for Peter Mayle

The Quest for Peter Mayle

‘It was the sight of a man power-washing his underpants’ that really brought home to Peter Mayle that he was back in the Luberon after four years away living in America! And this observation of the eccentricity of living in this part of France we can well understand. Here we are in Lourmarin in the Sud Luberon, camping for the next two weeks. We enjoyed a wonderful stay in Alsace-Lorraine in the north-east of France, and now we have driven all the way down to the south … and hopefully some hot, sunny weather. After stops in Beaune (where we enjoyed an amazing meal at our very favourite restaurant, Le Conty), and Valence (where we wimped out and stopped in a Hotel BB instead of using our pop-up tent for another night), and a flying visit to Taizé (which we have grown to love so much down through the years) we finally arrive at the beautiful town of Lourmarin.

The Luberon is the home of Peter Mayle, the celebrated author of many books, perhaps the best known being A Year in Provence. In effect he is our next door neighbour for the next two weeks. He recently sold his 18th century house on the outskirts of the village – said to be one of the finest in the area, three storeys high, shaded by enormous plane trees, with several terraces overlooking formal gardens and a large infinity pool, standing in 5.7 hectares of grounds that include an olive grove, a rose garden, two ponds and a vegetable garden, an orangery, a dove cote, a summer dining room and a wine cellar – for €6 million. He has now moved to a new home near the sleepy village of Vaugines just off the main road from Lourmarin, only a couple of miles up the road from our campsite. In fact we are sure that we can see his new home from our pitch.

Peter Mayle is one of my literary heroes. Julia tells me that I write in a similar way to him – a story-teller, a people-watcher, an observer of life – although without the success he has enjoyed. His wit and love of the good life allow him to fully engage the reader in the location and stories in his books. His stories of life in the Luberon have sold millions of copies, although his personal story moved on long ago from the farmhouse he restored chapter by chapter in his 1989 book A Year in Provence. Julia and I are tempted to engage in ‘a quest for the historical Peter Mayle’ as we understand that he is still to be seen in the area. Perhaps we will ‘bump into him’ either in Lourmarin or Vaugines in the course of our stay in this beautiful area.

Our campsite at the Les Hautes Prairies (on the outskirts of Lourmarin) is somewhat removed from a €6 million mansion. It has recently been purchased by Campersun who are in the process of doing it all up. We arrive on a hot, sunny Saturday lunchtime (far too early to be admitted) to discover that the Accueil is open. A young girl, possibly in her early 20s, takes our details. She is a little uncertain – possibly new to the job – so Arthur takes over. He does not appear to be much older but informs us that he is the Manager … so immediately he is nicknamed by us ‘King Arthur’. His family own the site (and four other sites). King Arthur speaks very good English, and we like him immediately. He has reserved a nice pitch for us with great views over the surrounding countryside. The only problem is that the Mistral is beginning to blow … powerfully … and we are somewhat exposed. I am not happy about putting our tent up on this particular pitch so we wander round the site looking for another more suitable pitch. All the ones we like are either already occupied, booked, too small, or in blinding hot sun. We meet a nice elderly Scottish couple, who remind us of John and Wendy Runcie, our friends from Beckenham. So we nickname them ‘John and Wendy’ of course.

Eventually we return to our original pitch and erect our tent in the midst of a howling wind. Some nice Germans on the neighbouring pitch offer us the use of their hammer in order to hammer our tent pegs in more quickly (we actually already have two spare hammers but don’t like to appear ungrateful). The most vocal of the Germans tells us that his name is Herman … so we nickname them ‘the Munsters’ of course. King Arthur is gradually improving the site. Needless to say it is the usual blend of brilliant and ‘not so brilliant’? The toilets are amazing. Each cubicle has a self cleaning toilet seat? People go to the toilet just to watch the seats cleaning themselves? But … and there is always a downside … there is no free toilet paper. We have to bring our own. Fortunately …  as experienced campers … we understand the system. Equally the wash up areas for dirty crockery are brilliantly designed … but there are no plugs. Fortunately we have brought our own.  We eventually get our tent up and settle in (although we both put our ear plugs in, in order to get through the night without being continually woken by the noise of the Mistral).

We wake the next morning to discover that our tent is still standing, and that it is a beautifully hot and sunny day without a breath of wind. It is Sunday (and we do not know of any English speaking churches in the area) so we go to ‘worship’ at the local ‘Super U’. There is a packed congregation, the car park is full to overflowing, and people are queuing to ‘pay their weekly tithes and offerings’ rumoured to be in the region of thousands of euros. In the afternoon we ‘baptise’ (by full immersion of course) several bags of dirty clothes to the ‘heavenly music’ of a choir of cigales sitting in the trees around our pitch.

The next day we walk into the beautiful little town of Lourmarin itself. It is very ‘chocolate boxy’ and full of cafes and shops designed for tourists. We look around for Peter Mayle but he is nowhere to be seen, We think we know what he looks like … I have researched him on the internet and seen several photographs of him. We have it on good authority that although one of his favourite restaurants is the La Source in Cadanet, he is also known to frequent the cafes and restaurants in Lourmarin. Should we meet him, however, we intend to be somewhat circumspect because we know that one of the reasons why he left the area and moved to America for a few years was because of the incessant attention he was receiving from visitors to the area. As we leave a Swiss couple move into the pitch next to ours and park their caravan immediately next to a Belgian couple on the pitch next to theirs? We sense trouble?

We wander round Lourmarin, surveying the town and getting a good sense of what there is to see here. The shops are very expensive. Julia wants to buy a bag for all our swimming stuff that she can take to the campsite pool … but they are so expensive. We stop for a coffee …which is surprisingly cheap … and are immediately confronted by a party of tourists all wearing green shirts!? The leader has a whistle which he repeatedly blows to call the party to order. Half way round his party rebel and come and sit in the same café as us. They need coffee … and omelettes! It turns out that they are from Mexico. They do not speak any French … and the waiter does not speak any Spanish? The ordering of the omelettes is hilarious … some want ham (ham not jambon), some want cheese, some want different types of cheese? The Mexicans find it all very funny … the waiter is tearing his hair out!

We return to our campsite to find that there has been an argument between the Belgians and the Swiss. The Swiss  have moved their caravan … nearer to us. When they have their evening meal … before they eat … they sing together? Are they singing grace? We notice that they also seem to be reading their Bibles in a morning just like we do? Are they Christians? We need to learn more?

In our daily Bible reading we are currently reading through 1 John … the first Letter of John (the beloved disciple of Jesus) who wrote this letter some 60 years after the ascension of Christ. This ‘son of thunder’ has by this time become ‘the apostle of love’ and writes intimately of his personal relationship with Jesus Christ – ‘that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched: this we proclaim concerning the Word of life!’ ( 1 John 1:1). We are reminded of something we read during our time in Alsace-Lorraine, written by Albert Schweitzer, where he suggested that the defining theology of the Apostle Paul was not ‘justification by faith’ but rather the mystical union of being a man or woman ‘in Christ’. We are also reading daily devotions by the Roman Catholic, Richard Rohr who suggests that ‘Christianity has as its central symbol … a naked, bleeding man who is the picture of failing, losing, and dying . . . and who is really winning – and revealing the secret pattern to those who will join him there. Everyone wins because if there’s one thing we all have in common, if we’re honest, it’s our weakness and powerlessness in one – but usually many – areas of our lives. There’s a broken, wounded part inside each of us.’  Rohr’s comments resonate very much with our own experience and convictions. I am much more ecumenically minded these days. It is not that I have ‘left the Baptist Church’ although I feel at times that perhaps ‘the Baptist Church has left me’?

The following day we set out to explore the various nearby villages which we are told are lovely. Firstly, we drive to Pertuis. We need to do some shopping at the hypermarket. As we are pushing our shopping trolley round the store we suddenly come face to face with Peter Mayle and his wife doing their weekly shop. At least we think that it is Peter Mayle? It certainly looks like him. We nod to each other in mutual recognition as authors but do not stop to converse. I know that Peter does not like to be ‘recognised’ by tourists and approached in this way. After doing our shopping we drive to La Tour d’Aigues where we stop for coffee. Amazingly we find ourselves sitting at a table next to Peter Mayle who is with members of his family and friends. Well we think it is the same man we saw in the supermarket? We once again nod to each other in mutual recognition but do not enter into conversation. It would be rude to interrupt a family party. Julia manages to buy a very nice bag at the market so she is very pleased.

We drive on to Ansouis where we have been told by ‘John and Wendy’ that at the centre of the town there is a lake? The town is actually up a hill … not a lake in sight … so we follow directions to a nearby lake where we plan to stop for a picnic lunch. When we arrive we discover – would you believe it – that Peter Mayle is having lunch at the very posh lakeside restaurant nearby. We again nod to each other … Peter is enjoying his five-course cordon-bleu lunch whilst we eat our sandwiches? After lunch we drive to Cucuron … where we find the ‘lake’ in the middle of the village? We obviously misunderstood ‘John and Wendy’s’ directions. Actually it is more like a large pond … but very picturesque. And, surprise, surprise, we come across Peter Mayle again … like us he has stopped en route for a cold beer on the way home. As ‘good Brits’ we do not impinge on each others privacy but give each other space. On our way back to our campsite we drive through Vaugines and pass Peter Mayle’s new home on the way. We think about calling in … we are sure that he would be pleased to see us  … but in the end decide against it.

We arrive back at our campsite and I have a little sleep while Julia prepares our evening meal. I am looking out across the fields towards Peter Mayle’s house in the distance. He is on the veranda and I see him pick up his mobile phone and begin to dial. A moment later my mobile phone rings. I answer it. ‘Hello’ I say. ‘Hi! Good to hear from you!’ ‘Yes!’ I am sure that we can make that!’ ‘Thanks for your call.’ I get out my diary and make a note. ‘Lunch, 12 noon, La Source in Cadanet, Mayle on Sunday!’

Jim Binney   

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