So here they all come, in their red-kneed posh-car glory, the tourists, nicknamed the gibier d’été, because with no winter birds (gibier) to shoot, the locals resort to preying on the influx of outsiders. The glasses of wine shrink in the cafes, the quality of the meat used for the ubiquitous steak frites order changes dramatically, and the price of haricot verts in the markets doubles. If you are unkind you could describe this type of behaviour as a rip-off; a more generous, understanding soul such as myself sees it as a necessary evil, enabling the locals to squirrel away savings for the harsh winter months.
I suppress a smile when I see another unsuspecting, Panama hat-wearing visitor purchasing a vrai Provençal lavender sachet. They’ll never know that their clothes drawer back home is being perfumed by flowers from Chinese lavandin fields. Yet the reality behind my suppressed smile, is that after seven years in Provence, I am just as much an outsider as the average guidebook-wielding tourist. In fact, part of me wishes I were one of them.
Here’s why. This month I’ve been fancying myself as a bit of a Jean de Florette, developing a passion for self-sufficiency in the garden. Pagnol’s Jean, like me, arrived in a village as an outsider, beguiled by the beauty of Provence. Like me, he was first attracted to move to the countryside by the promise of a simpler life. Jean described the Provençal countryside as “a coin de paradis”, the very same phrase I first heard under the cathedral of plane trees, which surround the étang in Cucuron. A local had caught me looking up at the supplicant branches and whispered in my ear: “C’est un coin de paradis, n’est-ce pas?”
And if you live in paradis, you don’t supermarket shop, you grow your own veg, hence my new potager, that staple of the socially-aware foreigner in Provence. I’m dreaming of enormous plump beef tomatoes, freshly picked, sliced with some mozzarella, and dressed with a little basil and olive oil. The dream remains distant because the arrosage expert keeps promising to come, “normalement demain”. In the meantime, since no hose is long enough, I’ve been condemned to trudge to and from the house with a watering can, just as Jean traipsed to a distant spring to water his pumpkins. My vegetables wither and no amount of trips in the beating sun seem sufficient. The local villagers laughed at Jean’s ill-fated attempt at farming, like they no doubt ridicule my city-boy’s potager.
It was Jean’s choice of book to read to his daughter Manon Robinson Crusoe that made me stop, think and begin to see the tourists in a different light. Crusoe is part of all of our childhoods. Even if we’ve never read the Defoe original, we can see Crusoe, in our mind’s eye, standing dressed in a loin cloth, with sun burnished skin, staring out to sea. He’s the great literary hero of a man returned to a state of nature, stripped of all trappings of civilization apart from a few tools salvaged from the wreck of his ship, there appears to be nothing his ingenuity can’t achieve. Crusoe builds himself an encampment, raises a herd of goats, and sows crops. He creates a new life from nothing. However, crucially Crusoe never stops dreaming of a passing ship.
Whereas in Pagnol’s epic, Jean returns to civilization only to purchase the means of his own destruction. Determined to hew a living out of his coin de paradis, he purchases dynamite and blows himself up exploring for water for his crops. Now I am not about to start playing with dynamite in my potager, even if the normalement demain excuse has now stretched to two weeks, but the moral of Pagnol’s story seems to be that castaways in Provence can meet an untimely end.
Hence my feeling of envy for the herd of Nikon-wielders that heads south every year dreaming of the sun. The timeless appeal of Provence is that it offers these tourists, if only briefly, a simpler life, eating vegetables grown locally rather than jetted in from Kenya and talking to artisans who offer handmade products for sale. Aided by the dappled, Instagram light and slow pace of life, there’s a sense of returning to an old-fashioned more righteous way of doing things, but ultimately it’s only a sunny interlude. However much the tourists protest of wanting to give it all up, and downsize to a dreamy life in the sun, their boarding cards for the return trip are all already downloaded to gleaming smartphones.
Perhaps then it is a wistful smile I suppress as I watch them purchase their Chinese lavandin sachets. I’m a castaway like Crusoe, and rightly or wrongly, I’ve chosen to snuff out the smoking fire that might attract the passing ship.