Robert Cohen

Because, as any diarist knows, intense happiness is even more difficult to write about than to sustain, it’s almost a relief to have a rotten experience our first day in Provence.  

We have swapped houses with a French family in Tourves, in the heart of the Var. Tourves is in none of the guidebooks. A modest foothill village of 3,000, surrounded by vineyards. The streets, loopy and involuted, are named after local boys who died in the Resistance. There is a narrow place with a trickling non-potable fountain, two boulangeries, sixteen boule courts—we counted—and a cozy, oleander-lined stade on one side of which lives an evil German shepherd whose favorite food, as our younger son can tell you, is errant soccer balls. For my son, the dog is a symbol of life’s predatory indifference. For me, there’s the waiter in Brignoles who refuses us lunch.

The sight of us, jet-lagged and famished when we arrive at the cafe, sets the man’s head shaking mournfully. In English, he explains how misguided our search for lunch in his country will prove at such a late hour (2:30), a lecture that, though condescending, is more or less deserved. In his eyes we are not fully sentient beings but a vulgar, infantile species, perhaps unicellular. Finally he allows as to how perhaps an omelet can be prepared in the kitchen, which would be fine, except my younger son, who does not eat eggs in any form, asks for a hamburger instead. Voilà—the minuet of stereotypes (McDonald’s is invoked) is complete. We slink away, and my children are treated to a loud rant, which they enjoy, as children always do when you get furious at someone other than them.

Well, France is France. But wait: The little cafe we slink away to turns out to be run by a warm, dapper fellow who’s delighted by, or anyway tolerant of, my execrable French, and we proceed to have one of those utterly extraordinary ordinary meals—a steak, a ratatouille, a salad Nicoise—that inspire people like us to spend more money than we have to come to Provence.

We have, all of us, it seems, a terrible need of Provence. To see it, to live it, to have it—whatever. In the end we all come for the same reason. Like Pagnol’s bookish, earnest Jean de Florette, we come to cultivate “the orthentic.” 

Me, I’m as bookish about orthenticity as anyone. Way too much so. Besides Pagnol, I have read, in preparation, MFK Fisher, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Miller, Rilke, Van Gogh, even Peter Mayle. My head is full of other people’s impressions. And all I want is to empty it. Enough books; I want the sun, the olives, the rosemary, the cheap, earthy wines. I want to relax and have a good time with my family. We need it. We’ve had a rotten year, and are about to have another one. When we get home, my stepson, who is 13, will move across the country to live with his father. This trip is a kind of last roundup, a slow, bittersweet month for making memories. Yeah, a good time would be just the thing.

Unfortunately we are not very adept at this good-time business. Only our younger son shows much aptitude in that area, and now he’s lost his soccer ball. The rest of us need work. I, for instance, have developed an alarming need for order, and have been known to sweep the kitchen floor even when it isn’t dirty. How this has happened I have no idea. It’s hateful and demoralizing. Which is why I’ve come to Provence, to unlearn all that shit, and try to relax and have a good time. How hard can it be?