Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes
One of the few if not only virtues of the diminished frequency with which we are able to visit France these days is that incremental changes, not to mention larger ones, are that much more noticeable. Today I was in Aups early enough to check if one of the two or three International Herald Tribunes they get was still in the rack. It wasn’t.
I can’t be too disappointed. For one, I am obliged to arrive in town earlier than the 9am arrival I managed this morning if I want a shot at the IHT. Second, of course, it’s only in the last six or seven years that I could expect even to see the IHT in the local Maison de la Presse. That they get so few copies is evidence of the still very small number of Americans in the region, or at least that even smaller minority that manages to bestir itself to buy up one of the non-reserved copies of the paper. Were I here more often, my cadging one of the rare objects might even inspire them to start to reserve, and that would inspire Mme. Maison Presse to order more copies, which in turn, slowly slowly, might inspire a common wisdom that there are, well, more Americans dans le pays (in country). And who knows what butterfly in Szechuan province flapping its wings effects that might engender.
However, back to reality. Today, there were no IHTs and there were the usual suspects of a wide selection of British newspapers (not to mention those of the other major Indo-European languages represented in the original cadre of CE nations, dominated by the Germans, but with papers in Spanish, Italian, etc.). The only temptation ever for me is the good old pink (as in pink newsprint—politically it’s slightly to the right of the Wall Street Journal I think) Financial Times. But it wasn’t tempting enough today. I hadn’t checked any French news, except the local variety, since we arrived a week ago, so I grabbed a Le Monde and got on line for the cash register.
While standing there, minding my own business (which no one around here particularly minds anyway), I noticed something to my horror that I had never seen before in these precincts. Paperback novels in English. This is very bad news.
And I’m not talking Dickens either. Not Trollope, not Eliot (George, that is), not even James or Wharton. No classics, but Barbara Cartland wannabes. Women’s romantic novels. Not that there’s anything wrong with all this. However, what’s wrong, in my not so humble, curmudgeonly opinion, is that the classically canny French shopkeepers of Aups should signify that a market—never before catered to—has reached a critical mass and must be catered to.
This is the latest sign in a series of signs that have emerged over the last 15 years of another British invasion, here in the south, whereas prior to this such incursions have been constrained and kept within the bounds of certain towns, small in number. I had thought all this was under control. Cotignac is for the British. Aups is for the French and, well, me and Linda, and a select group of friends who come and go, talking of Michelangelo, maybe Cézanne, but definitely not the sisterhood of Barbara Cartland. Next I expect to see Oprah Recommends! stickers on certain titles.
And what’s so terrible about the Brits? Well, for one, they’re British. If I want British, there’s London and the rest of Old Blighty to visit. Not to suggest I am feeling any great urgency, now that I think about it, as we haven’t been there since 1993. And frankly, it’s cheaper to get to London than to Nice. And when we want British, our friend Hilary comes to visit. But all Brits aren’t like Hilary, which is the problem.
I don’t want to walk into a café and hear English predominating the general buzz of conversation. For that, I can stay in Cambridge. Well, to be perfectly honest, I can’t stay in Cambridge, because in Cambridge the prevailing dialect is as likely to be Parisian, or Farsi, or Dutch, anything but English. So much for being cosmopolitan.
But Aups is not cosmopolitan. Call me an Anglophobe, a reactionary, a misanthrope… But do it in French. I came here, I bought here, because it’s French, goddamnit. The French government goes to a lot of trouble to keep it that way. Sort of like a whole country of Old Williamsburg brand assurance. Authenticity. Protected land. No building, No developments (well, except for the mayor of the village’s cronies). Winding roads that are just, but only just two cars wide. No allowance for people who have to shift gears with their left hand. If you know what I mean.
I prefer buying packaged goods that have instructions for use in every language BUT English.
It’s a kind of chauvinism by proxy with me. England for the English. France for anyone but the English.
Not coincidentally, the Telegraph (a British newspaper that seems to have found its niche catering to English ex-pats) reports just today that, mirabile dictu, the greatest number of Brits ever, or close to ever, some 2 million of them, now live outside the environs of the UK. Jesus. They must have been swarming all over France (instead of restricting themselves to the Dordogne and Cotignac) for years, and I took no notice.
Why is this so serious? Why my hysteria? I mean, aside from the aforementioned reasons of preserving my calm state of mind (achievable nowhere else but here) by not hearing English diphthongs and other anomalous linguistic propensities?
Well, the chief reason goes by the name of Peter Mayle, who probably single-handedly, more than any other English-speaking (and more importantly, English-writing) person since Tobias Smollett who is, after all, dead these 200+ years, is responsible for causing irredeemably large numbers of people, also English-speaking, to have an overweening interest in Provence. As is generally well-known, he wrote a book, called A Year in Provence, which was unjustifiably popular, and made him obscenely large amounts of money (and also gained him the hatred, and vindictive recompense, from more or less every inhabitant of the previously unknown, unnoticed, and peaceful little village in the Vaucluse which he had the ill wisdom and misfortune to name in said famous book). He has written a great many books since, some allegedly non-fictional, like the first, and some fiction, and all largely indistinguishable as such, because, like most former ad men, he made a lot of things up, and figured his opinion and imagination counted for equal weight with truth. Well, as they say in Lancashire, received wisdom is a penny the pound-weight (they probably say no such thing; I made that up, but see? I admit it; he admits dick, and furthermore he tells a lot of fibs and untruths, and makes it all sound like ice cream, which he makes you think the horses deposit in France right on the streets from their patoots. With spoons. So who wouldn’t, if they were British, want to be in France, mucking everything up, and making the rest of the world think this is a good thing?
It’s a bad thing.
And furthermore, the fact is, as I can assert with certitude after 20 years of study, there really is not all that much difference between us and the French, and it’s really not all worth all the money it costs to be here, not to mention how much it costs to get here just to be here. Not that it costs the Brits all that much with Ryan Air and all, which exacerbates the situation, which is basically this. You get enough Brits (or Yanks, or Poles, or Lithuanians, or Turks or whoever the hell else the French are justifiably frightened out of their wits will clog the streets and roads and take up all the property and jobs and will jolly well screw up what’s been a basically very good thing since Jesus was a pup—the Greeks were here first, you see, then the Romans, and both of which had the good sense to leave it all well enough alone and not try to make it anything but what it is, which is French), and when you get enough Brits (Yanks, Poles, etc. ad nauseam) it might as well jolly well be some shire or woodsy glen you can just pop on over to see like it’s easy as Bob’s your uncle.
All of which is by way of preface to say, I’ve written my own damn book, which is called Same Difference / Life in France: Peter Mayle Got Some of It Right. And well, he got a shit load of it wrong, which is my point, and if I can make my point, despite him (in fact, cleverly leveraging him and his much greater fame and name recognition), I too will make a few bucks, pay off the mortgage on our little house in Provence, and no one will molest me, because I have no cavil with the French. I want them to be them, and me to be me, and we’ll all just get along, like Rodney King.
So here’s the book:
I’m preparing the proofs for final production, and then I’ll have a challenge called, "getting it published." But watch this space for more news, and if you’d like to make sure you’ll get the latest info about the book, how to obtain an advance copy and all other associated subjects, drop me a line, and you’ll go on the mailing list (actually you must do this, or I can’t by rights, by law, and by moral obligation send you anything, not by email) click here and you’ll go to the bertha Website, and scroll down to the "subscribe" box