A Year In Provence was published in 1990, with a first printing—considered more than adequate at the time—of three thousand copies. Since then, to my delight and astonishment, I’m told that it has sold six million copies in forty languages.
This, inevitably, is a source of great irritation to some people, who will insist, from their vantage points in New York, London or Paris, that I am helping to ruin Provence. How they can be so certain, when their knowledge of the region is severely limited by the inconvenient fact that they don’t live here, is not explained. Even so, their criticism has prompted me to compare the Provence of 1990 with the Provence of 2016. What has changed?
The price of real estate has gone up. But then, so it has in Italy, Spain, Florida, the meatpacking district of Manhattan, and anywhere else that could be described as a desirable place to live.
There are now more good restaurants and pleasant places to stay than there used to be: more Michelin stars, more bistrots, more chambres d’hotes. In other words, more choice. The local wines have improved beyond recognition. The tourist count, I must admit, has increased significantly. And that’s about it.
Perhaps more interesting is what hasn’t changed over the past twenty-five years. Village markets still sell fresh food that has escaped the modern passion for shrink-wrapping and mass sterilization. Vast stretches of countryside still remain wild and empty, unscarred by theme parks, golf courses and condominium colonies. Silence, that endangered blessing, is still to be found by those who want it. And, unlike so many other beautiful parts of the world that progress and ease of access have made crowded, bland and predictable, Provence has managed to retain its individual flavor and quirkiness. The accent is as thick and soupy as ever, the bizarre notion of punctuality continues to be frequently ignored, and a minimum of two hours is still required for a proper Sunday lunch. Wonderful.
As for the more personal changes that have taken place since 1990, I’m afraid the passing years have done very little to improve either my character or my habits. I am still easily lured from my desk by interesting distractions: a wine tasting, a promising young chef, the rumor of truffles to be found under a nearby oak, a murky hammam in Marseille, a vicious game of petanque in the village and, of course, the spectacle of daily life as seen from the café terrace. Oddly enough, more ambitious distractions, such as long-distance travel, no longer appeal to me. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I’m happy where I am. That, I suppose, is contentment, and I shall always be grateful to the literary accident known as A Year In Provence for helping me to achieve it.
Obviously, a book cannot thrive without readers, and I’m lucky enough to have met hundreds of them, either face to face or through their letters and photographs. Some have become friends, but all of them have given me enormous pleasure, and I particularly like the fact that they have come from such different backgrounds. A member of the English House of Lords, a young girl in the Chinese army, a gentleman serving a prison sentence, a university lecturer, a boy learning to read—they and hundreds of others have taken the trouble to write, and their letters mean more to me than any number of favorable reviews. And so, dear readers, let me thank you all for your kindness and support over the past twenty-six years. Please keep it up.