There is no Provence. Whoever loves it, loves the world, or loves nothing. –Jean Giono, Rondeur des Jours.
I woke at dawn. I had slept fitfully, thinking of my impending departure. I pulled on my shoes, took up my walking staff one last time, and headed out the door as the cat Poutin scurried past my feet into the house, looking for breakfast after a long night out.
The sky was a limpid blue with ropy trails of pink and gray-tinged clouds. The ground was dry, even at that hour, and the stony earth commented on my passing, while the wind sighed regretfully in the trees that bordered the village.
As I descended the plateau, I heard a duet of cuckoos calling to each other across the valley in contrapuntal harmony, bidding me mark the time. The church bells of the neighboring commune struck the half hour — 6:30. Sheep bells chimed from across the valley, as if in answer.
They rang on the air like water tumbling over the stones of a forest stream, becoming more distinct as I brushed past clumps of flowering thyme browsed by noisy bumblebees, past a patch of broadleaved sage, heavy with pale mauve blooms, past tall bushes of eglantine with their withered ornaments of over-wintered berries, and through a field of lavender with its plump gray-green foliage. Buttercups lined the path; wild poppies splashed their red splendor against the rocky verdure of the landscape.
I glanced back towards the village. Golden in the first rays of the sun, it looked like a fabled city in a tale of long ago. An early rising fly buzzed my ear and songbirds warmed up their voices with crepuscular twitters. A mourning dove sounded its urgent plaint while a neighbor’s rooster declared the day. A hunting dog bayed a lonely greeting from his pen at the edge of the village.
Sound is the marker of place. It was Sunday morning in Provence, my last day before the journey to the airport in Nice and the flight home.
I returned to the house for a demitasse of sweet, dark coffee and one of the grocer Mme. Pascal’s croissants, together with my host Fabienne on the terrace. The sheep bells sounded closer and it wasn’t long before I spied the shepherd Hervé, slowly making his way with his flock up the slope to the village. I ran out to say goodbye.
“You are going home now?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I sighed. “Although I had hoped I could buy a home here to come back to.” I didn’t want to sound too self-pitying. “Provence is the home of my heart,” I continued, “but it’s not where I live. I love my friends and family; I wouldn’t want to live too far from them. And I am an American; I know how to get along there…” I trailed off, thinking of returning to the ease of a place where everything was in English and I knew the ropes. “But I don’t know if there is really a home for me there. And evidently, there’s no home for me here, either.”
“You will find your home,” Hervé assured me. “I know you will. I don’t know where, but it will be the right home for you.” Then we kissed each other on both cheeks, as the French do, hands clasped in farewell. “It was really important that we met each other,” Hervé said, giving my hands a little squeeze for emphasis.
I looked at him quizzically, but he didn’t elaborate. Then he called to his faithful dog Tango to round up the sheep, sang out the word he used to summon the herd — “Pr-r-ri-teh!”— and followed their parade to the next pasture.
The Art of Living: that is something the French are so famous for that it is usually expressed in French, “l’art de vivre.” I became a willing apprentice in this art, whose goal is happiness. And in between the delightful catechisms of artisanal gastronomy and convivial conversation I could not but wonder why Americans seem so unhappy. (I am, of course, making a gross generalization, but, like all such, it is to elicit what our society fosters or discourages.)
Americans have an international reputation for glad-handed friendliness, but the friendliness is all too often only skin-deep. Underneath the seemingly resilient surface you quickly encounter the hard concrete of suspicion. Foreigners mistake the American habit of familiarity for intimacy. But we are a distant lot; we tend our barriers assiduously.
My friends from Provence, in contrast, seemed to have few barriers, either to generosity or to a genuine sharing of perspective and reflection. Conversation was like the food: rich, varied, and something you could sink your teeth into. And food was honored as much for being the lubricant for conversation as for its own pleasurable qualities. Celebration of food and friends expresses the heart of the French gospel, the core of the good life.
France is a land, after all, where every establishment, public or private, closes for a minimum of two hours every weekday for lunch, a sacred time. (I don’t know if this obtains in Paris or Marseilles, but it did in every village to medium-sized city I visited in Provence.) This hiatus in the workday reminds one that relationships, not things, constitute the core of meaning in our lives. That sharing is more important than getting. That leisure is at least as important as labor.
The French l’art de vivre is rooted in a profoundly humanist perspective. My friends’ embrace reminded me to pay attention to the bedrock upon which humans have always built our lives. We all value and want the same things: a congenial home, good food, time spent with friends and family, the sense that we are part of a community, a balance between work and play, and appreciation of the natural world and our place in it.
On the small-scale human level of village life, I rediscovered these values at work in a way I had despaired of ever seeing: not confined to an “alternative” lifestyle, but placed at the center of society. We human beings have evolved on the same basis of cooperation that is the essential warp and woof of village life. The lone hunter, the model of the rugged individualist, is a Social Darwinist myth. The hunter brought down his prey to feed not just himself, or even just his immediate family, but his village—and he usually hunted in concert with others. Perhaps the most important gift to human evolution was the grandmother, who watched the children with the other grandmothers while the parents were out procuring food for the group. The human village is encoded in the genes. When I found myself living in one, it was no wonder that it felt like home.