It was several years ago that I discovered the brilliance of a two week vacation, and my two favorite words in the English language: middle Saturday. I’ve been in France for four weeks, but am just now beginning the second week of vacation in Provence.
What I love is the quiet. It’s loud with an abundance of birdsong in the trees, all manner of birds I couldn’t begin to identify – doves for sure, because I can see them, their fat breasts puffed out, sitting like little Buddhas on the branch above the terrace, cooing. There’s what I like to imagine is an owl, although it could be any number of other things. It’s this silence, this full, vibrant, noisy silence that I love – devoid of all the things I spend my normal days hearing: sirens, endless horn honking, telephones buzzing and beeping and ringing. One night, the first we slept with the windows open, we heard what we imagined was the sound of sangliers rooting through the garden. I fell into a peaceful sleep.
The wind races over the hills behind the house and sounds like the roar of interstate traffic as it picks up speed and bends through the trees. This happens in the afternoon while I’m sitting beside the pool reading and drinking a beer. I worry that the umbrella might fly away, reach out and steady it, and then the wind calms down and I turn the page as church bells in the nearby village start ringing up through the valley.
There are singular pleasures to be appreciated here: the simple elegance of local women strolling through the Friday produce market with their baskets hanging from one elbow while they squeeze a tomato or kiss-kiss a friend they meet on the street. From one end of the basket drapes a gorgeous deep purple bundle of lavender while a warm baguette peeks out the other. I could never get away with it at home, taking my Provençal market basket to Whole Foods. But I still might try.
Since we arrived I’ve learned the words for bat, fly, ant, mosquito, and crickets; the difference between a côtelette and a brochette; what daube de taureau means; and the pleasures of sauce à l’échalote.
The changing colors over the Massif des Maures are more of a spectacle than anything streaming on Netflix – the pink gradients that suddenly appear low in the evening heat and then slowly but dramatically rise, leaving the massif to float below, bold and gray in a ribbon of blue. No wonder so many painters and artists have been inspired by this place. It’s a different picture with every passing quarter hour, bright and soft at the same time, and so richly textured it seems like you could reach out a hand and feel the mounds of paint.
The mattresses are unfamiliar and my back aches; the sun is baking hot and it’s in the 90s by eleven; the drivers are crazy and the winding roads narrow and frightening; and the GPS is often unreliable. But none of it matters – because of the way the light hits the leaves and lands in a big shimmering bowl beneath the hills; how it rolls in glassy waves over the rounded roof tiles and bathes the lush green valley beneath our Mas, sitting grandly on its terraced hillside. Enough bread and butter can also fix anything. And the wine. Chilled local rosés, light and dry; crisp, minerally whites; round, chewy reds. I’ve come to realize that my days are arranged around where I’m sitting and what I’m drinking – early to mid AM: front terrace with coffee; mid AM to mid PM: pool with beer; mid PM to early evening: front terrace with Champagne Rosé; dinner on back terrace with a white or red. Repeat.
At the end of the chapter, “June,” in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, he writes, “The sun was a great tranquilizer, and time passed in a haze of well-being; long, slow, almost torpid days when it was so enjoyable to be alive that nothing else mattered.” So we may go visit other villages or we may not. We may go shopping in Marseille or we may not. We may make it to Aix, or Arles, or Draguignan, or Grasse. Or we may not. With the view and the bells and the bread and the wine, it doesn’t matter. I’m being still. I’m luxuriating in the quiet and the light.