Well, we got back from our two week trip to Provence on Sunday night and this week is proving every bit as frantic as I expected –endless laundry and unpacking, getting my sons back to school, preparing for my interview with Jane Rusbridge at the Ham & High Literary Festival next week (details below), polishing my entry for the Costa Short Story Award, all in four days before I set off with great excitement for the York Festival of Writing on Friday morning. (It’s also my birthday tomorrow, but I’m seriously thinking of rescheduling….)
So before it trickles away, a hasty attempt to bottle the elixir and hold onto it a little longer.
I’ve always loved travelling, ever since I was very young, and I’ve always had close ties with France in particular, with my mother a teacher of French and her best friend, my godmother Isabelle, actually being French. I’ve never lived in France but I’ve spent a great deal of time there and have visited just about every region. My husband JC, who had never left the UK before we met, credits me with infecting him with my Francophilia and general wanderlust. Even when we were penniless 20-something newlyweds who could barely afford to eat, we managed to hit the road somehow. On surveying the warzone that was our new house back then (back when young people could buy property), my mum once said something that sticks in my mind: ‘Maybe when the house is finished, you won’t feel the need to keep going away.’ She really didn’t understand. It’s great to get away, especially when you live in a huge city with a hectic pace of life, but that’s never been the main reason for me. It’s more the desire to experience other places and all the things that make them mysterious, exciting, unfamiliar.
We’ve been a few places I didn’t like, not many. The worst ever was Dahab in Egypt in 1991. We’ve stayed in some pretty ropy accommodation too, including a sweltering disco boat in Amsterdam where the heating pipes took up half the cabin and we once spent a mosquito-bitten night underneath the bleachers in a football stadium in New South Wales with the groundsman’s permission. Beat that for bizarre! But most of our trips have been fantastic. Inevitably, some places get under your skin, make you feel something strong. You dream of them when you’re not there, you sigh when someone says they’re going, and above all, you go back. You just have to.
We’ve just returned from a place like that, where we’ve spent five of the last eight summers. The Lubéron is a French national park in Provence, a low-lying mountainous area west of Avignon and north of Aix-en-Provence. Despite the Mediterranean climate, it is surprisingly green even in high summer. Remember Peter Mayle’s novel A Year in Provence? The house where he wrote that is a ten minute walk from the gîte we rent, between Ménerbes and Bonnieux, both listed amongst the ‘Most Beautiful Villages of France’. There’s nothing unusual about loving Provence, of course. It has the status of an earthly paradise: the landscape, the weather, the wine, the food, the markets, Jean de Florette…
We first came to the area in 1999 and were smitten. In 2003 we visited during a heatwave and endured the torture of hearing the neighbours in their pool all day long. The kids, very little then, thought their dad spraying them with a hosepipe was an acceptable substitute. I didn’t, and thus began the search for somewhere to rent that didn’t require a second mortgage – the area is popular with wealthy tourists and a lot of owners are shockingly greedy.
We knew as soon as we set foot in Les Pégots that it was something special. The cottage, to the rear of the owners’ vineyard property, is rustic and simple but that doesn’t matter when you spend all day outside. It almost touches the Petit Lubéron mountain, long and shaped like a hippo, and is surrounded by vines. The light is exceptional and the pool, a very respectable 12m x 6m, is bliss for a keen swimmer like me and ideal for keeping the kids entertained. Jumping and diving in the style of various Olympians and rappers was a (hysterical) favourite this year.
It was strange going back having missed two years in a row. The owners, Roselyne and Jean-Marie, are incredibly warm-hearted and generous people who have become good friends. Since we last visited, they’ve made some stunning improvements, including a new covered dining area leading directly to the pool. It was extremely hot, especially the first week, and we lived on that terrace, witnessing dramatic sunsets, and later, the night sky from deckchairs on the grass. It was only on the last day when the famous cold Mistral started to howl that I broke my resolution to eat every single meal of the trip outdoors.
We relaxed, and we’re not normally very good at that. We got up late and started the day with a swim followed by breakfast. We had barbecues using vine branches, which gives the food the most delicious flavour. I tore through My Poolside TBR List 2012 having the luxury of hours on end to read. I didn’t watch TV, go on Twitter, blog or work on my novel, although once I did sit up until midnight writing a story that had been taking shape in my head for weeks, set in France. When we first came here our sons were only 7 and 3, now they’re 14 and 10, and old enough to go road cycling with their dad, who’s serious about bikes. (We did do one 48km ride all together which nearly killed me). I was so proud of our older son, now my height at 5’10, who rode the Mont Ventoux, the famous ‘Giant of Provence’ for the first time, but sad to realise he might not want to come on holiday with us for much longer.
When you return often to a place, it becomes a kind of yardstick of your life. I can measure so many aspects of all of us here. The last time, in 2009, I had recently thrown myself headlong into writing, to see if I could do it. Now I’m working on my second novel – finally doing what I really love (although I do need to find a way to earn some money from it!) Yes, the kids are growing up, but as Roselyne said, maybe they’ll come back with their own families one day; they love it as much as we do. JC and I have always dreamed of owning a house down here…
Whatever happens, we’ll always come back.
Some of you know this area – do you recognise it? Tell me about the place in your heart wherever it is – I think we all have one.
My Literary Sofa goes live next week at the Ham & High Literary Festival! Would love to see some of you at: Jane Rusbridge in Conversation with Isabel Costello (we’ll be talking about Jane’s second novel, ROOK, and about writing generally) 11-12pm on Tuesday 11 September at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, NW11. There’s a fabulous 3 day programme with over 60 events and a stellar line-up of top literary talent.
*COMING SOON* Review of NW by Zadie Smith