maritaspacer french



The Independent, London - 30 April 2000, Sophie James


In October 1996 I went to Provence for the first time, to a small town called St Roman de Malegarde. I was going to rent the house for a year in order to write my novel about South Africa. I arrived by cab to a house I had never seen, during a terrific mistral.

It was late at night and all my dread of a place like Provence suddenly came to the fore. The house immediately looked cliched, with its crooked three stories and bright blue shutters, very old and cramped in this tiny narrow street. Very typical, very French.

I panicked of course. I thought - this is like a caricature of a place. I am living a tourist cliche!

The town was practically asleep and there were no shops - but I was hungry, so I tore down the hill to a small local bar, the only one, where a woman called Claudette gave me a simple beggar's supper for the night: a bottle of wine, olives, some pate, good bread.

Back at the house I lit the open fire against the icy wind of the mistral and went to bed wondering why on earth I was in this weird little house.

The next morning I woke up and looked out of the window. In front of me was a clear blue sky and a view across the valley of which I had had no idea the previous night.

I immediately felt peaceful and my disappointment vanished. From my bedroom window I could see over the whole valley, with a view down on to the tiled roofs of the town, across to the old church and a ruined castle. It was autumn and the hill was coloured the most vivid orange and yellow. Suddenly the town felt real and I just relaxed. I wasn't a tourist here - I was a writer and I knew that I could work here.

I'd arrived from Cape Town in South Africa, which is a very stressful place. People there are very security conscious and I was used to sleeping with locked doors and never walking alone at night.

I was amazed on that first day to discover that really I didn't even need to lock the door, and soon enough I found myself getting into the habit of walking alone on full-moon nights across the hill with the starry view beneath me.

This little Provencal town gradually broke down many of my self- punishing habits. In the first week I just couldn't get used to the fact that everything closed down between noon and three in the afternoon. I would bang on the post office door wanting to send a fax, but my impatience got me nowhere.

It was a good lesson. The town's routine is my routine now - and I am a far more tranquil person for it.

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