Authors: Peter Mayle
Gregoire was shaking his head as he closed the book. “How the rich live. God, it must be great.”
Coco had known Gregoire long enough to be wary whenever he started to make remarks about money. They inevitably led to discussions about his salary, his hope of becoming a full partner, his desperate need of a new car, and other sensitive and expensive subjects.
She was looking at her watch as she stood up. “I'm going to be late. See you in the morning.”
Elena was smiling as she came out of the kitchen and went over to the breakfast table, where Sam was brooding over his first coffee of the day.
“OK, it's all set,” she said. “We're going shopping this morning.”
“Lucky us,” said Sam, whose enthusiasm for shopping with Elena, never great, had almost entirely disappeared after several grueling days going through Marseille's furniture showrooms and fabric stores. “And what are we buying today?”
“Food. Don't you remember? Alphonse offered to take us to one of his favorite places, and today's the day. Isn't that great?”
Sam brightened up. Shopping he could eat was the kind of shopping he liked. He finished his coffee and stood up, allowing Elena to smooth away the croissant crumbs that had fallen on his chest. “Why is it I never get to do that to you?” he said.
Elena was saved from answering by the arrival of Alphonse, dapper and dressed for shopping in a blue-and-white striped shirt worn over white pants, the ensemble finished off by navy-blue espadrilles and a Louis Vuitton baseball cap. He was carrying a large white canvas shopping bag in each hand. He gave one to Sam and the other to Elena, explaining that he needed both hands free for haggling.
“Today,” he said, “we shall concentrate on fruit, vegetables, and cheese. Meat needs an entire morning to itself; so does fish. We must do those another time. Olivier is driving us today to Saint-Florian, a village with an excellent market where all the local producers have standsâeverything from asparagus to zucchini.
On their way to Saint-Florian, Alphonse went through his shopping list.
“I need asparagus, if we're not too late; melons and peaches; some Rattes, the connoisseur's potato; zucchini flowers, olives, and, of course, garlic and basil. Not to forget my favorite goat cheese. After that, I am the slave of inspiration. If I should see some perfectly ripe avocados, figs in their prime, or some broad beans worthy of my warm bean-and-bacon salad, then we must have those too. I always say that one should keep an open mind with an open mouth.”
Like so many villages in Provence, Saint-Florian had been built on a hill, with the oldest buildings on top, where they hoped to be safe from attack by rapacious neighbors. Over the centuries, more peaceful times had encouraged building on the lower slopes of the hill, and eventually the construction of a large parking area. This was taken over for a day each week, when market stalls replaced cars and games of
There must have been fifty or sixty of these stalls, selling fruits, vegetables, eggs, herbs, cheeses, and a few nonedible items, principally flowers and ladies' underwear. Led by Alphonse, the three of them shuffled through the crowd until they came to one of the larger stands, overflowing with vegetables and presided over by a burly, gray-haired man with a seamed, brown face that lit up at the sight of them. He came out from behind his lettuce display and embraced Alphonse, kissing him loudly on each cheek.
! Where have you been hiding? And who are these two? Your children?
Introductions were made, with Regis the stallholder taking the opportunity to admire Elena's bosom as he bent over to kiss her hand. He eventually stood up, released her hand, and sighed. “
And now, what can I do for you?”
Regis listened as Alphonse went through his list. “
Most of these I have. But for melons and peaches, you must go to Elodie; and for the goat cheese, of course, there is nobody but Benjamin. Now thenâcome around to the back of the stall, where, as you know, I keep my treasures.”
He led them to the back of the stall, which was a miniature version of the front, but with different produce. Here, instead of lettuces and leeks, carrots and cauliflowers and cabbages, Regis had arranged his more special items: zucchini flowers, asparagus, the noble Ratte potatoes, shining green and black olives, all arranged like jewels on their wooden trays.
“Since the asparagus season is over here, I have made a new friend across the Channel in England, where the season conveniently finishes later than it does here,” said Regis. “And he sent me these. Not ProvenÃ§al, of course, but not bad. Not bad at all.” He pointed at a tray of asparagus, then picked one out. “You see? A good, bright green color. The tips are closed, as they should be. The spear is straight, and firm to the touch. And, most important, if you try to bend it, it should crack.
He passed the spear to Elena. “Go ahead.”
Elena took the spear, holding it in front of her with both hands, and applied pressure. The spear snapped with an audible crack.
said Regis, and looked enquiringly at Alphonse, who ordered half a dozen
These were passed to Sam, with instructions to store the bunches carefully in his bag.
It was the same ritual with the zucchini flowers, the potatoes, and the olives. Regis would present an example of each to Elena, pointing out its readiness for the table, its superb color and textureâin short, its flawless perfectionâbefore taking Alphonse's order.
And then the discussion about payment began. Regis mentioned a price. Alphonse feigned shock, shaking one hand as though his fingers had been burned and throwing his arms in the air before turning out the pockets on each side of his trousers, empty except for a few cents. Regis shook his head, sucked his teeth, reconsidered with a great show of reluctance, and lowered the price fractionally. Alphonse, his reputation as a keen haggler intact, nodded his approval and produced a well-stuffed wallet from his back pocket.
Elena and Sam had been watching the performance with interest. “Do you think you could do that?” asked Sam.Â “You know, haggling?”
Elena shook her head. “I tried it once. Didn't work.”
“Where was this?”
“Dallas. Nieman Marcus.”
Alphonse and Regis, the best of friends once more, embraced and exchanged fond insults before Alphonse, with a lordly wave of the hand to Sam, by now carrying both shopping bags, set off for Elodie, her melons, and her peaches.
They found her, as Alphonse had warned them, bursting with indignation. She was a slight, pretty woman, withÂ a tanned face and blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she barely had time for a double kiss with Alphonse and a nod toward Elena and Sam before she launched into her least favorite topic: those dastardly Spanish peach growers.
“Do you know,” she said, poking Alphonse in the chest with an agitated finger, “they've worked out this new
their latest scam. They deliver to supermarkets in France without first setting a price; they see what the French price is, then they undercut it. How can we compete? French production of peaches has halved in the past ten years.
Alphonse, who had heard similar complaints before, patted her on the shoulder. “I know, I know. But what you must remember,
is that your peaches have a flavor, a finesse, that no Spanish peach can hope to equal.” He turned to Elena and Sam. “Look at these peaches! These are very earlyâencouraged, no doubt, in Elodie's hothouseâand they are superb. If only Monet were here to paint them. We must have the whole tray.” He picked out a peach and held it up. “The secrets of choosing a ripe peach are color, feel, and smell.” He passed the peach to Elena. “You see? There is a uniform rosiness, with no green patches. Now squeeze it: firm, not mushy. And smell it, as you would a glass of fine wine.”
Elena inhaled. “Wonderful. A vintage peach.”
By now, Elodie had regained her good humor, and was ready to move on to her melonsâher Cavaillon melonsâwhich she said even a Spaniard would have to admit were the finest in the world. She handed one over to Alphonse, who weighed it thoughtfully in his hand and tapped it with his knuckles. “Did you hear that?” he said to Elena. “That is the correct sound, as if the melon were hollow. Now we must see if it's ripe.” He passed the melon to Elena. “At the top, you see what we callâexcuse meâthe nipple. At the bottom there is a little stalk. This is the
or tail, and it should be the same color as the melon. Now look closely. If there is a tiny crack around the tail, tinged with red, that is a sure sign of ripeness. We call it âthe drop of blood.' In fact, it's formed by sugar coming from inside the melon and crystallizing.”
The melons and peaches were paid for and packed. Elena and Alphonse strode off in search of cheese, and a heavily laden Sam followed behind. After a brief stop for basil and garlic, they arrived at the stall of Benjamin, a good-looking young man with a beard. “Don't be put off by his youth,” said Alphonse. “He grew up with goats. He was making cheese while he was still at school.” He turned to Benjamin. “
Alors, jeune homme
. What do you recommend today?”
Benjamin grinned, his teeth white against his black beard, and pointed to the display on his stall. “They are all good, but there is one cheese here that every man should taste before he dies: my Brousse du Rove.”
“Ah,” said Alphonse. “I had hoped it would be here. We are very fortunate. This is goat cheese at its best. See how white it is? See how creamy it is? This is a cheese that is just as happily eaten with a touch of black olive
as with a fresh fig. In other words, you can have it as an appetizer or at the end of the meal as a dessert. Or both.” He took a teaspoon from a dish on the stand and offered a spoonful to Elena.
At first, there was no reaction. Then she began to nod. “Oh boy,” she said. “Oh boy.” Alphonse beamed. Benjamin beamed. Sam started to make extra room in one of his bags.
They had one last stop to make. Alphonse wanted them to see a local curiosity, which he described to them as a
, or mobile bar, perhaps the only one in Provence. “Another example,” he said, “of French ingenuity.”
They found it at the entrance to the marketâa large white van marked on one side with a sign that read
or Medical Supplies, because, as Alphonse said, a traveling bar was “not exactly legal.” On the van's other side, a panel had been dropped down to make a counter, now decorated with several customers in various stages of thirst. Prominently displayed was an easel with a small blackboard, on which was written:
The two proprietors, so Alphonse told them, were a husband-and-wife team, Jacky and Flo. Flo was responsible for driving; Jacky was in charge of everything liquid, a responsibility which, if his almost luminous nose was anything to go by, he took very seriously.
“I'm buying,” said Sam. “Money's no object.
It arrived in small tumblers of thick glass, and tasted surprisingly good.
“A toast,” said Elena, “To dear Alphonse, who will make me a kitchen diva one of these days. Thanks so much for this morning.”
“A pleasure, my dear. Do you have any questions?”
Sam raised a hand. “What's for lunch?”
“Hear that? It's the sound of summer.” Sam and Elena had just arrived at their house. It was barely 8:00Â a.m. but the builders were already there. “The drowsy hum of the cement mixer, the chirping of the jackhammerâmakes you glad we got here so early, doesn't it?”
Elena winced at the thud of falling masonry. “Is this a normal time for them to start work?”
“Francis told me they like to do the heavy stuff before it gets too hot. Later on, during high summer, the temperatures will be up in the nineties by midday, and that's a little warm for swinging a pickaxe.”
Although it had been only a few days since the start of work, it looked as though a surprising amount of progress had been made. All the windows and exterior doors were gone, the openings were being enlarged, and flagstones were stacked and ready to be put in place on the terraces around the house. The dingy bathtub had been uprooted and left, brimming with rubble, next to the truck that would take it away. For Elena, all this noise and activity was an exciting change after years of living in ready-made apartments in L.A. She was busy taking photographs when Coco appeared in the doorway. “Hold it right there,” Elena said, aiming her camera. “Look as if you're having fun.” Coco smiled obligingly, and came out to join them. Sam noticed that she and Elena were now on kissing terms; he had to make do with a handshake.
Even dressed for dust and destruction, Coco managed to look crisp and stylish in white overalls, with a gauzy turquoise scarf at her throat. “Some good news,” she said. “The roof is in much better shape than the rest of the house, so we're looking at a few repairs, and not a total replacement. That's going to save a lot of time. And the good news for you, Monsieur Budget,” she added, looking at Sam, “is that we'll also save some money.”
Sam nodded his approval. “Great. Now we can have the gold bathroom taps and his-and-hers Jacuzzis.” He looked at Coco's raised eyebrows. “Just kidding.”
The good news continued. All the partition walls would be demolished by the end of the week, and the scruffy floor tiles removed. Within two weeks, Coco promised, the new construction could begin. And so, by the time Elena and Sam left the site at the end of the morning, they were in the highest of spirits.
To add to the pleasures of the day, they were meeting Philippe, their journalist friend, for lunch. He had called to say he had something to celebrate, and had asked them to meet him in his favorite haunt, Le Bistrot d'Edouard, a restaurant dedicated to
in all their delightful variety.
On their way into Marseille, Elena was trying to predict the cause of the celebration. “He's finally going to marry Mimi,” she said, “or he's been made editor of the paper. Or he's got a book contract.”
“What makes you say that?”
“That's what journalists do. They see all these stories coming into the newsroom. A lot of them, the juicy ones, are impossible to use in the paper for legal reasonsâand they see a best seller. Keep the story, change the names, and call it fiction. Simple.”
Sam remained silent, digesting this literary revelation while he concentrated on his maneuvers with the tangled traffic. By the time he'd found a parking spot and beaten off an indignant challenge from a Renault with its blaring horn in overdrive, he was ready for a drink.
They found Philippe at a table on the terrace of the restaurant, an ice bucket already loaded. He stood up, spreading his arms in welcome before hugging them both. With his fashionably distressed jeans, black shirt, sunglasses, three-day stubble, and white jacket, he could have been taken for a hip refugee from the Cannes Film Festival.
Sam fingered the lapel of the white jacket. “This is all pretty dapper, Philippe. What happened to the suit?”
“I've changed my look,” said Philippe. “It's a career move.” He filled their glasses, and raised his own. “Let's drink to my new job.” In between
ham, artichokes of the palest violet with parmesan, and an extended procession of
Philippe brought them up to date.
He had left the local newspaper to work for
, a magazine covering the antics and social life of celebrity France, and his assigned beat was Provence and the Riviera. “From Marseille to Monaco,” Philippe said, “I shall hunt down
the rich and famous, and bring their news to all our readers. The magazine has given me a car, so I can get rid of the scooter, and the expenses are”âhe paused to kiss his fingertipsâ“prodigious. Last week I was in Saint-Paul de Vence for the spring exhibition at the Fondation Maeght, tomorrow there's a twenty-first-birthday party here in Marseille for one of the Cartier girls, and next week I'm off to Menton for a wedding. Oh, I almost forgotâif I come up with ideas for special events, there's a budget for them as well. How about that?” He sat back in his chair, the picture of a man who has just achieved a dream.
Elena was smiling at his enthusiasm as she offered her congratulations. “Just one thing,” she said. “What does Mimi think about all this gallivanting around?”
Philippe leaned forward, tapping his nose with an index finger. “She's my photographer, so she comes with me. Not bad, eh?”
Lunch almost drifted into dinner as the three of them discussed possible projects for Philippe: a visit with the minister of tourism at the Fort de BrÃ©ganÃ§on, the president's old summer vacation retreat; a piece on members of the floating summer population and their three-hundred-foot yachts; topless waterskiing in Saint-Tropez; an evening at the Casino of Monte Carlo; a
celebrity fashion show in the Palais des Festivals in Cannes; Philippe was furiously making notes.
“What you have to remember,” he said, “are two things. First, people get bored with lying on the beach, and so by the evening they're ready for anything that moves. And second, they all love seeing their photographs in a glossy magazine. It makes them feel like stars.” He shrugged. “So I have human nature working for me.”
“Philippe's right,” said Sam, as they were driving back to Le Pharo. “People's obsession with celebrity is amazing. They want to read about it and they want to rub shoulders with it, which makes them feel that they're part of it. Weird.”
“Thanks, professor. So being famous has never appealed to you?”
“I haven't met many celebrities, but the ones I have met were so pleased with themselves it kind of put me off the whole idea. I'm happy to be anonymous, and to have the love of an adorable woman.”
“Sam, you are so full of it.” He could almost hear her rolling her eyes.
Back at Le Pharo, they took to the pool and swam off the aftereffects of lunch; and after ten lengths, all those
were no more than a pleasant memory. Drying off by the side of the pool, Sam looked up at the clean blue sky and gave a sigh of contentment.
“I can tell,” said Elena. “You're lying there missing L.A.”
“Sure. Five million cars, smog, what's not to miss?”
“Do you think we could live here full-time?”
Before Elena could answer, they heard a whistle coming from the terrace behind them. It was Reboul, and he was holding up what looked very much like a bottle of
. They pulled on terrycloth robes and went over to join him.
He was still in his business suit, looking a little tired. He'd spent the morning with his bankers, and the afternoon at a meeting with the suppliers of equipment for a development project just outside Marseille that he was funding. The meeting had dragged on, and had not gone well. “God knows I've lived here long enough to know by now,” he said, “that everything you want done down here should be done between October and April. This year, there are three national holidays in May, all of them on a Thursday. Naturally, everyone takes those Fridays off to make a nice long weekend. So that's six working days lost in that one month. Now here we are in June, and already they're slowing down, rehearsing for July and August, when nothing gets done. Factories close, and we'll be lucky if orders we're placing now are delivered by the middle of September.” He shook his head. “And they never stop moaning about how bad the French economy is.” He poured the wine and raised his glass. “So I hope you had a better day than I had.”
“Poor Francis,” said Elena. “I hate to tell you, but we had a great day. It's all happening so fast.”
“Try not to get too excited. Destruction is always faster than construction. Tell meâhow do you like working with Coco?”
As both Sam and Elena said, first impressions were very good. Elena had been particularly impressed by Coco's attention to detail, and her grasp of boring but important matters like the correct placement of a new septic tank and the most efficient distribution of the alarm sensors. Less boring but equally important was the advice that she had given them.
“Sharing a bathroom always leads to trouble,” had been her first words of wisdom. “You must have a bathroom each. And Elena must have a kitchen that works. No cupboards, just big drawers, so you can find what you want without having to move anything. Two dishwashers; one just for glasses so they don't smear, and both of them built in at chest height so you don't have to bend over to load and unload. These may seem like little details, but they're important.”
Elena seemed to be ready to go through Coco's ideas and suggestions for the rest of the house, but Reboul held up his hand to stop her somewhere between the bedroom and the living room. “I can see she hasn't changed,” he said with a smile. “She always did like telling people what to do.”
“But she knows what she's talking about,” said Elena. “What can I say? It's so far so good.”
Long may that last, thought Reboul, as he recalled the interminable and often frustrating meetings with his architect when renovating Le Pharo.