Inside the life and work of an American artist and photographer in Provence
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France is always doing its own thing, which it has done for centuries. It’s not catering to you, it’s not waiting for you, or looking for your new ideas. It’s not open especially for you. Closed all of August, closed on Monday, closed for lunch, closed for holidays, closed closed closed, work can wait. It is your job to fold into it. There is a rhythm of life here you must flow into.
You can’t go to a restaurant for a 3 p.m. lunch or ever without a reservation. You can’t force work to be done on your schedule or things to arrive when you need them to. When something is sold out, unapologetically it is c’est fini. You need to learn the culture of food by figuring out when the market comes to which village on what day of the week. Once you do, you simply stand in front of the producers directly and you joyfully taste everything.
Most of the time, especially in Provence, the “best” is disguised as the humblest, the quietest. Only discoverable by word of mouth, without logos or fancy packaging or loud marketing. My Christmas gift one year from my landlords was an unmarked bottle of golden, unpurified olive oil pressed directly by the lady who harvested the olives herself on her property in Bonnieux. They gave it to me with such awe, this sacred, scarce product they wait all year to buy, as if it were Prohibition and I was being gifted a rare bottle of gin. It makes me laugh: it was unbelievably complex and interesting, but without a label or a name, I have no idea how to go about buying more. So French.
Some of the best restaurants, tucked away in old farmhouses down dirt lanes, don’t even have signs on the road. It’s up to you to do the work and step into their world. This is not the glitz and glamour of the Côte d’Azur; this is miles from any yachts. I’m in the land of Provence. The land is fenceless and mostly wild. Yes, you’ll find fresh goat’s cheese, straw hats, woven market baskets, rows of endless lavender, plane tree–dotted drives, garlic in everything, terraces and pergolas covered in vines, and old farmers taking afternoon naps, but it is also not a Disneyland version of life in France; this is their way of life.
The kings of Provence speak their own language, use horses to till the soil of the vineyards, and have dirt under their nails—and nature is everything. Nature is the Provençal experience. You dine outside as much as possible, you live in the air, the materials you touch are stones from the quarries, rocks from the rivers, paint colors derived from the sand. The nature is more powerful than man and draws us to live within it, amongst it, alongside it in harmony.
I stopped by the farm stand in town one autumn afternoon and noticed a small poster taped up under the register advertising the local autumn festival in Bonnieux. The French love a good fête, and one of my favorite aspects of living in Provence is how they announce them along with any brocantes (flea markets), belle brocantes (upscale flea markets), vide-greniers (garage sales), and marchés paysans (farmers’ markets) that ascend into your village for a few days before packing up and going to the next nearby town. If I want to know what there is to do, I just take a walk around town and look for the homemade signs at the roundabouts, strung up on banners over bridges, on posters taped to village walls, or as printed flyers at cash register stands. “Ah, an autumn fête in Bonnieux!”
This small posting led me to my first French festival experience, now a beloved annual tradition. I wandered inside, into a world full of authenticity and quaintness, observing customs and traditions that, foreign to me, were very familiar comforts to all the local French souls here. Unfamiliar music filled the air, and I ambled about, hoping not to be discovered as a foreigner, since I felt like a surreptitious outsider infiltrating their world.
I picked up a printed program at the entrance and translated the text through my phone. It touted the new “up and comer in the garlic game, which is a highly regarded young man making a name for himself.” Farmers as if they were NBA draft picks! “Watch this guy. He’s gonna be something,” as if this young fellow were going to change garlic, one of the oldest known crops used by humans in history. The text ended with a strong encouragement to buy a bulb to taste for yourself, which of course I did, and it was merveilleux.
Inside there were rows of tables of local wine vendors where one could taste and then purchase a bottle of wine to enjoy in the moment, or a case or two to take home to a cellar. People were gathered around displays of wheels of fromage and saucisson sec, happily trying everything and discussing the nuances with a wholehearted French passion for food. I discovered the differences between lavender, chestnut, and spring flower honey and bought jars of colorful confiture and 100% pure unfiltered bottled fruit juices so good I now recoil at the taste of anything artificially created.
The autumn fête is set up at the perfect moment; everything has been harvested and preserved in the height of summer and fall ripeness to winterize your pantry with the taste of abundance. I moved through the pavilion around couples on dates, silver-haired older folks huddled together speaking with old friends, and families with strollers—kids popping in and out from under banquet tables set up for guests to eat and drink with ease.
Something else I love about France: everywhere you go, every age of life is present, mixing and mingling together, dancing into the night. There is no kids’ table, there’s simply a feeling of togetherness, of valuing one another at every stage of life.
The cold autumn night’s air flowed in through the seams of the tents, whirling around the steam from the chestnut soup. This is the time of year you begin to see escargots in the shells stuffed with a bright green filling of butter, parsley, and garlic, roasted and served with a miniature fork for digging the “meat” out. It is, as with anything baked in that much butter and garlic, quite délicieux! I’ll never forget having a conversation with a woman about eating escargots from her own garden. She said defiantly, “They eat my vegetables, so I eat them.”
It was on this night I discovered the greatest French comfort food: a rotisserie of “Poulet de Bresse”—declared France’s best chicken, from just north of Provence—slow roasted, covered in morel cream sauce, served with potato gratin. It could not have been any more parfait. I coasted home on my bike down the mountain, the road illuminated by a sky full of stars and a few passing cars, warm not only from the best chicken I had ever tasted washed down with jammy red wine but also from being immersed in the down-to-earth pleasures of the Provençal people.
I would come to have many life-changing meals like that in Provence. Sometimes it’s the conversation, sometimes it’s the food—the experience of a meal all together here is an art in and of itself. “What time is it?” I wondered as I flipped my phone over, only to discover I had just finished a six-hour lunch! Time warps here; it moves slowly and somehow there is more of it. I learn to not rush through a meal, or my workdays, or my weekends. You work less, but somehow the work gets done. You play in nature more. You swap location recommendations with locals—this watering hole for swimming, that spot for hiking, this forest for mushrooms, that area for foraging chestnuts or wild thyme. You find within yourself time to focus on family, friends, food, nature, craftsmanship, study, art, and rest.
We all know the expression “stop and smell the roses,” but what does that actually mean and how is it applied to life? I take it as being present in your own life. Not running from thing to thing, place to place, person to person, paycheck to paycheck, but rather stopping, seeing, and appreciating what’s already there.
This is an excerpt from An American in Provence: Art, Life, and Photography by Jamie Beck. Copyright © 2022 by Jamie Beck. Reprinted by permission of Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.