American Life in the South of France: ’Taking Root in Provence’
For many of us, jotting down a list of dream travel destinations is an annual (if not monthly) pastime. An afternoon spent conjuring foreign and domestic locales -- whether gleaned from the pages of "Travel and Leisure" or based on a casual recommendation from a friend -- that we hope to someday visit can often be a thrilling, fruitful and even cathartic activity.
That is, of course, until we face the realization that our grand plans of basking in the most sun-drenched hotspots of the Mediterranean aren't entirely feasible on the typical two-week travel allotments of corporate America, and that our dream of one day crossing snow-covered Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad might have to be put on hold -- which, for those of us not fortunate enough to have pursued academia as a career, might mean until retirement.
Presumably, "Taking Root In Provence" author Anne-Marie Simons faced similar conundrums while working for 30 years in the Washington D.C. area as a translator, teacher and journalist (among other jobs). As she tells us in the introduction to "Taking Root In Provence" -- her collection of vignettes that describe her late-life decision to permanently re-locate to France with her husband Oscar -- Simons' first reaction to impending retirement was, "Now I can travel." While retirement, for some, can mean the chance to resort into a lackluster, couch potato lifestyle, Simons and her husband Oscar had more adventurous things in mind, leaving behind D.C. for the slower-paced Aix-en-Provence, in the South of France.
Her subsequent book breaks the experience of a decade as an American spent living overseas into a series of entertaining stand-alone vignettes on individual themes, loosely categorized by season and peppered with a dose of humor. In many ways, "Taking Root In Provence" is very much the antithesis of recent travel-oriented novels like "Eat Pray Love." While Elizabeth Bennett's decision to move abroad had plenty of interpersonal (and, some might say, self-aggrandizing) motives, Simons is merely seeking the perfect quality of post-retirement life.
On the flip side, Simons doesn't offer the strongest narrative voice, and each vignette occasionally reads like an in-flight magazine feature. What makes the book compelling, however, is Simons' keen attention to detail on what some may view as insignificant components of day-to-day life. Whether she's witnessing a Romani gypsy pilgrimage, sailing in the Bay of St. Tropez or merely scouting the local farmer's market while tackling the French language, Simons' chatty re-telling of her daily experiences make even the most mundane event seem whimsical.
Perhaps not surprising for a book set in France, Simons spends much time emphasizing food -- from the spirited traditions behind a Christmas Eve feast to the components of a picnic shared amongst friends on an all-day hike. Inspired foodies will similarly appreciate "Oscar's Recipes," a section which contains her husband's extensive Provencal recipe collection, from foie gras de canard to ratatouille.
Unlike many travel writers, Simons doesn't seem to take her French experiences for granted, and refreshingly does her best to seem grateful while acknowledging her privileged position. "If I were a painter, I know this would make me reach for my brush," she writes at the tail end of one vignette. "As it is, I just take in the abundance of color all around me...and I reach for my pen, while quietly rejoicing in my good fortune of living in an artists' paradise."