June. Flaming June. Not. Warm – yes. End of. I sit in my little hobbit house, garden doors open, looking out at the relentless rain. Cardigan on, cardigan off. Who else except the English so frequently adhere to the comforts of a cardigan? I think of the other place where I will be in on Saturday. That place of which I often use Jonathan Meades’ statement – ‘every Englishman has two countries – his own, and France’. More recently, and prosaically, Meades has updated this: ‘if I’d been in England, I’d be dead’… in this monotony of electoral opportunities, a timely reference to health systems.
I know what he means. I once became dangerously unwell in that other country. I passed an unexpected eight days in the Henri Dauffaut Hospital in Avignon, saddled down with numerous drips, a ‘nil by mouth’ regime, and easy access to the French Open from a room that I shared with an ancient being who farted for France. Difficult to think of anywhere that would be more reassuring.
Flat out, waiting for an ultra-sound scan, the kindly French folk played a quiet game of Cluedo: ‘this is Madame Green’ and, in reference to a moaning body on another stretcher, ‘this is Madame White. We’re just waiting for Colonel Mustard’. How we roared.
I’m to travel with a companion from the colonies. Ameriky. He’s in for a shock of the most pleasant kind once we’ve bumped onto the runway in an ancient prop plane and overcome the rental car fiasco. ‘Someone will meet and greet you from the security area’, says the man on the phone. ‘Have you ever been to Avignon airport?’ I respond. There are two rooms: arrive and leave.
It must be one of life’s greatest pleasures to arrive in Provence for the first time. They say that one’s first visit to Paris is an unmatchable experience. Paris is not Provence. It’s not even France. Provence is an indescribable challenge to the senses. There are no accepted terms of reference – suspend everything you live by, especially time, and all will be well. Immersion is essential.
Never fear that the place has been spoiled by the travelling classes. The folk of the South remain in a provençal bubble in which we come and go for a couple of weeks. Ignore the boutiques of St Remy. Read your Daudet and Mistral and look beneath to discover that the quotidian is as it was. Rien ne change ici. Which is why I keep going back.
And it’s why this piece has no beginning, middle or discernible end. Just popping the cardigan back on. Oh England – my England.