The house was beautiful. Two hundred years old, weathered stone walls, set among vineyards -- a typical Provencal mas, as solid and friendly as a farmhouse could be. And it was exactly where we had dreamed of living for years, at the foot of the green Luberon Mountains, about halfway between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France.
But if the house was a dream, the kitchen was a nightmare. One mean window, designed to let in as little sun as possible; a ceiling low enough to inspire claustrophobia in a midget; dark tiles, dark closets, dark sink and a dark door to seal off the unfortunate cook from the outside world. It was a prison with cooking facilities.
Although it was almost winter by the time we had settled in, my wife and I decided that the kitchen had to go. While the work was being done, we would cook on the barbecue in the courtyard. This, after all, was Provence, the land of balmy breezes and almost permanent sunshine. A few weeks of inconvenience that we would hardly notice, and then we would have a kitchen fit for human consumption.
Our friend Christian said that he would arrange the e'quipe -- the team of artisans who would transform the black hole into a cook's paradise -- and one sunny morning the men all gathered in the gloom around the stove for an on-site meeting. There was a distinct Italian flavor about the proceedings. Most of the men came from families that had moved to France two or three generations ago to find work -- Menicucci the plumber, Bonzi the electrician, Zanchi the carpenter, Trufelli the tile-layer, Mastorino the painter, a forest of waving arms, a babble of optimistic conjecture about the speed with which the job would be finished.
But before they could start, there were a few adjustments to be made in basic construction, and this was the responsibility of Didier the mac on, Eric, his right-hand man, and Claude, the artist with the cement mixer.
Didier might have been a boxer in training, young and visibly fit, with an interesting habit of punctuating his conversation with dramatic physical flourishes. When we asked him if there was anything he could do about the low ceiling, he looked up at it and grinned. "False," he said. "Aucun proble`me" -- no problem at all. He punched straight up from the shoulder and made a plate-size hole above his head. "Voila`!"
Work officially started at 6:30 one morning at the end of October with a spectacular display of brute force as the small window was made into an opening large enough for a man and a wheelbarrow to pass through. Despite the fact that the wall was nearly a meter thick, the opening was made before noon, in a blur of sledgehammers. I have never seen men take such noisy and evident pleasure from the act of demolition. When they stopped for lunch, the kitchen was a shambles, foggy with the dust of destruction.
A ramp of planks was erected up to the hole in the wall, about 10 feet above ground level, so that the mac ons and their loads could come and go without having to make a detour through the living room. Didier, half-man, half-forklift truck, was somehow able to run up the steep, bouncing ramp pushing a wheelbarrow brimming with wet cement and still have sufficient breath to whistle as he ran. It was an impressive performance, particularly since he was smoking a cigarette at the same time. With heroes such as these, we thought, the job would be over in a matter of days.
Assumptions about time in Provence are unwise, as we soon discovered. Any form of building work here is rather like trench warfare: Brief periods of ear-splitting and physically perilous activity give way to longer periods of no activity at all, and that is what happened. The kitchen was pulverized and stripped to the bone, and we waited for stage two -- the rebuilding -- to begin. But there was un petit retard, a little delay. The other members of the team, for a variety of highly plausible reasons, were not quite ready to start work. And so the gaping hole in the wall was covered with a sheet of plastic, the cement mixer was put out to graze in the field behind the house, and we were told that normalement (normally -- a favorite Provencal disclaimer that excuses all future sins and omissions), normalement, work would resume very shortly.
While we waited, November turned into December, the weather changed, and the temperature tumbled from mild to biting cold. Then the mistral arrived, howling down the Rhone Valley to score a direct hit on the wall with the gaping hole. Officially, the mistral is just a wind. In reality, it is more like a hurricane, capable of ripping off roof tiles, uprooting trees and tearing off their hinges any windows that have been left open.
A reading taken at the Marseille airport clocked the wind speed at 180 kilometers, or 112 miles an hour. The temperature dropped to below zero. The pipes froze and burst. We barbecued in gloves and overcoats and cowered in bed as the mistral moaned through the house, turning it into a stone refrigerator.
Menicucci the plumber arrived to repair the burst pipes, dressed in thermal boots and a woolen bonnet pulled down to cover his ears. He sucked his teeth and muttered "Oh la` la`" many times as he inspected the split and bulging copper pipes. Co~te d'Azur plumbing, he said it was, adequate for the gentle climate of the coast but no more use up here than paper straws. Winters could be hard in the Luberon, he said, as he warmed his fingers on the blowtorch.
When work eventually started again, in December sometime, we met Ramon the plasterer, who was to be with us for several weeks and dozens of bottles of beer, a six-pack a day. Each morning he would arrive cursing the cold, change into his plaster-covered boots, turn on his plaster-covered radio and slowly, with frequent stops for refreshment and conversation, cover another few feet of raw kitchen.
He made a graceful arched ceiling, lying on his back on a scaffolding platform, his mustache turning from black to plaster-white in the course of the day. He made shelves and ledges, thick and soft-looking, with curves instead of sharp angles. He never used an instrument to check the straightness of his lines, claiming that he had a perfect eye. And when one evening I went over his work with a spirit level, I found that it was as he had said: All lines and levels were true.
When he left, through the hole in the wall and down the plank ramp, he was replaced by Trufelli the tile-layer, with slabs of honey-colored pierre de Tavel from a quarry near Avignon. We had decided to use local stone wherever we could -- it's beautiful and costs less per square meter than vinyl -- but we hadn't taken into account the gastronomic consequences. The fine powder from cut stone is able to penetrate packages, plastic bags, refrigerators, butter dishes, coffee grinders and corked wine bottles, and it hung in the air for weeks as Trufelli cut his tiles and flagstones, adding a certain gritty je ne sais quoi to every meal.
But progress was being made. We had our elegant plasterwork, we had a handsome stone floor and tiled work surfaces, we had promising gaps for appliances. We had our refrigerator already, and waiting in the garage was a sturdy black and brass stove with a cast-iron top, half-electric, half-gas (the second option made indispensable by the frequent local power cuts), made by Godin, which has been in the stove business for more than 100 years. With this, and one or two final touches, such as a sink and electricity, we would have a kitchen. There was, however, still no immediate danger of a window to keep out the mistral, and we were finding life in the Arctic less of a novelty with every passing week.
In other parts of the world, it may be possible to discuss dates and deadlines with a straight face and reasonable expectations. In Provence, this is out of the question. In Provence, you learn to live with the concept of infinitely elastic time; there is even a short and misleading vocabulary used to describe it.
Un petit quart d'heure, you might think, means about 15 minutes. You are wrong. It means sometime soon, maybe even today if all goes well and the business of the moment is completed.
En principe, demain is understood by the optimist to mean tomorrow. What the optimist chooses to ignore are the two words that provide an escape clause if tomorrow never comes. En principe, in theory, like the fine print in an insurance policy, is the repository of the extenuating circumstance. If the truck doesn't break down, if the weather is too bad to go hunting, if the brother-in-law returns the tool kit he has borrowed, if the previous job is finished -- if all these tedious and distracting possibilities can be avoided, then tomorrow it is. But don't count on it.
Huit jours is the Provencal week. It is a day longer than the conventional week to provide room for misunderstanding and delay when arranging a rendezvous. And the most elastic time segment of all, the phrase that should always be treated with the deepest suspicion, is une quinzaine. This can mean anything -- next month, sometime in the spring, next year. But never, ever does it mean 15 days.
This we learned during the months of living with the builders and the unfinished kitchen. And because they were free with their advice and generous with their knowledge, we learned about many other aspects of Provencal life. We were told how to find truffles, how to cook wild mushrooms, where to go for the best bread, when to cut lavender, how to get rid of the large and muscular Provencal ant, what to do in case of snakebites. A comprehensive rural education was included in the price of the new kitchen, which reached completion just as the winter winds were beginning to subside, suggesting a friendlier season ahead.
And our teachers, as unpunctual and infuriating as they often were, became friends. When they worked, they worked long and hard, although the gaps in between taught us to allow no less than three months for each room we now suddenly wanted to restore. They were relentlessly cheerful in the face of freezing, cramped conditions. They were honest -- and wonderful craftsmen. But if you should ever have the good luck to move to Provence, throw away your watch and don't bother to pack your datebook.
Former advertising man Peter Mayle's current book is A Year in Provence (Alfred A. Knopf).