Pages from my journal, dated 23rd May 2010
La Garde-Freinet is a Provencal town in the Massif des Maures mountains, an ancient Arab stronghold backed by cork trees, a muddle of small squares, plane trees and little bars with wrought iron tables and chairs and tanned men drinking small glasses of rose before noon.
On the highest street under the mountain, no. 15, a rambling yellow house, looks across the balconies and vineyards to the facing slopes. It has cracked terracotta-tiled floors and large rooms with green wooden-shuttered windows that swing out over the cobbled streets. The front door is always ajar and we come and go from the shadowy low-ceilinged rooms. From worn divans in the afternoon, the air is golden over the valley and poppy petals blow through the door across the farmhouse kitchen.
From my room on the first floor I look out over the tiers of the red pan-tiled houses. There is the hollow toll of the church bell that strikes away the hours and then, inexplicably, strikes them again. We have a full house of eight, though now in the blanketing heat of the afternoon each has retreated into the shady bowels of the house to nap. In the mornings we buy croissants from the patisserie and breakfast on the rear terrace under the mountain wearing thin-strapped dresses and gauzy shirts. We drink coffee until we are jittery and the cafetieres are empty. Balzac is here, whispering: “ideas come crowding in, the artillery of logic advances”. But, below, the 203 pages of my first novel are left untouched. They can wait, for now.
In the afternoons we drive down the hill into Saint Tropez and the group splits according to gender; girls to the boutiques, boys to the bars along the old waterfront where the view of the bay is blocked by cruise-ships and helicopters landing on the decks of tycoon’s vessels beside the quay. On Saturday, the market is thronging with shoppers filling wicker baskets with cheeses and Tiffin boxes of paella, prawns and pastries and behind the nearest stall the buxom Madame pinches pasta parcels to make fresh ravioli. It takes forever to find a table for coffee and we share with an elderly lady sipping pastis while the crowd shifts by in the shade clutching tangerine Hermes bags and Sarah Jessica Parker readjusts her spiked heels and bad-temperedly browses the beatnik striped sweaters at the Breton stall.
Is has been said time and again that this once charming fishing village has been ruined, sacked by the filth of money, combed by oligarchs, every inch polished and painted, the narrow streets humming with Ferraris and Aston Martins, the brasseries and salons along the harbour glitter with polished glass and misted white muslin. All this, and more, is true. But still there is poetry here and after the initial revulsion of the obvious gluttony and opulence, the sun sets over the yachts and in the Café des Arts, ghosts of famous painters shift in the golden air of evening and tables of bohemians discuss Voltaire, murmuring alongside the aristocracy and the new money, and suddenly the texture and the colour and the sheer diversity of the port-life begins to sing to you until you are bewitched by its blushing pink walls, the silver olive leaves, the cypresses and dusty Boules alleys. It sings to your bones until you are drunk with it. St Tropez is an alternate reality, a place so removed from anywhere else, stubbornly holding its own rhythm. The intoxicant is knowing that while you are here you might as well settle in for sundowners, order another bottle of Beaumes-de-Venise and sip the taste of the sweet Muscat grapes watching the people go by, the supermodels and bearded hippies in espadrilles, overweight American tourists gushing over the czarinas alighting from their speedboats for supper in long dresses and diamonds… all the complexities and the greed, all the successes and the hopes, here they all are, brazenly worn on sleeves, strutting openly in the last slip of Provencal sunlight.
Winding up through the alpine foothills, the light fails over the arbousier strawberry trees, the orchards and vineyards and cork-oak copses. The French are as unpredictable on the roads as matatu drivers, swerving in and out across the dividing line. La Garde-Freinet is strung with fairy lights, the coral, mustard and lavender village houses of the French hinterlands candle-lit and sleepy, cobbles still warm from the sun. The mistral picks up and we sit around the log fire on Rue de la Planete, fingers sticky with truffle oil. After several months of solitary writing, broken only by walks along the river, to now be surrounded by family and friends, strolling along the white sand of Pampelonne beach beside a cerulean sea, taking long lunches on the shady terrace, is something akin to bliss. The house is full of laughter; it is the beginning of summer, and I cannot remember feeling more alive.