“Beautifully Written and Totally Fascinating to Me” Says Alice Waters

All Alone [an excerpt from Provence, 1970]

December 20, 1970

M.F.K. Fisher walked into the lobby at the Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles trailed by a bellhop.

Famously beautiful in her youth—she’d been photographed by Man Ray, and peered out glamorously from her book jackets—M.F. was still a striking woman. Her long gray hair was pinned up in an elegant twist at the back of her head, her eyebrows were pencil thin, and she was dressed in a tailored Marchesa di Grésy suit and a wool overcoat. She made her way to the front desk to check in. The decor was Provençal rustic, almost cliché, with tiled floors and wrought-iron chandeliers. She’d been here years ago, and it hadn’t changed a bit. Her heels made echoing noises in the empty lobby. It was the week before Christmas 1970, and the weather was unusually cold. She had the distinct impression of being the only guest at the hotel. The place was a tomb.

The tall man at the front desk was vaguely hostile. He was sullen, but, then, that seemed to be the default posture of French service personnel in general, at least when it came to Americans during the off season. Veiled contempt. He explained that the room she had written ahead to request—one facing the Place du Forum—would be too cold at this time of year. He did not apologize for the lack of heat, he simply stated it as a fact.

She asked to see for herself, and he was right: the heat was off in that part of the hotel, which was noticeably colder. And so she chose a room at the back of the building, on the first floor. It was named for Jean Cocteau (there was a small brass nameplate on the door), and inside was the largest armoire she’d ever seen. It must have been twelve feet tall. It was grotesque, she decided, but she liked it for the audacity of its scale.

The bed was comfortable, so there was that.

She unpacked her things, three suitcases’ worth, clothes for every occasion and weather, multiple pairs of shoes, books, and assorted papers, all of which fit easily in the enormous armoire. There was a writing table and a chair, and a photograph of Cocteau on the wall. She sat for a moment in the silence of the suddenly foreign room, looking at the quaint toile de Jouy wallpaper, and then withdrew from her purse a new notebook—small, pale green, spiral-bound. On the inside cover, she inscribed the words

WHERE WAS I?

in underlined capital letters. Where was she indeed? And why? She’d spent the previous weeks in the mostly pleasant company of family and friends, having traveled from Northern California to southern France with her sister Norah Barr, and then finding herself swept up in an epic social and culinary maelstrom, which seemed to involve everyone who was anyone in the American food world. Julia Child and her husband, Paul. James Beard. Simone Beck and her husband, Jean Fischbacher. Richard Olney. Judith Jones and her husband, Evan. Together they had cooked and eaten, talked and gossiped, and driven around the countryside to restaurants and museums and to the incredibly beautiful chapel that Matisse designed in the late 1940s.

She had left all that behind at the crack of dawn this morning. Raymond Gatti, the local chauffeur she knew well from a previous trip, had picked her up in his Mercedes and delivered her to the Cannes train station, telling her repeatedly that they would be far too early for the ten o’clock train. But she didn’t care. She preferred to be early: she had a great fondness for leisurely hours in train station cafés. And most of all, she was eager to get away and be on her own. She needed to write, think, and figure out what she wanted.

In her new journal, underneath WHERE WAS I?, she wrote:

I am in southern France, and it is December, 1970 and I am 62½ years old, white, female, and apparently determined to erect new altars to old gods, no matter how unimportant all of us may be.

The “old gods” were French, of course. They were the gods of food and pleasure, of style and good living, of love, taste, and even decadence. M.F. had spent the last thirty-odd years writing a kind of personal intellectual history of these ideals in her books, memoirs, and essays. These works were her “altars,” so to speak, and she was now embarked on a new one. This notebook would serve as the site of her daily communion with France.

France had long been at the center of her philosophy. She had made France a touchstone of her writing, in which she alchemized life, love, and food in a literary genre of her own invention. But she was suddenly keenly aware of the need to make new sense of the old mythologies. The events of the previous weeks had shown her the limitations of her own sentimental attachments—to the past, to la belle France—and confronted her with the too-easy seductions of nostalgia, the treacheries of snobbery.

She was alone in Arles for a reason. It was a reason she was still in the process of formulating.

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