There are places in this world where the smell of money is unmistakable.
It's a sensuous, cashmere-soft undertone in a gentle breeze, a heady, truffled, wrap-around seductive scent that envelops and calls like a siren to all in its path – even a woman with holes in her sandals.
The second I hit the Luberon in Provence, it hit me. Money. Wealth. Prada. Gucci. Chanel. BMW. Bentley. Mercedes. People with peachy, cared-for skin, maintained by other skilled hands; hair so artfully natural that several shades of blonde have been woven into it, strand by expensive strand; Chanel-hued pedicures in Tod's loafers of the sweetest pastel leather; a discreet flash of a Bulgari gold-and-sapphire band on an exquisite honeyed arm.
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Hi, honey, I'm home.
Dear God, let me expire now on the blond cobbles of the village of Gordes next to the hotel and spa where we're pausing for a drink on a terrace that hangs over a deep-cut valley, with oak-covered mountains a seemingly endless backdrop.
I languidly gesture to the waiter to bring me the bill for the four of us, reverting, oh so frighteningly easily, to the old scatter-cash days of black AmEx infamy.
The sound of a fountain cuts through the 40C heat as I gaze dreamily around me: there is not one ounce of flab on show. Not one T-shirt with a sequined message. Not one jarring moment as the eye pans. Linen, silk and pure cotton enfold the long, lean bodies of Europe's finest. The sunglasses are huge, the tans even, untouched by bites or blotches.
English aristocrats, minor royals, French filmmakers and brown-eyed Italian trust-fund boys drift here from gated estates and chateaux plopped like jewels in a tiara in the heavily forested surroundings. They bring with them a faint and rather compelling sense of ennui: a cold eye accepting/expecting of such beauty, a latent discontent which, being essentially shallow, I find wickedly attractive.
For such people this is La France Profonde: rural, real France.
Much as I enjoy them, God love 'em, they haven't a clue. Like Marie Antoinette creating her hamlet at the Petit Trianon and playing at being a shepherdess, they inhabit a fantasy world as only the very rich can afford to do, a world which will not change unless they decide it will be so.
No, profonde is my bit of France – gently lovely, without being as ravishingly dramatic as the Luberon, it smells of manure and hard work, past hardship and present confusion, an unspoken acknowledgment that our time here is brief and, ultimately, the land cares not.
Our tourists and holiday homeowners are centime-counting bourgeoisie with a deep love of France who care little for, nor can afford, Michelin-starred restaurants and off-shoots of the great couture houses. Our locals are peasant stock. Crafty and canny, they disdain materialism yet squirrel away their cash as proof of their being, to what end I have yet to discover.
Our markets, while outwardly as colourful as those in Provence, are actually deeply practical. A corkscrew is a corkscrew, not a designer machine to be reverentially removed from a walnut casket. Shoes and sandals lie semi-boxed – solid, necessary protection – far removed from the offerings of thin strips of leather arranged on a Perspex block. They also pander to local style viz the sequined T-shirt, frou-frou skirt and studded handbag. Rarely will one see the understated linen shifts in beige, tan or indigo which tastefully line the Luberon streets. Let us be honest here: it was the Luberon world I aspired to when coming to France, not the rustic outpost into which finances and fate conspired to land me.
What is all this rustic farmhouse thing about? No, had I the money I'd most happily swap an afternoon with a toothless farmer for a 10-minute pedicure any day. See? Shallow.
All this was running through my head as I gestured for the bill, nibbling a last almond. When paying one never wants to be rude by looking too closely at the amount, does one? We'd had two white wines with two citrons for thirst, one beer and one bloody mary. Hardly excessive.
I hope I didn't reveal my horror. I looked again to be sure. Nope, correct. Fifty-three euros. For that amount I could have bought almost 35 bottles of bordeaux in Lidl.
Still, nothing showed on my face as I punched in my card number. At the next table a champagne cork was lovingly eased out of its bottle. The couple drinking it seemed distracted, hardly bothering to savour it as they stared into separate distances.
The evocative sound of my past now seemed a touch mocking.
And then the breeze blew and with it the caress of money. Fifty three euros? Nothing, darling. n