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Tears in Provence - Jeremy Scott

Blog | By Jeremy Scott | Oct 17, 2022

Santé! Jeremy and Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, France, 1976

In 1975, adman Jeremy Scott left New York to build his dream home in France. It turned into an admin nightmare

Reader, I realised the dream. And may I give you a warning: DON’T.

For 20 years, I laboured in London and New York, manufacturing TV ads. I crammed gourmet food into the mouths of greedy, demanding clients with high anxiety pumping through their veins along with the copious alcohol I provided. My pleasure in food, drink and life itself quite drained away as my liver withered. After so much, I quit.

I bought a ruined olive mill in the foothills of the Alps behind Nice, on the bank of the River Cagne. Upstream, one’s sight line was cut off by a vertical cascade of white water plunging into the ravine.

There was only one snag: the river ran in the bed of the ravine, hidden from the mill. To make the view perfect would require one alteration: to dam the gorge to create a large natural pool, so close I could dive into it from the terrace.

To construct the dam, I recruited two mains d’oeuvres from a shanty encampment of Tunisian immigrants. Neither spoke a word of French but the project proved simple to convey.

The three of us stripped off and set to work. It took three weeks to build the dam with boulders from the riverbed. The sun burned hot but we could cool off in the river. It was satisfying labour.

Finally, we heaved the last boulder into place to plug the only remaining exit, and scrambled up the bank to watch. Slowly the surface of the water rose, creeping up the walls of the ravine. The pool took 15 minutes to fill, and then the water lipped the edge and sheeted down to continue on its course.

I stood entranced as the ravine morphed into a large pond. The transformation appeared miraculous – the most magical quarter-hour of my life. Overhung by trees, the tranquil surface sparkled in the sun.

Every prospect pleased – and only man was vile. I received a visit from the police. I knew there were three police forces in France: the CRS (the body-armoured cops who bust heads), the National Police and the Gendarmerie. But here was a fourth – the garde champêtre, rural wardens.

Officer Bon was a costive churl, in peaked hat and lumpy uniform in that particular shade of green that, even when accessorised with a gun belt and pistol, never really works.

He did not waste time with needless courtesies. ‘You have been denounced for stealing water,’ he said. ‘Under the law of 1854, article 78, I must search your property.’

I stared at him in shock.

‘Your identity,’ he snapped. He followed me into the living room as I went to fetch my passport. He examined my worn blue passport with a frown.

‘Your permis de séjour,’ he demanded.

My residence permit? He was speaking of a historic document, a souvenir of the past. France and the UK were now one. Officer Bon and I were brothers in the European Community.

‘Here you are always a foreigner,’ he told me. ‘The bathroom,’ he ordered. There he ran the taps and flushed the lavatory. ‘Where does this water come from?’ he asked. ‘The river?’

I told him it came from a spring on the hillside above my property.

He grunted and wrote something in his notebook. ‘The garden,’ he said.

I led him onto the terrace. Flagstones extended to where the tranquil surface of my pool glittered in the sun.

Officer Bon went rigid at the sight. ‘Hah!’ he uttered triumphantly. ‘A lake!’ He had found the stolen water. ‘A felony,’ he pronounced.

Surely not, I protested. I owned both banks, along with the riverbed.

‘But you do not own the water. The water belongs to the state.’ After taking several photographs and a sample of the evidence in a half-bottle, he left.

He was back two days later with an amende for 8,000 francs and a notice from the mairie that the stolen water must be released at once.

Now?

‘Now,’ he confirmed. ‘I shall stay here till you do so.’

I left him guarding the water while I drove to get the Arabs. They stripped and set to with pickaxes.

A key boulder prised loose. Water pressure hurled it downstream in the flood that followed, tearing away a whole section of the wall which disintegrated in the torrent. The dam had taken three weeks to construct and ten minutes to demolish. I watched my pool shrink till it became a hole in the ground.

The Arabs had skipped to safety to join us on the bank, naked in their hard hats and dripping water. ‘These men are known to me,’ said Officer Bon. ‘They are illegal immigrants. And you have paid them cash. You are subject to an amende for defrauding the state of their taxes.’

Reader, dream the dream, but be warned. However onerous the job, however alluring the dream, do not fulfil it. Enjoy it in your mind where dreams belong. Elsewhere you are always a foreigner.