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Visions of Happiness

[While holidaying in the South of France, Peter Ustinov was invited to a cocktail party aboard a sailing-boat in Cannes Harbour. Before leaving the party, an hour after his arrival, he had bought the boat. The Spanish Captain and his wife, who came along with it, were an integral part of the craft. ‘José Perez Jimenez’s passion for the sea,’ explains Ustinov, ‘is contained in an austere secrecy not unlike that of a monk for his God, and his controlled anarchy is utterly and uniquely Spanish. Salvador Dali’s answer when asked whether he believed in God would suit this Spanish attitude to the ground, even to the sky: Soy Praticante ma non Creyente, he said (I practise but I do not believe).’]

Nitchevo was, and is, a 58-foot ketch built of steel in Amsterdam in 1929 by De Vries Lentsch, as elegant and harmonious a craft as you could wish. Its past history was romantic... My rash, thoughtless purchase has given me some of the happiest times of my life. Had I been Getty or Onassis, I could imagine no luxury greater than arriving in Istanbul in my own good time, without the knowledge of Air France or TWA or even of Türk Hava Yolari. To see the minarets floating on a sea-mist of pink, the setting sun caressing the golden globes for the last fleeting moments before being engulfed in the rich purple of late evening, while a crescent moon, fragile as a clipping from a baby’s finger-nail, hangs palely overheard—that is beauty on the scale of personal achievement, in the sense that a runner bean from your garden tastes subtly different from one purchased in a shop.

I have faced high seas and even peril on old Nitchevo, with waves breaking on the roof of the deckhouse, arrows of icy water in flight as in medieval battle, little whirlpools scurrying round the calves and pushing at the ankles, seas angry and devious in their malice. All of it, even the moments of fear, was sheer exhilaration. Risk seems to be an intrinsic ingredient in a man’s life, a means of sharpening his knowledge of himself, and I had missed its presence, even during the war, under impersonal bombs or lost in the sludge of administration.

[Einstein was a private, contemplative man who enjoyed his own company most of all, followed by that of physicists, philosophers, and competent musicians, in approximately that order. Consequently he found much to irritate him when he traveled abroad as a lecturer, good-will ambassador, and world-famous personage. His four days in New York City in December of 1930, though not untypical, were among the most consistently unpleasant of all his experiences as a public figure. However, for a few brief hours near the end of that month he tasted the sweetness of life, as described below by Josef Eisinger, author of Einstein on the Road, 2011.]

As the ship approached the Canal’s southern (Pacific) terminus, the basaltic hills on both sides of the Canal grew ever higher, while the air became noticeably drier and appeared to have a bluish hue. Late in the afternoon, the ship reached the little port of Balboa (today a part of Panama City). A welcoming committee greeted Einstein and Elsa and presented them with a schedule of activities that the German ambassador had prepared for the five hours that their ship would remain in port. First, a swimming demonstration by children—they swam like ‘little seals’—then a drive to the top of a hill covered with luxurious vegetation that afforded a glorious panorama. Next, a visit to Panama’s president, who turned out to have been a student in Zurich and who happily exchanged youthful reminiscences with Einstein. At sunset, there was a handshaking session on the beach of the German Club, and then a cheerful Berliner—a Frau Kuhn—drove the Einsteins to the ruins of the original site of Panama City, sacked by the privateer Henry Morgan in 1670. Einstein and Elsa then ended up in a ‘fantastic garden’ where they dined al fresco to the sounds of a melancholy jazz band. The president of the Chamber of Commerce presented Einstein with an exceedingly precious panama hat, and by the time the entire party returned to the Belgenland, everyone was in animated high spirits. In his diary, Einstein professed that those few hours ashore had indeed been ‘magical.’

[British author Peter Mayle and his wife retired to the south of France where they bought and renovated a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron. In his charming best seller A Year in Provence, 1989, he devotes a chapter to each month of the year they spend renovating their house and acclimatizing to a new country and a new way of life. The short first passage touches on the process of renovating as experienced in a warm southern climate and a slow southern culture. The long second passage pertains to food and the French attitude towards it. It confirms George Bernard Shaw’s observation, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”]

Work on the house was going according to schedule—that is, each room was taking three months from the day the masons moved in to the day that we could move in. And we had the prospect of Menicucci and his radiators to look forward to in August. In another place, in less perfect weather, it would have been depressing, but not here. The sun was a great tranquilizer, and time passed in a haze of well-being; long, slow, almost torpid days when it was so enjoyable to be alive that nothing else mattered.

One of the characteristics which we liked and even admired about the French is their willingness to support good cooking, no matter how remote the kitchen may be. The quality of the food is more important than convenience, and they will happily drive for an hour or more, salivating en route, in order to eat well. This makes it possible for a gifted cook to prosper in what might appear to be the most unpromising of locations, and the restaurant we had chosen was so isolated that on our first visit we’d taken a map.

Buoux is barely large enough to be called a village. Hidden in the hills about ten miles from Bonnieux, it has an ancient Mairie, a modern telephone kiosk, fifteen or twenty scattered houses, and the Auberge de la Loube, built into the side of the hill with an empty, beautiful valley below it. We had found it with some difficulty in the winter, doubting the map as we went deeper and deeper into the wilderness. We had been the only clients that night, eating in front of a huge log fire while the wind rattled the shutters.

There could hardly have been a greater contrast between that raw night and a hot Sunday in May. As we came around the bend in the road leading to the restaurant we saw that the small parking area was already full, half of it taken up by three horses tethered to the bumper of a decrepit Citroën. The restaurant cat sprawled on the warm roof tiles, looking speculatively at some chickens in the next field. Tables and chairs were arranged along the length of an open-fronted barn, and we could hear the ice buckets being filled in the kitchen.

Maurice the chef came out with four glasses of peach champagne, and took us over to see his latest investment. It was an old open carriage with wooden wheels and cracked leather seats, large enough for half a dozen passengers. Maurice was planning to organize horse-drawn coach excursions through the Lubéron, stopping, bien sûr, for a good lunch on the way. Did we think it was an amusing idea? Would we come? Of course we would. He gave us a pleased, shy smile and went back to his ovens.

He had taught himself to cook, but he had no desire to become the Bocuse [Paul Bocuse is a famous French chef] of Buoux. All he wanted was enough business to allow him to stay in his valley with his horses. The success of his restaurant was based on value for money and good, simple food rather than flights of gastronomic fancy, which he called cuisine snob.

There was one menu, at 110 francs. The young girl who serves on Sundays brought out a flat basketwork tray and put it in the middle of the table. We counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres—artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on the top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pâté and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade.

The other customers were all French, people from the neighbouring villages dressed in their clean, sombre Sunday clothes, and one or two more sophisticated couples looking fashionably out of place in their bright boutique colours. At a big table in the corner, three generations of a family piled their plates high and wished each other bon appétit. One of the children, showing remarkable promise for a six-year-old gourmet, said that he preferred this pâté to the one he ate at home, and asked his grandmother for a taste of her wine. The family dog waited patiently by his side, knowing as all dogs do that children drop more food than adults.

The main course arrived—rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans, and a golden potato-and-onion galette. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape was poured, dark and heady, “a wine with shoulders,” as Maurice had said. We abandoned plans for an active afternoon, and drew lots to see who would get Bernard’s floating armchair.

The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, and then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts—lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and créme anglaise all sharing a plate. Coffee. A glass of marc from Gigondas. A sigh of contentment. Where else in the world, our friends wondered, could you eat so well in such unfussy and relaxed surroundings? Italy, perhaps, but very few other places. They were used to London, with its overdecorated restaurants, its theme food, and its grotesque prices. They told us about a bowl of pasta in Mayfair that cost more than the entire meal each of us had just had. Why was it so difficult to eat well and cheaply in London? Full of easy after-lunch wisdom, we came to the conclusion that the English eat out less often than the French, and when they do they want to be impressed as well as fed; they want bottles of wine in baskets, and finger bowls, and menus the length of a short novel, and bills they can boast about.

Maurice came over and asked if his cooking had pleased us. He sat down while he did some addition on a scrap of paper. “La douloureuse,” he said, pushing it over the table. It came to just over 650 francs, or about what two people would pay for a smart lunch in Fulham. He shook his head. “It’s good here. I have everything I want.” He could see himself there and cooking in twenty-five years’ time, and we hoped we would still be in a fit state to totter up and enjoy it.

On the way home, we noticed that the combination of food and Sunday has a calming influence on the French motorist. His stomach is full. He is on his weekly holiday. He dawdles along without being tempted by the thrills of overtaking on a blind bend. He stops to take the air and relieves himself in the bushes by the roadside, at one with nature, nodding companionably at passing cars. Tomorrow he will take up the mantle of the kamikaze pilot once again, but today it is Sunday in Provence, and life is to be enjoyed.

[It’s not always easy to say why two highly disparate human beings delight in one another’s company. But there is no doubt that Fr. Leopoldo Duran, an extremely orthodox Spanish priest, and novelist Graham Greene, a left-wing and heterodox Catholic really hit it off. Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting. Greene was an exceptionally bad Catholic—when in 1948, Catherine Walston, his second of four mistresses, challenged him about rumours that he paid women for sex, he scribbled down a list of his 47 favourite prostitutes and gave it to her. Fr. Duran was Greene’s polar opposite, a man of deep and natural faith. When Greene asked him about that faith the priest claimed that he replied truthfully and succinctly: “I do not believe in God, I touch him.” Fr. Duran was absolutely convinced that this remark, which just came out of him, was providential. It should be added that while Fr. Duran was of very humble origins, he was a literary academic who happened to admire Greene’s work. Whatever the reasons, they seemed to be happy in each other’s company, as the following passage from Duran’s portrait of their friendship makes clear.]

The dinners at Antibes! My best moments with Graham were always at dinner time, alone, at his home. Lunch was always at a restaurant.

In the mornings, we would set out to do the shopping for the evening meal. Nothing that needed cooking, just food that was prepared beforehand: smoked trout or salmon, cold meats . . . Our dessert was usually an apple tart. And a bottle of good wine was essential.

We would eat at about half past seven in the evening. But the meal was the least of it. The conversation, which had hardly slackened all day, now miraculously revived, and the evening would usually continue until eleven o’clock, midnight, or even later . . . When I think back on our friendship, it is those conversations over dinner at Antibes that I now remember with most delight and nostalgia.

Of course, we talked wherever we were, but those conversations in Antibes were very different. It may have been the fact that we were on our own. Or perhaps it was the time of day, or the particular quality of the silence at dusk on the Côte d’Azur. Greene was always at his best towards the end of the day. If he was always an unparalleled conversationalist, at those dinners at Antibes he was an enlightened one.

Without being in the least pretentious, Graham would delve into his memory with disarming naturalness and the atmosphere would became almost magical. These were moments one never wanted to end. It was as if all sorrow had been removed. Past and future seemed to vanish; only the present mattered. Everything seemed to come to the surface during those long table discussions: Church and State, politics and the Pope, literature and theology . . .

A friend is someone with whom one can discuss anything at any time without ever bothering about having to be careful. I have no idea what the future holds in store for me, but I do know that after those conversations in Antibes it will be difficult, probably impossible, to find anyone who could ever equal Graham’s genius for friendship.

[During the war British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, worked in espionage. A few months after the liberation of Paris in 1944 he received an intimation that his boss, the new head of MI6’s Section Nine, which kept an eye on Communist activities, wanted to come over and meet with him. They arranged to dine out, and although they talked shop, sweetest of subjects, the ostensible reason for their getting together remained virtually unmentioned. His superior seemed very relaxed and it was an altogether enjoyable evening for the junior man, in no way impaired by the fact that his companion was Kim Philby, a Soviet double agent, and probably the most illustrious traitor of the twentieth century. With a good writer’s precision, Muggeridge describes that very pleasant mood on leaving a restaurant that many of us will recognize from our own experience.]

When we left our restaurant in the champs Élysées (His Majesty’s Government footed the bill), the evening seemed very mild and agreeable, the lights very bright, the people strolling about and sitting in the cafés, very delightful. It was one of those occasions when you seem to hear, underlying the noise of life, music mysteriously playing in the far distance—a kind of heavenly muzak coming from loudspeakers posted along the Milky Way, and you wonder how it has come about that there are so many beautiful women in the world.

[This description of fictional happiness comes from Evelyn Waugh’s popular novel Brideshead Revisited. The main character in the novel, Charles Ryder, has been invited by his rich, charming friend, Sebastian Flyte, to accompany him to Venice where they stay with Flyte’s father, who is living in considerable luxury with his mistress. Ryder, whose childhood was one of drabness and emotional deprivation, responds keenly both to his friend’s family and to the artistic splendours of the city. The novel was set in the 1920s before the advent of mass tourism, which gives Venice a nostalgic aura. Does this description of happiness work for you? If not, you may want to try the lavishly filmed Venice episode of the TV production of Brideshead Revisited, 1981. The passage below was broken up into about three sections and is spread over a few youtube videos starting HERE.]

The fortnight at Venice passed quickly and sweetly—perhaps too sweetly; I was drowning in honey, stingless. On some days life kept pace with the gondola, as we nosed through the side-canals and the boatman uttered his plaintive musical bird-cry of warning; on other days, with the speed-boat bouncing over the lagoon in a stream of sunlit foam; it left a confused memory of fierce sunlight on the sands and cool, marble interiors; of water everywhere, lapping on smooth stone, reflected in a dapple of light on painted ceilings; of a night at the Corombona palace such as Byron might have known, and another Byronic night fishing for scampi in the shallows of Chioggia, the phosphorescent wake of the little ship, the lantern swinging in the prow and the net coming up full of weed and sand and floundering fishes; of melon and prosciutto on the balcony in the cool of the morning; of hot cheese sandwiches and champagne cocktails at the English bar.

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