Towards the end of 2018, the birdwatcher (Ralph) proposes a project to his wife (Gayle). He wants to spend the whole of 2019 trying to spot 200 of the roughly 400 species of birds usually present in France. Gayle is in no position to refuse logistical and administrative support because Ralph has just stood loyally by her side for two years while she was writing her first book, ‘A Passion for Provence’.
There are three main themes to the story that unfolds.
On one level, this is familiar territory, a year in the life of a couple of foreigners who have settled in Provence, although Gayle and Ralph are clearly better integrated into their community than many other incomers. This is amply demonstrated throughout the book by a series of anecdotes. Perhaps most memorable is the account of Gayle’s nerve-wracking experience of being filmed on location in Saint-Rémy for a French travel documentary, talking about her first book.
The second theme is Ralph’s quest, and this enables the book to spread its wings far wider than the usual south-of-France memoir. Even if you have no interest in birds, it is a fascinating study of why humans like to set themselves needless, arbitrary and often pointless goals.
Half way through the year, Ralph and Gayle review the score: 150 out of 200 birds looks good on paper, but naturally they have seen all the common creatures, and new ones are becoming increasingly difficult to spot. They remind themselves that their second objective is to have fun, and indeed, quests like Ralph’s are rarely pointless. In this case, it provides a framework around which they can discover much more of France than Provence, try out the menu in countless good restaurants, and visit a wide range of ornithological habitats including sea, ocean, marsh, mountain, landfill site and sewage works.
The third strand is more unexpected. Gayle and Ralph have been together for 30 years, but the birdwatcher has never managed to transmit his lifelong passion to his wife – until now.
For much of the story, Ralph is out in all weathers with his telescope and guide book while Gayle is usually to be found in the comfort of a market, a café or a restaurant. When she does join him in the field, she frequently forgets her binoculars. But as Ralph’s excitement grows in proportion to the increasing rarity of the birds he is seeing, his enthusiasm becomes infectious.
To find out if the birdwatcher’s wife is transformed into the birdwatcher’s birdwatching wife, you will have to read this fascinating book about France and its feathered residents.
Available from Amazon in print and electronic book formats.