For Francophiles, on-the-go and armchair travelers, as well as anyone who fantasizes about escaping their home to touch down on a new horizon for an extended stay, An American in Provence: Art, Life and Photography by Jamie Beck is an enticing portal. It is Beck’s first book, published this month by Simon Element / Simon & Schuster, a 304-page hardcover brimming with intoxicating images and inviting words. A feast for the eyes and spirit. (And a holiday gift idea.)
Reared in Texas, Beck, an accomplished photographer, had for years owned a successful commercial studio in New York City, shooting ads and editorial for brands such as Cartier, Chanel, Disney, Donna Karan, Google, Nike, Oscar de la Renta and Volvo. Her extraordinary photos, too, appeared in fashionable magazines: Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. At the top of her game, award-winning Beck’s life swirled with the glamour of big city energy, culture, celebrities and chic events. Yet an inner whisper to slow her fast pace steadily grew more urgent. For her work, she traveled extensively, far and often. On one pivotal assignment, she eyed Provence — a region in southeastern France, which borders Italy and the Mediterranean Sea, then stretches north through the Rhone River to Avignon. Blanketed with lavender and wheat fields, olive groves, pine forests, vineyards and mountains, Provence had aroused her. The Land of Light “was burned into my imagination,” she writes. “I was never able to shake it from my mind…. I had been bewitched, constantly pulled to remember” its magical spell. Then, another assignment drew her back to Provence. “If my first trip was like falling in love at first sight, then the second visit was like meeting the parents and fitting right in. I can still remember pulling the rental car over on the way to dinner at Le Mas Tourteron to stand in a field of tall grass swaying in the golden, sunsetting light and feeling, for the first time in my life, safe.”
Later on, in 2016, Beck had a frightening inflight experience 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, flying from Sweden back to New York. The airplane shook with a bump. Then another. The fasten-seat-belt sign dinged. One minute she “was floating through the sky, the course of my life on cruise control,” writes Beck. A third shuddering drop followed. She feared a crash and closed her eyes, as cries of other passengers rose. “Most people at this point in their story say they thought about their family, loved ones, the choices they made to end up here, their childhood. I did not,” she continues. “I thought about France. I heard nothing but my voice in perfect clarity say, ‘Great. Now I’ll never know what it’s like to live in France.’ The words shocked me as much as the turbulence.” She made a promise to herself that if the plane landed, she would move to France. “In the time it took for my heart to beat twice, that moment of clarity changed the entire course of my life.” It jolted Beck to reposition her personal GPS and redirect her path forward.
She made the leap, one month later — after completing a complicated visa application process that, she remarks, is “not for the weak” — moving alone to a sleepy village in the Provençal countryside, intending to stay only one year. “I thought it would just be something to tick off the bucket list,” she writes. When Beck arrived, she barely spoke French. She didn’t adequately understand how to count Euro coins. Her tiny apartment, rented sight unseen, had unreliable internet and lacked appliances that are commonplace in America.
During those beginning months, at the end of summer and start of autumn, she mostly secluded herself, grateful for the sublime silence amid nature and chance to delve into a personal body of work. Her supportive husband and business partner, Kevin Burg, also a photographer, whom Beck describes as her best friend, remained in New York, giving Beck space to cocoon, reflect, breathe and create whatever she wanted without judgment. He joined her in Provence during the following spring. She writes about their reunion: “We laughed a lot…. Companionship was fun and interesting and loving again. As things began to blossom in the landscape outside that first spring, we once again blossomed toward each other.”
Beck’s sabbatical shifted her goals and photography focus, leaning into a profound curve. Eventually, she widened her circle of activities, nurtured connections with people in her French community and shared her storytelling and images on social media (Facebook and Instagram), garnering hundreds of thousands of followers. Beck’s initial quest for a hushed hideaway transitioned into a glorious five-year adventure — more soul soothing and artistically stimulating than she could have anticipated. It also led to the 2019 birth of her French-born daughter, Eloise.
Elegantly designed (replete with an attached forest green ribbon to use as a bookmark), An American in France chronicles Beck’s transformative journey. Throughout, her humor and honesty are engaging. Smartly, she also serves up practical and constructive travel tips for readers, which enriches the takeaway. She provides a glossary of common French words, as well as guides to wine-tasting and serving, shopping farmers markets, foraging, cooking, packing a picnic and sightseeing. There is enlightening info about the multiple paperwork steps of French bureaucracy and France’s generous universal healthcare system (after all, Beck had a child born there).
“I fell in love with Provence and with the insane beauty of Mother Nature that surrounds us and thrives within us,” writes Beck in the book’s Preface. “This place…would come to show me so much, including what it means to find a life you wish to live on repeat. I look forward to the views in summer, when the lavender blossoms next to the sunflowers. I long to taste the sweetness of grapes during autumn’s harvest and to sit by the fire in winter, patiently waiting for the day to come when the world explodes in spring flowers. What started out as a year in France has not come to an end, but rather has become a rhythmic cycle of life for this American in Provence.”
It would be appropriate to shelve this book near other notable first-person travelogues, such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly popular memoir: Eat, Pray, Love. Beck’s feat goes even further, unfurling sumptuous, painterly photographs that convey not only the physical impact of Provence’s gifts, but also capture its essence.
Beck’s essays — about defining happiness and beauty, understanding marriage and parenthood, determining the power of leaving and staying, embracing travel and discovering passion — are poignant. About her Provençal awakening and how it freed her, she writes: “I stopped doing everything I had been told all my life I needed to do as a woman.”
There are excellent farm-to-table recipes from French chefs and home cooks whom Beck befriended, such as Bresse chicken with morels and cream, French onion soup, wild thyme grilled lamb, duck confit with crispy herb potatoes, truffle flatbread, roasted sea bream, raw artichoke salad, lemon meringue tart, violet sorbet, chestnut cake and mulled wine.
“Making friends in the countryside is pretty straightforward,” Beck writes. “You find out who is around you, and you just sort of introduce yourself. The next step is to share a meal — all friendships are forged over food. There were some new Parisian chefs in town, Lise Kvan and Éric Monteleon, a young couple looking to open their own restaurant [here in the Luberon Valley]…. We met for lunch, and just like that, the same way you fold sugar into meringue, we folded into each other’s lives.” She explains that the important culinary mission in France is high quality ingredients: “The ingredients are so good here…that you have to do very little to make an unforgettable meal…. The beauty of this soup [above] is that it can be served cold, room temperature or hot, and you can make it a day in advance of a dinner party. Serve with a good crusty bread for wiping up the bottom of the bowl.”
Beck showcases her photography expertise via how-to tutorials, among them: selecting equipment, posing yourself, styling objects for a still life, using natural light, framing a subject, even photographing nudity. Beck’s sensuous self-portraits are particularly riveting.
Provence is awash in colors galore, in a kaleidoscope of shapes, patterns and textures. “Endless combinations have beckoned artists here for centuries,” writes Beck. “Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Gaugin — the diversity of color is a boundless source of inspiration.” Her photographs of lush flowers — visually alive with artfully positioned insects — are exquisite.
Beck and Burg and their Eloise remain in France — with trips back to the United States to see loved ones and for work assignments. “I truly believe,” says Beck, “you don’t need to live in Provence or want to mimic the lifestyle to take something from the lessons I’ve learned while living here.” Even in your home area, no matter your means, pausing a bit to absorb the best and the beautiful is healthy, she suggests. “Maybe you walk instead of [driving] the car, or you go to the local market instead of the grocery store, or you make an effort to share a meal with your friends and family once a week…. It’s about taking a moment to look around you and appreciate.”