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Gypsy Roulotte-Chic in Provence

Benoît Peverelli A cluster of ornamental mushrooms flanking the retreat's <em>roulotte.</em>

Photo: Benoît Peverelli

Whether you view it generously as borrowing or disapprovingly as stealing, France's talent for cherry-picking the domestic savoir-vivre of others is hard not to admire. It's no accident that the French word for "cozy" is cozy, shorthand for le style anglais, an organic cocktail of proudly chipped creamware, cracked-leather fireplace fenders, and squishy chintz sofas. Generations after being introduced, the look has lost none of its potency, succeeding still in making French ladies in velvet headbands and boiled-wool jackets quiver and swoon.

For better or worse, la cuisine américaine, which describes an open kitchen that spills into another room, is also here to stay in France, while apartments from Le Mans to Marseilles are stuffed with a souk's worth of embroidered straw mats, mosaic tiles, and hammered-copper platters the size of Humvee hubcaps. (If you had lost Morocco as a colony, you might be nostalgic for this stuff, too.) And I won't soon forget the Hexagon's recent fugitive affair with yurts. Something about the typical provincial back garden, with its sighing hollyhocks and lettuces soldiered in rows, did not lend itself to fantasies of Kirghiz nomads.

Fashion is cruel. Call it opportunism, or itchiness, or avarice, but the French waste no time moving on. Having folded those yurts away in the attic to recharge their novelty for the grandkids, they are hitching themselves to roulottes, or covered Gypsy wagons, and the footloose bohemian esprit that goes with them. Transgression is also part of roulottes' appeal, allowing a population with famously conformist (and bourgeois) ideas about taste to express their inner magpie. The interiors of these veritable maisonettes on wheels are not so much borderline kitsch as kitsch. Light the campfire, tune up the violin, put a hedgehog in the oven, and bring on the dancing bears.

From Burgundy to the Bouches-du-Rhône, it seems you can't open an inn these days without a roulotte as a piquant alternative to the prosaic chambre avec douche. Tucked under trees or planted on well-chosen patches of green, they are used by home owners as guesthouses, offices, salons for reading and napping and taking the evening aperitif, or simply as spare rooms, exotic and transporting. Like mobile homes in France, roulottes benefit from the official designation HLL, Habitation Légère de Loisir, or Light Leisure Dwelling. As such, they require only parking permits, making them an easy way of adding square footage to a house or inn without enduring the red tape of an actual build. Anything not to deal with town hall.

Roulottes rolled across my imagination in the early eighties and never left. My enchantment is traceable to a little book called Pierre Deux's French Country, that sun-soaked volume about Provençal houses and textiles and pottery that transformed the south of France from an unself-conscious region into a self-conscious religion (500,000 copies in print worldwide). A lovely roulotte appears on page 143. This was my first exposure. Like photographs of unclothed people I find attractive, the picture kept me going for a while but then ceased to.

Working for W magazine in Paris, I casually contrived to assign myself a story on the founders of Souleiado fabrics, who—don't look at me, I was only doing my job—also happened to own the roulotte. With perfect innocence they led me to it, mysterious and melancholy, beside their little farmhouse. Isn't it crazy the things a person can get hooked on?

Roulotte culture is vast. My education had begun. In 1888 van Gogh painted Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans, a signal work of his Arles period. In Madeline and the Gypsies, Bemelmans has his star schoolgirl join the circus and make a tour de France in a roulotte ("Gypsies do not like to stay— / They only come to go away"), with postcard stops in front of Chartres cathedral and Mont-St.-Michel. Zola recalled how as a troubled schoolboy he longed to bump along forever in a roulotte to nowhere. "He lives as one dreams of living, in a caravan," Cocteau noted of the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. "And even when it was no longer a caravan, somehow it still was." Today, roulottes are part of the iconography used by the Gipsy Kings, who come from Gypsy communities in Arles and Montpellier, to sell and explain themselves and their rumba flamenca to gadje, the often hostile outside world.

Most scholars agree that the Gypsies are an Indian people who left the subcontinent in the 10th century for Persia. From there the exodus continued to Armenia, Syria, the future Iraq, Byzantine Greece, the Balkans, Western Europe, and North America. "The Gypsies have no home," Isabel Fonseca writes in Bury Me Standing, "and, perhaps uniquely among peoples, they have no dream of a homeland." Long past World War II, roulottes remained a way of life for European Gypsies, serving as both dwellings and conveyances, until government-enforced sedentarization in many countries forced them off the roads. Given their anguished history, some see the fetishization of roulottes in France as trivializing and politically insensitive.

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