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Zabar’s Bad Year in Provence

Provençal natives condemn Eli Zabar as a force for Disneyfication. He pleads the Napoleonic Code.

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Pity poor New York bread-maker Eli Zabar. He thought he was helping out his adopted Provençal village of Ménerbes when he bought the building that houses the town’s only bar, the Café du Progrès. But now, good intentions gone badly awry, he is evicting the bar’s owners and finds himself portrayed as a tasteless American committing the coup de grâce of Disneyfication on the town that Peter Mayle initially degraded by putting it on the tourist bus map with his best-selling A Year in Provence.

Ménerbes has a mystique, of which its Café du Progrès is an integral part. The tiny, run-down boîte is one of those picturesque wine-country venues where villagers trade gossip, play cards, sip a drink, and buy newspapers and cigarettes as they have—one would like to think—for centuries. During the most recent wine-harvesting season, Ridley Scott (who owns property in the area) filmed Mayle’s novel A Good Year nearby, starring Russell Crowe (John Malkovich also lives nearby).

Zabar summers in Provence but doesn’t speak French well. He bought the building on the advice of his friend Yves Rousset-Rouard, Ménerbes’ mayor and a film producer (Emmanuelle). But after Zabar bought it, he learned that it came with a nasty lawsuit: “The building had two tenants, a woman who owns the restaurant and the couple who own the bar, and they hate each other,” he explains. Everybody knew about it but him.

Zabar insists the decision to shutter the bar was not his at all but was forced upon him by the judge overseeing the litigation between the bar and restaurant owners. Some years prior, the restaurant owner had sued the bar owners for serving food, which cut into her business. After the last round of appeals, the judge, Zabar says, ordered the bar owners evicted. “The restaurant owner in effect really won the lawsuit, but I, as the owner of the building, have to enforce the lawsuit or I will be sued by the restaurant.” It’s been a crash course in the Napoleonic Code for Zabar. “It’s like—it’s like being in contempt of court!” Reached by phone in Ménerbes, bar owner Patrick le Droguène, said it was a “very serious” matter but that he couldn’t get into details because “I don’t want to create animosity and I hope to negotiate” with Zabar.

Ménerbes is rife with rumors that Zabar has actually closed the bar so that he can turn the building into something touristique. “Without the café, the village will become just another Disney creation à la Peter Mayle’s appalling vision of what Provence should be like,” complained one nonnative. Zabar calls that idea “ridiculous. People around there see that we are Americans and assume we must be related to Mr. and Mrs. Marriott or something!” He recently posted a letter, written in French, acknowledging that the bar was a “lieu mythique” and promising to get it open as soon as possible under new management. “The only goal I have here is to get the bar open and get the unsanitary conditions cleaned up. It’s a really filthy, dirty place, believe me. The toilet leaks, the roof leaks. I buy my newspaper there, but you really wouldn’t want to touch anything. We have found a young man from the next village over to open it, and I will help him in any way I can. He doesn’t even speak English!” At the moment, the inhabitants remain très skeptique, and Ménerbians are signing a petition imploring Zabar to keep the café open. “It’s an indispensable sign of life,” Françoise Weck, a villager, complained to the local paper, La Provence. “Its disappearance would symbolize the death of village life … We don’t want it replaced by a chic tearoom or a four-star hotel.”

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