Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Year in The Merde - Holiday reading book review

One of the good things about being away on holiday myself is that I actually get enough relaxation time to sit down and read books. I used to love reading as a child and it's just something that I never seem to get enough time to do these days.

So it was nice to be able to read on holiday, and in fact it became doubly nice to read Stephen Clarke's "A Year in The Merde" which (according to the introduction page) is an "almost-true account of the things that may or may not have occurred to the author in his ten years he has lived in France".

Basically the story tells a complete year in month-by-month chapters (running from September to May for reasons which are explained in the book) of how the Englishman Paul West arrives in Paris to launch an English tea-shop chain as a new venture for France's largest hamburger manufacturing company.

Paul starts off being hardly able to speak a word of French and struggling to understand anything of the country and the culture. When he goes for lunch with his impeccably dressed boss Jean Marie he thinks that eating "Chèvre Chaud" (literally translated as "Hot Goat") means he's going to get a horned goat's head served on a plate, and when the waiter asks "Et comme boisson?" (and what to drink) he mis-hears boisson as poisson and wonders why he's being asked about fish with the goat's head ... ?

There's a series of comic stories throughout the book as Paul tries to get to grips with his French team who try to converse with him in absolutely awful English, and who turn out to be completely useless and were only assigned to the tea-shop venture as France's employment laws prevent Jean Paul from firing them.
The team includes Bernard 'the Walrus' (with moustache to match), Marc who is "ed of hah tee" (head of IT), Stéphanie who's "responsa bull ov poorshassing" (responsible for purchasing for the meat-processing part of the company, and it turns out is having an affair with Jean Paul) and Christine, Jean Paul's assistant who Paul instantly fancies.

Christine it turns out becomes one of the few women in the book that Paul fails to seduce, but there's plenty of others including Jean Paul's daughter who becomes Paul's landlord, Alexa who Paul nearly buys a country cottage with (but the cottage turns out to be on the site of a proposed new Nuclear power station) and Marie his "cinq á Sept" - the person you meet to make love with between five o'clock in the afternoon and seven, before you go home to your spouse.

The story's littered with snippets of Parisian life like the frequent strikes and industrial disputes such as the metro drivers, the street cleaners, the police, the teachers and the porn stars on French TV (don't ask!).

I found that it was a book I couldn't really put down, the story just flowed by, and before I knew it I'd got to the end. It's not a side-splitingly laugh out loud book but instead gives a wry insiders look onto French culture and learning why the Parisians are the world's best at not caring with a massive Gallic shrug of the shoulders.

So Stephen Clarke's A Year in The Merde is well recommended, definitely a 4-star read.

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