If the rising price of airline tickets has you spending your summer vacation on American shores instead of jetting off to the Cote d'Azur, Stephen Clarke's hilarious new book is the perfect antidote. (Readers too relaxed to turn the pages can check out the audio version.)
As you might have guessed from its irreverent title, A Year in the Merde doesn't follow in the worshipful footsteps of such travelogues as A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun. Instead, Clarke's roman à clef (loosely based on his own experiences as an Englishman working in Paris) is a laugh-out-loud comedy of errors as the hapless anglais Paul West moves to Paris to open an English tearoom. Language and customs are immediately an issue Paul struggles with his French co-workers' ideas about what is English, tries to find a decent place to live in pricey Paris and juggles liaisons with his boss' daughter and a French photographer.
The appeal of A Year in the Merde (the title comes from Paul's unfortunate propensity for stepping in the dog droppings that litter Parisian sidewalks) isn't its sometimes slapstick plot but its droll observations on everyday life for a foreigner in France. Paul's difficulty ordering a normal-sized cafe au lait and his amazement at the lengthy list of French greetings (not limited to good morning good afternoon or good night, they also include the very specific have a nice rest-of-the-afternoon, among others) will strike a chord with anyone who's ever tried to get by in a foreign country. Clarke, who originally self-published his book in France, clearly knows the country inside and out, and his unvarnished but affectionate portrait is escapism at its best.
Trisha Ping spent a year as an English assistant in Mulhouse, France.