I thought it would be cute to give this post a French title. Twenty minutes later, I still could not decide whether I was using the correct form of the preposition “in.” My apologies if it should be dans les livres instead of en livres. Sigh. However, I think my meaning is clear even if it is possibly not grammatically correct. Apparently 4 years of French does not stick with you as much as one would hope. But the dilemma over which preposition to use and my anxiety to get it right is a useful metaphor for the books in this post.
When I picked out my summer reading, I literally wanted to be elsewhere, and if I couldn’t actually travel somewhere, I would do it through books. You may have noticed that many of the books I have posted about recently have been set in the U.K. I love the U.K., but I also love France and picked out a few books set there. It amuses me to read about clueless expats of various nationalities trying to live there. I’ve been to France twice, and they don’t make it easy for you. I remember my humiliation and embarrassment the last time I was in Paris when I enthusiastically greeted a shop owner with a hearty “bonjour” only to be corrected that since it was after 6pm, it should be bonsoir. I was mortified. I knew it should be bonsoir. Really, I did. But I was just so happy to be there that I greeted him without thinking. And it sort of pissed me off that he felt the need to correct me. Sure, yes, it’s his language after all, and I’m sure he gets tired of tourists mangling it, but did he need to be so snarky about it? I wanted to protest that I took French in school and tried to brush up on it before our trip (I even brought my flash cards with me). I’m not an ugly American. I expected tiny rooms and adore escargot. And I was trying! My husband is of French descent…shouldn’t that count for something? We love France and had dreamed of this trip for years. I felt that with one snarky comment he had lumped me in with every other clueless American tourist, and it was like a bucket of cold water was thrown over me. But it was a good lesson: we may love France, but it doesn’t necessarily love us back. C’est la vie.
What’s interesting about these two books is that the protagonists are far more knowledgeable about the language and culture than I am and they still encounter difficulty. It isn’t easy for anyone.
- In the Merde for Love is Stephen Clarke’s sequel to A Year in the Merde. The books are about Brit Paul West’s adventures in France as he attempts to work and find love. Clarke knows of what he writes as he is a British journalist living in France. Paul’s many adventures and encounters are often absurd (in a good way) and hilarious and paint a vivid picture of French culture as seen through a non-native’s eyes. Most of the expat-in-Paris books I have read are usually from the female perspective, so it is refreshing to have one from the male point-of-view. Sometimes the humor is a tad adolescent, and Paul and his friends are obsessed with women and sex, but you learn a lot about France as well as some choice vocabulary. This series of books is interesting because you are exposed not only to French culture but British culture as well. By the way…merde means “shit” in French. My in-laws use it as term of good luck. Interestingly, the Urban Dictionary tells me there is precedent for merde being used that way.
- Blame it on Paris by Laura Florand is another roman a clef based on the real events in Laura Florand’s life. It was especially interesting for me because Florand is not only from the South but lives and teaches at Duke University in NC (or at least did as recently as last year), so she’s not too far away. Blame it on Paris is her account of meeting her husband while in Paris studying for a year as part of her Ph.D program. Though widely-travelled, Laura is insecure and inexperienced with relationships, especially one with a hot Frenchman. The bulk of the book details their attempts to navigate each other’s cultures (French and Deep South), the compromises they have to make and the red tape they encounter in each country. I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book because it began awkwardly and rather clunkily as it tried to establish how they met, but once they got together, the book became much more interesting and funny. Being a Southerner who has European in-laws, I chuckled over his family’s response to dry counties, no-beer Sundays, grits and Wal-Mart. And Sebastien’s family has its own idiosyncracies. Florand is at her best when highlighting the differences in both cultures and finding her place in both. Sometimes you forget that she is a real person detailing her real life and you want to tell her to get over her neuroses, but all in all, it’s a good book.
Also recommended for francophiles or those who are curious about other expat experiences in Paris:
- Le Divorce (Johnson): fiction
- Almost French (Turnbull): non-fiction
- Paris Hangover (Lobe): fiction; racy, expat adventure