It takes a gifted writer to turn Merde into gold. Stephen Clarke is such a writer. During his time in Paris, he put his misadventures in a Bridget Jones diary-style to paper. At first, he only printed about 2,000 copies to send out to family and friends to share his experiences out of the perspective of Paul West, a 27 year-old Englishman. Quickly the word spread and “A Year in the Merde” turned into a must-read.
Due to his great appreciation for women’s underwear, Paul West decides to move to Paris, where he was offered a one-year-contract to launch a chain of English tea rooms. To his shock, the city of love is nothing like he imagined. The streets are littered with hazardous dog droppings (“About 650 Parisians end up in a hospital after somersaulting over a sample of the 15 tones of poop by 200,000 dogs.”) and striking appears to be a national sport.
Also, language and cultural differences immediately cause complications that not even a Paul Smith suit and an expensive pair of underwear (for a boost of self-esteem) can fix. With all efforts, West tries to assimilate to the French culture before he can “kiss off”. As he is welcomed into the firm with “slow Alzheimer-sufferer French” and a lack of humor, he is also promised a team of English-speaking work-chums. Unfortunately, his colleges turn out incompetent and should rather be ignored or left to occupy themselves. No wonder that the team does not even get past choosing a brand name: My Tea is Rich (pronounced “Ma Tea Eez Reesh”) or Tea’s Café (“Tease Café”).
Single and unattached, Paul tries his luck with the French women. Being perceived as a true gentleman, a reputation earned thanks to the charming Mr. Darcy and Hugh Grant (If only West could be a little bit more like Bruce Willis.), he experiences more than once that his dates “do a Cinderella”. All in all, his love life is a rollercoaster ride with many ups and downs. One up being inside his boss’ daughter’s apartment (“Cheap housing for chronically over-privileged”) , which saves him from cheap housing that compares with “a storage cupboard for Toblerone”.
Whether you are France-phobic or France-philic, the comedy of errors “A Year in the Merde” appeals equally with its amusing observations of cultural differences between Brits and Frenchmen. “I wrote it for the poor naïve English tourists to help alleviate French culture shock.”, Clarke comments in The Guardian. A goal Clarke clearly accomplished, even though he (sometimes) ripped Paris of its romantic charm until nothing but a lacy thong was left.
With a striking authenticity and an English sense of humor, Clarke tells a story that will make you laugh-out-loud and keep you hooked until the final page.
Lanie Goodman: “Merde turns to gold”. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/jun/29/biography (28.08.2017)
Paul Clarke: “A Year in the Merde” (published 2004)