Merde is the Word

A year in the merde

As Stephen Clarke puts it, he’d like to thank the French government for its 35-hour week, which allowed him time to “do more interesting things on a Friday afternoon than work.” His Friday afternoons have been spent, in part, churning out additions to a series that had its origins in the 2004 A Year in the Merde. (And once again, let us doff the hat for another play on titles inspired by Peter Mayle’s considerable oeuvre.)

But A Year in the Merde is not a book of charming anecdotes of a well-off, semi-retired writer living in the country. Instead, protagonist Paul West, who has experienced some success in marketing in his native Great Britain, has been brought into a Paris corporation that has its family roots in a butcher’s shop to help it gain some panache by setting up tea shops. From day one, West, who doesn’t really speak French, experiences comic encounters, beginning with his boss and extending to his “tea team,” none of whom speaks English well. West is confounded by the use of tu and vous, among other aspects of French culture. Well, frankly, he is just confounded. He doesn’t understand the way French do things. And if they truly wish to have tea shops, then shouldn’t they be done in a British way? Mais, non! The French believe that “My Tea is Rich” would be a terrific brand for the new shops. West disagrees. That makes no difference when his new business cards arrive with the “My Tea is Rich” logo.

But West spends only part of his time in the office. He’s often out in the local expat pub getting blotto and shagging whomever he picks up at the bar. This inspires quite a bit of raunchy language and scenes. At one point, he feels the necessity to describe a used condom. TMI! I prefer his insights into French culture, such as the calendar year that really begins with September and his descriptions of how he learns to make a salad and vinaigrette dressing in the French style. While West bemoans much of the French way of being, it’s telling that when he visits his family back home over the holidays that he has adapted to and adopted French ways, such as preferring not to cut his lettuce at the dinner table.

Still, West is in the merde in many ways, seeming to be drawn like radar to any dog poop on the sidewalk, having to try out the French medical system, and eventually getting fired from his job. Insider tips about living in Paris abound, but for me, I’ll always be thankful for the phonetic pronunciation provided of Rue Montorgueil (Montor-goy) which finally helped me conquer that tongue-twisting name.

Clarke began his Merde publishing career with a personally financed print run of 200 copies of this narrative and seemed surprised when it was a runaway hit. While I don’t see myself continuing with the series, for those who like a scatological slant on living in France, there are also these clever titles: Dial M for Merde; Merde Happens; Merde Actually.

"There are lots of French people who are ...

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