Stephen Clarke, A Year in the Merde (2004, Black Swan Books 2005)
My travelling companion read three of Stephen Clarke’s Merde books in quick succession between Paris Gare de Lyon and La Grande Motte on the Mediterranean. Not only did she laugh frequently, but she would read bits out prefaced with phrases such as, ‘Ah, this is what was going on the other day.’
We were in France at the start of September and the phrase la rentrée is everywhere. We’d gathered that it signified the equivalent of our Back to School, with added intensity gained from the fact that an awful lot of enterprises shut down for les vacances d’été and open their doors again at this time. But this book explained it from the point of view of someone working in Paris, and certainly enriched our grasp of its meaning – a time for resolutions and new beginnings, etc.
Then there was the mysterious siren we heard exactly at midday in a small village during our walk on the Loire. Completely mystifying until – in Merde actually – we learned that at midday on a certain day every month all the airraid sirens of France have a practice run and are completely ignored by everyone except ignorant tourists. (We can vouch for the ignoring bit.)
I was confirmed in my impression that one asks for un carafe d’eau rather than simply de l’eau at a café unless one wants to pay for mineral water.
Apart from these useful snippets of information, and interesting bits of language artfully disguised as comedy, the book is a well-executed romp. I don’t plan to read the others, but if you’re travelling to France you could do a lot worse by way of preparatory or companionable reading.