Turns out you can judge a book by its cover. I walked by this at a bookstore and literally stopped in my tracks. Bought it a couple weeks later, and finished it last night.
Good read! The review blurb on the cover calls it “un-PC and mostly hilarious,” and they’re right on both counts. It’s the story of his year living in Paris, mostly as a marketer working to open a chain of British “tearooms.” It’s also about the work environment, the girlfriends, the contradictions, quirks and absurdities of behavior, both of the French, and eventuall about Clarke himself.
After many a hilarious and unsparing comment at the expense of the French, Clarke returns home for a visit, first struggling to find (of all things) the english for underwear at the local Marks & Spencer. Then it’s time for dinner at home:
When my mum put her usual salad bowl on the table–uncut lettuce leaves, whole tomatoes, cucumber slices, sticks of celery–I felt an irresistible urge to ignore the mayonnaise and salad cream bottles and make myself some vinaigrette. There was only malt vinegar in the kitchen, though, and some cooking oil of unidentified vegetable origin. I did my best with the ingredients at hand, returned to the table with my bowl of dressing, and began tearing up some lettuce leaves with my fingers. It didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything unusual until my dad asked, “Don’t they have knives and forks in Paree, then?”
“Yes, but …” I didn’t finish my explanation. Not because I’d forgotten the words, but because I realized how stupid it was going to sound to say, “One doesn’t cut lettuce with a knife.”
I read Bill Bryson’s “Neither Here Nor There” last summer, which is a breezy trip across Europe, and the two books are worth comparing. Bryson flits from country to country, often just long enough to do a time-condensed travel-writing/humor Alexis de Toqueville treatment of each country. While often funny (sometimes very, very funny), Bryson is often too content to go for the low-hanging fruit, and sometimes trades in cliches, which is irritating.
Clarke, on the other hand, is telling a long-form narrative, but the details that come out of it (who else can go on strike?) tend to be sharper, more subtle, and thus, less flippant, even if no less cutting.