A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke
This tongue-in-cheek account of the life of an English marketing executive working in Paris was an accidental runaway success. The author vanity published it initially but when word got ’round that this unknown had written a riot of a book about a chap called Paul West adapting to the ways of the French, the manuscript was scooped up and published properly, which is a very fortunate thing for us.
Paul West is trying to create a chain of tea rooms for his French pseudo-politician boss who insists on calling the company ‘My Tea is Rich’, in spite of West’s protests. West learns to date French-style, sees a bit of the country, befriends an American poet called Jake who has been in Paris so long that he’s forgotten how to speak English properly and realises that he might just prefer French life to what he’s left behind in Old Blighty.
This book will make you giggle inexplicably all the way to work and back. If you enjoy it, move onto the sequel, Merde Actually, which continues Paul West’s adventures in France, and third in the series, Merde Happens, which finds West in a mini with Jake and girlfriend, Alexa, crammed into a Union Jack mini as they compete against other countries to cross the States in the name of national pride.
The Olive Route, Carol Drinkwater
Anyone who is a fan of the Olive books by Carol Drinkwater will find this book interesting. A developing obsession with the olive tree sees Carol setting off on a journey around the Mediterranean, intent on discovering its history. She visits many countries on her quest, including Lebanon, Libya, Malta and Turkey, exhibiting boldness and courage as she travels alone through countries where the independence of women is not often seen. We learn about the Phoenicians and other ancient peoples whose trade routes influenced where the olive was cultivated, and meet modern characters who add colour to the story as it unfolds.
Carol Drinkwater has now taken her love of olives a step further and is working with UNESCO to develop an olive heritage trail around the Mediterranean Basin.
The End of Elsewhere, Taras Grescoe
I paid three pounds for this book in a second-hand bookshop in spite of its horrible cover where a couple of tourists look around as they hold information speakerphones to their ears. Obviously it was the subject matter which encouraged me to count out three gold nuggets and hand them over. Who could not be intrigued by these sentences, written on the back?
“Now that 700 million travellers leave home every year, there does not seem to be a single patch of earth untouched by the tourism industry. Lager louts vomit on Mediterranean beaches, extreme athletes race up the Matterhorn, and sex tourists head to Bangkok to hook up with underage girls.”
Gosh. That’s one way of summarising tourism for you. Now I had to know what this man was on about.
Grescoe guides us through tourism from its ancient beginnings to current trends. We meet pilgrims, learn about Thomas Cook, the man, visit a German spa town, travel on an 18-30 bus tour and try out a Club Med vacation. There are myriad experiences to savour or cringe at in this historical analysis of what makes us travel and it becomes a time-line of valuable insights regarding the development of tourism .
I rate this book highly. Don’t be put off by the cover, as I almost was. Buy it and take your time with it. There is so much information to absorb that it would be wrong to rush through.
When I eventually neared the end of The End of Elsewhere, I felt a bit sad. I certainly didn’t want to finish it and writing this has made me think that it might just be time to read it again.
Extremely Pale Rose – A Very French Adventure, Jamie Ivey
Sometimes life in London gets too much. The Rat Race was probably born here, the transport system stinks, there are too many people, too many queues and on a grey winter’s day when you go to work in the dark, come home in the dark and can’t remember what the sun feels like, fantasies of life somewhere quite different become commonplace.
Jamie Ivey’s book, Extremely Pale Rose, finds the author having one of those grey, London days, but instead of fantasising about being somewhere else, Ivey has a plan. He picks up his wife, Tanya and close friend, Peter, to accept the challenge of a French vintner from the previous summer to find France’s palest example of rose wine.
The adventure starts in Paris and zig zags around the hexagon as Jamie’s trio attempt to sniff out their target before the vintner’s deadline in six months’ time. They start as novices, make some blunders, try a great many wines and meet some characters of the wine world. That is all interesting enough in its own right, but the real page-turner is the challenge: will they make it in time? Will they find France’s palest rose wine?
The result is an entertaining and informative travelogue of pure escapism. Read it in winter for best results.
YET TO READ: the sequel, La Vie en Rose, where Ivey tries to run a rose bar in the South of France
A Chateau of One’s Own, Sam Juneau
Sam’s American. His wife, Bud, is Irish. Together they live in a tiny, rented apartment in Manhattan until they decide to get on the property ladder by investing in a gargantuan wreck of a chateau in France. Their chronicle of misadventures starts with a tangle of French bureaucracy and the transportation of Bud’s beloved cat family to France. It continues with the ups and downs of restoring their property with an ever-increasing pile of bills. As if they didn’t have enough on their plates, Bud is pregnant and has their baby the French way. There are also some rather unusual neighbours and that smell that wafts across the valley. Whatever can be causing it? A mysterious offer from Italy could fix everything. Will they accept?
Highly amusing, especially for DIY enthusiasts.
A Fortune-Teller Told Me, Tiziano Terzani
This was a book that I’d seen in the shops for some time, but always passed over in favour of something else. When I finally bought it and started to read, I wondered what had taken me so long.
Tiziano Terzani visits a fortune-teller in Hong Kong in 1976. He warns Terzani not to fly in 1993, not even once, for if he does so, he runs the risk of dying. Terzani puts the premonition to the back of his mind for the next decade and a half, but as 1993 approaches, he returns to the question of travel. Should he take the risk? Or should he swear off flying for a whole twelve months?
In the end Terzani decides not to tempt fate and tells his employers at Der Spiegel that he won’t be rushing off anywhere by plane or other flying device for a year. This poses some difficulty as Terzani is a foreign correspondent and it’s his job to get to the site of newsworthy stories as quickly as possible. Still, Der Spiegel obviously wanted to keep their man because after a bit of cursory grumbling, they grant Terzani his wish. He can use alternative transport for the whole of 1993 and try to show a different side to breaking news, as viewed from terra firma.
Wherever Terzani travels during 1993 he consults a soothsayer or fortune teller and this book documents the likelihood of their predictions along with opinions on cultural influences on their given fortunes. It’s at times deeply personal, written from the perspective of a man who readily admits his successes and human failings. At other times he writes with wisdom about political influence. Throughout, he shows care and acceptance of both his adopted continent and its people.
By the time I turned the last page I admired the author to the point of sending him fan-mail. Determined to do just that, I googled him, only to find that Terzani had died of cancer aged 65 in 2004. I felt shock and then the fact that his death had such an effect also shocked me. How could this be? I so seldom want to write to an author, to tell them how their writing has touched me. The one time I decide I must, I’m too late.
Not long after I read The Fortune-Teller Told Me, Monsieur and I found ourselves in Rimini looking for lunch. We’d parked in Piazza Ferrari, where a muralled fence hid some restoration work from view. As we walked back to the car with our paper bags of panini, I noticed a section of mural where someone had painted a Terzani quote. I photographed it and smiled. Suddenly, he didn’t feel quite so far away
Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
If you love food, this book is a must-read. Anthony Bourdain writes with passion and a refreshingly un-PC attitude about food, restaurants, their chefs and patrons. From the first taste of an oyster in childhood through to his work at French Brasserie, Les Halles, in Manhattan, we are given a warts-and-all impression of Bourdain, the man. Peppered with useful info such as why you shouldn’t order fish on a Monday, which nationalities work best in a kitchen, and what any chef worth his salt would put on his meez, this memoir is both informative and gripping. We follow Bourdain’s career from his dishwasher days through addiction, crippling hours and eventual success. We meet bullies and wise guys, restaurateurs with passion but no money or plenty of money but zero passion. At times crass, at others surprisingly tender, this book will fascinate all foodies and should be on the reading list of anyone who enjoys dining out.