Merde Actually

Paperback | January 24, 2006

byStephen ClarkeEditorChr

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A year after arriving in France, Englishman Paul West is still struggling with some fundamental questions:

What is the best way to scare a gendarme?

Why do French job applicants put sexually transmitted diseases on their CVs?

Why are there no public health warnings on French nudist beaches?

And how do you cope with a plague of courgettes?

Paul also mutates (temporarily) into a Parisian waiter, samples the pleasures of typically French hotel-room afternoons, and on a return visit to the United Kingdom, sees the full horror of a British office party through Parisian eyes. Meanwhile, he continues his search for the perfect French mademoiselle. But will Paul find l'amour eternel, or will it all end in merde?

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From the Publisher

A year after arriving in France, Englishman Paul West is still struggling with some fundamental questions: What is the best way to scare a gendarme? Why do French job applicants put sexually transmitted diseases on their CVs? Why are there no public health warnings on French nudist beaches? And how do you cope with a plague of cour...

His first novel, A Year in the Merde, originally became a word-of-mouth hit in Paris in 2004. Since then it has been published all over the world, and earned Stephen a nomination for the British Book Award for Best Newcomer. The follow-up, Merde Actually, went to number one in the Bookseller chart. In 2006, he published his guide to un...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 8.19 × 5.58 × 0.87 inPublished:January 24, 2006Publisher:Penguin CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143055542

ISBN - 13:9780143055549

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1Florence and I were sitting forty kilometres south of Limoges, in Corrèze, almost exactly in the centre of France. If you staked a man out Da Vinci-style on a map of the country, with his right hand in Brittany, his left in Strasbourg, and his feet in Biarritz and Monaco, then Corrèze would be the small patch where he’d wet himself.Florence’s mum had a country house in Corrèze. We’d planned to stop off there for a quick lunch and then drive on for a two-week amble around southwest France.But things hadn’t gone exactly to plan, and we were sitting in the sun beside a recently dented car. It was after ten minutes of waiting for the police or a tow-truck to arrive that Florence laid her head on my lap and uttered the fateful words.‘I suppose we’ll have to spend a few days with Maman.’Of course, she didn’t know then that I was going to try and kill her mother. Neither did I. We’d only been together for about two months, and if anyone had asked my opinion, I’d have said that I didn’t think attempting to murder your new girlfriend’s mum was a good basis for a successful relationship.It wasn’t really my fault, anyway. I blame it on the French driver.‘Connasse!’ he shouted.French insults are so wonderfully grammatical, I thought. Even in the heat of a verbal battle you have to remember to change the rude word for a male idiot, ‘connard’, to the feminine form.But he was being totally unfair. I was the one who’d been driving, not Florence. He was only shouting at her because she was nearer to him than I was. And he’d just made what felt like an asteroid-sized dent in the ­passenger-side rear door of Florence’s dad’s brand-new car, thereby coming within a microsecond of making a similar dent in Florence herself.‘Are you OK?’ I asked her in English.‘Oui.’ She always answered me in French. ‘Et toi, Paul?’‘Yes, but I’d like to go and stuff that guy’s designer sunglasses up his nose.’‘No, you cannot do that, you are English. You must show your phlegm.’‘My phlegm?’ I hadn’t heard this one before. Did the French think we Brits calmed down by spitting all over the place? They must have been watching too much of our football on satellite TV.‘Yes, you are phlegmatic. You have cold blood.’Ah, the Englishman as reptile, now we were on more familiar ground.‘No,’ I said, ‘those sunglasses have got to go.’I got out of her dad’s royal-blue Renault Vel Satis and gave myself a quick frisk to see if any extremities had come loose. No, both cars had been travelling pretty slowly so I was suffering from nothing more serious than a stiff neck and a vague sensation of wanting to punch someone.I walked round to the red Asian 4WD that had hit us. Its front headlights were not even cracked.The driver was a bottle-blond, forty-something fashion victim with wraparound sunglasses so dark I was ­surprised he could see the sky, never mind cars ahead of him.‘You are blind, perhaps?’ I asked, nodding at his glasses. I called him vous, of course, instead of the ­familiar tu or toi, because we hadn’t yet been ­introduced.‘Et toi?’ he shouted through the closed window. I forgave him his familiarity on the basis that he was a good twenty years older than me. ‘Don’t you know la priorité à droite?’He huffed towards his polo-shirted wife and their two skater-boy kids. They were all glowering at me venomously. I knew why – by falling victim to the guy’s bad driving I had screwed up his family’s holiday timetable. Breakfast in Burgundy was probably on their schedule, lunch in Limoges, but not crash in Corrèze.‘La priorité à droite?’ I said. This is the stupidest, most dangerous law in the Western world. It is the French law which states that a car coming from the right has right of way. You might be tooling along on what looks and feels like a major road, and if a car leaps out of a tiny hidden sidetrack without looking to see whether anything is coming, and thereby wipes out your whole family, it’s perfectly legal because it was coming from the right. ‘There is no priorité à droite on a roundabout,’ I said.‘Roundabout?’ The driver pulled his sunglasses down his nose and looked around as if he’d only just noticed the large, grass-covered traffic island next to his car. He also took in the distinctly circular road running around it and the four or five exits leading off in ­different ­directions.‘What a merde, these roundabouts,’ he moaned, expressing the view of a fair number of Frenchmen, who don’t seem to know what roundabouts are for. To provide work for municipal gardeners, perhaps? ‘They’re an anglais thing, aren’t they?’‘Yes. We invented them to stop accidents. France is a technological nation, so we did not think you will have a problem with our roundabouts. After all, you can even open oysters.’ I took a chance including a joke with the horrifically difficult word ‘huîtres’, but I was on a roll and it hit home.‘Et vous, vous êtes anglais.’ This was his butch wife, leaning over and bellowing across the steering wheel at me. At least she called me vous. ‘You English don’t know how to drive on the right.’‘And your husband, what is his excuse?’ I asked.The wife gripped her husband’s arm and whispered urgently to him. He nodded.I guessed what she’d said when he started up his engine and hit reverse. The two cars wrenched apart like post-coital lovers whose skin has temporarily stuck together. Then the 4WD did a neat one-point turn and drove off the way it had come.As the driver sped away I memorized his number and, pointlessly, the faces of the two long-haired boys who were grinning at me through the back window. Papa had just become the outlaw hero of their very own road movie. The French love road movies. They call them ‘les rod-moo-vee’.‘What did you say to him?’ Florence asked.‘Nothing that insulting. He probably thinks I won’t know how to report him because I’m English.’‘Yes, and just after lunchtime his blood is probably half wine,’ she said.I went to admire the dent on her side of the car. An ugly red-and-blue bruise that wouldn’t have been too serious except for the fact that the impact had bent the rear wheel arch and ripped the tyre, which was whistling goodbye to its short but high-pressured life.There was no way I could get at the wheel to change it. We had to call a tow-truck.We pushed the car over to the side of the road and went to sit in the long grass looking out over a field of sunflowers that stretched back hundreds of yards. I’d never seen so many sunflowers in one place before. In my mind they grew alone, sentries watching over ­suburban gardens. But here, the massed ranks of five-foot-high flowers looked like an invasion of the Earth by an army of anorexic green aliens.‘Are you really OK?’ I asked. ‘You didn’t hit your head or anything?’‘No. I might need you to massage my neck, though.’ Florence flashed me a smile and ran a long finger down from her ear to the smooth, bare shoulder curving up out of her T-shirt. The first time we ever went to bed together, I’d been struck by the incredible smoothness of her skin, as if she’d spent her teenage years cocooned in coconut milk. She was half-Indian – her father was a Tamil from the volcanic French island of La Réunion, near Madagascar – and she had a body that was a ­perfect blend of French poise and Indian litheness.She pushed her black bra strap out of the way and pressed her fingertips into the muscle behind her collar bone. ‘You’re going to have to kiss me, just there.’ She groaned, finding a tender spot and rolling her eyes.All of which sounded very promising.Until, that is, she announced that we were going to stay with her mum. The garagiste arrived half an hour later. When he heard that a Parisian car (that is, one with a number ending in 75) had caused the crash, he was more than happy to write an oil-stained statement testifying that we’d been in the right and that the other driver had left the scene illegally.He also put in a good word for us with the pair of local gendarmes who came to investigate the accident. They were looking stressed in their tight trousers and old-fashioned képis. This was the first Saturday in July, when a large percentage of the French population, plus a sizeable herd of foreign tourists, was migrating southwards through the region. Boozed up, overheated, impatient, lost, and distracted by vomiting kids, loose luggage and ringing phones, the millions of drivers charging along the autoroutes would cause more ­accidents over the next two days than there had been in the last six months.So when the two young gendarmes saw that we were a simple case of dent and run, they made a quick show of taking notes and drove off again in their little blue van. Our arrival chez Maman was a bit of an anticlimax, even though her daughter had probably never turned up in battered orange tow-truck before.Florence opened a small white-painted gate and we walked into an empty garden. Over to our right was an overgrown lawn and a handful of mature fruit trees. I could see birds pecking busily at enormous scarlet ­cherries. Straight ahead was a stone barn with a ­moustache of moss running along the edge of its gleaming slate roof. To our left was the house, a one-storey construction made out of stone the milky-beige colour of the skin on a ripe Saint Nectaire cheese. The window shutters were painted slate-grey to go with the roof, and they were all closed, as was the front door.‘They’re having a sieste,’ Florence whispered. ‘We’ll wait until they wake up.’You really felt that you were in the middle of a ­continent here. There was the occasional breath of wind, but most of the time the air just hung there, shimmering and seething in the sun. The thick foliage and low branches of the cherry tree weren’t enough to provide comfortable shade, so we went into the barn to get a parasol.Being suddenly hidden from view gave me an idea.Florence read my mind.Well, perhaps I did give her a little hint by grasping her around the waist and pressing my face to her neck.She shook herself free. ‘No, Paul, it is not a good idea. Look. There are just piles of logs and an earth floor. Ce n’est pas pratique.’ Some girls get a damn sight too pratique as soon as they’re within range of their mothers, don’t they? ‘You get the parasol,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a beach towel that we can lay on the grass.’ She turned back towards the sunlit doorway, then stopped and swore.‘What is it?’ I asked.‘We left the luggage in the car.’‘Oh merde.’