Stephen Clarke: the English Author who Left the UK for the French “Merde”

London-born, Oxford-educated and Paris-based Stephen Clarke is the author of bestselling novel A Year in the Merde and its four sequels, which give a laugh-out loud account of the pleasures and perils of being a Brit in France. Before settling in France and starting a career as a writer, he -in his own words- “worked for a publisher, putting rude words into bilingual dictionaries” (check out his work on motherf*cker in the Collins-Robert Senior French Dictionary), “taught English to bored French businessmen” and then for a magazine where he “spent most of his time phoning record companies to get free CDs and invites to concerts”. Here, he talks to Chic-Londres about his experience as a British expat in France.

Why did you decide to move to Paris? I was working in Glasgow and developing a new style of French dictionary, and had all my team and resources ready, when head office decided to cut our budgets. I did a test, and with the new smaller team and resources, I worked out that the dictionary was going to take 45 years to finish. Someone, I realized, was going to get into the “merde”, and it wasn’t me. As soon as I heard about the possibility of a French 35-hour week, I moved to Paris and got a job as a journalist on an English-language magazine.

Did you find it easy to adapt to the Parisian lifestyle? Yes and no. It was very easy to settle into a new job with 37 days holiday a year, no stress and an in-house café serving espressos for next to nothing. It was, however, rather difficult to get into the Parisian style of teamwork which is, basically, “leave me alone, I’ll do my work, you do yours and with any luck we’ll finish at the same time”. It works, but it’s a bit stressful when you’re used to the British way of doing things which is to have a progress meeting about every five minutes so you can tell everyone you’ve met 70% of your targets 90% of the time and that this meeting has been 92% pointless. I actually prefer the French way – it’s very relaxing to ignore deadlines until they jump up and yell at you, and then meet them for a cup of coffee and apologize for not getting in touch sooner.

What is it like to be an English expat in France? Great. As long as you can speak some French, the Parisians think you’re a cross between David Beckham and Hugh Grant, that is, charming, polite and not at all dangerous- which leaves you free to be exactly the opposite and get away with it because you’re “an eccentric Englishman”. At least, that’s the case for males. Women, I think have more of a problem because French men think they’re gullible and easy. But British female friends tell me it’s actually quite amusing watching the French men do their “I’m so charming” thing. You get lots of flowers, champagne and gratuitous compliments.

Do you think the Parisians deserve their reputation as arrogant and rude? Not really, because it’s not their fault. Most non-Parisians (the “Provinciaux”have a huge inferiority complex towards Parisians and have put them on a pedestal where they feel very much at home. Most Parisians aren’t rude- they’re just in a hurry. They know how their city works, so if you don’t and you get in their way and waste valuable seconds of their day, they get impatient. And let’s face it, people come to Paris to be snubbed and insulted, and if everyone’s nice to them they go home intensely disappointed. Everyone wants their rude waiter story.

Are English and French people really so different and if so, why? Yes they are, because of our shared history. As someone once said, the English Channel (as we so rudely call it) is 20 miles wide and 1000 years deep. That’s a lot of murky water full of shipwrecks and skeletons. Coincidentally, I have just written a book on this subject called “1000 Years of Annoying the French”, which gives a rather more detailed reply to this question.

If there were three things you could change in France/the French, what would they be? Well there’s one thing I’d leave unchanged, and that’s their football team – they’re hilarious. No, In fact I’d leave everything unchanged. That’s what we love about France, it never changes.

Stephen Clarke’s latest book, 1000 Years of Annoying the French, published by Bantam Press, is out now. For more