March 2005

Clayton Moore


The Travel Guide Divide

When I worked at a hospital, young and right out of university, I used to spend a lot of time talking to Al, the elderly fellow who delivered the mail as a volunteer. He had been around the world and spent much of his youth in the South Pacific fighting the Japanese in World War II. The gentlest guy in the world, Al would pat your hand and tell you that no matter where you went around the world, people were pretty much the same.

Having recently returned from my own world travels, I can now testify that Al was right. People all over the world are pretty much the same. They’re bloody weird all over.

Luckily, no matter where you go, there are people who have gone before you and some of them have written books to try to explain the inexplicable oddness of others or at least to try to frame it in some sort of cultural context.

Now I like Bill Bryson and his clever travelogues and unique amalgamation of British wit and American observation but his droll bantering with a character or two doesn’t help when you’re knee deep in central London trying to get from point A past the queue to edible food and reasonable drink. Not to mention that Bryson is the best of the lot. Most British travel guides are the literary equivalent of all those Working Title pictures like Bridget Jones where people walk past Piccadilly Circus every time they step outside, the same guides that won’t tell you that you can have the same 30-pound bus tour they praise for a handful of change on the regular bus line.

For the real details of British behavior, one could do far worse than Kate Fox’s Watching the English, a very clever and detailed eavesdropping of all aspects of life among the English. Although it’s eminently readable and surprisingly funny, there’s no mistaking that this is a true cultural guide and not travel writing. Fox, a social anthropologist, has written what is essentially a massive dissertation analyzing British behavioral and societal rules yet she has still written for what she describes as “the intelligent layman.” By knowingly breaking out of the academic formula, Fox has created a remarkably useful survival guide covering the numerous facets of everyday life. Explaining the resolute humor of the British is one thing but Watching the English covers the Invisible Queue, why society would collapse without the pub, the bewildering differences between the classes and why “pardon” is a dirty word.

Fortunately, Fox’s observations are as sharp as her analysis and twice as funny. It seems the woman has listened in on every conversation in England in the past decade and yet she still finds just the right path between affection and biting satire, as in this little observation from the “Pub-talk” chapter:

My first, callously scientific response to this sight was to take out my stopwatch and start timing how long it would take tourists of different nationalities to realize there was no waiter service. (For the record, the fastest time -- two minutes, twenty-four seconds -- was achieved by a sharp-eyed American couple; the slowest -- forty-five minutes, thirteen seconds -- was a group of young Italians, although to be fair, they were engrossed in an animated debate about football and did not appear much concerned about the apparent lack of service. A French couple marched out of the pub, muttering bitterly about the poor service and les anglais in general, after a twenty-four-minute wait).

Fox is cleverly observant and yet never afraid to place herself in harm’s way for the sake of her sometimes embarrassing experiments. While hanging about the bar for several months may not sound like tough homework, interviewing passers-by about everything from house prices to page three girls couldn’t have been easy.

For all of Kate Fox’s earnestness, though, I almost wish the authors of Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong had removed themselves a little more from their own book. While it claims to be a cultural study in the same vein, it really ends up being more of a well-researched history book interrupted from time to time by irrelevant details about the authors. For Francophiles looking for a big-picture look at French society, there are rich details to be had here about government, education, economics and the unique perspective of the French. As David Sedaris put it better in Me Talk Pretty One Day, “It’s always stated as an undeniable fact that America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with that in our ears, it’s startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are ‘We’re number two!’”

That said, the French-speaking Nadeau and the English-speaking Barlow never seem to get down on the street with the mob. Constant reminders that their initial study was sponsored by the Institute of World Affairs are not helpful and many chapters seem to be irrelevant offshoots of Nadeau’s academic study of globalization.

Despite its faults, it is one of the better and more comprehensive looks at a country no one seems to understand and I have to admit, anybody who even uttered the phrase “Freedom Fries” ought to be locked up in a Riviera beach toilet with this little tome for about a month. No champagne for you. Oh, and as an interesting observation in marketing, the subtitle of Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong in Britain is “What Makes the French So French.” In America, it’s “Why We Love France But Not The French.” No champagne for you marketing wizards, either.

Finally, we come to the deeply bent but unbroken bridge linking Britain and France, Stephen Clark’s A Year in the Merde (I leave it to you to translate). Ostensibly a novel, Clarke originally published the book for friends or, as he explains, an offering for the neighbor’s Bastille Day barbecue. The British journalist has accidentally ended up with a surprise hit regaling readers with his bitterly funny observations of an Englishman who’s changed sides of the Channel. Marketing wizard Paul West, hot on the heels of his successful chain of French cafés, Voulez-Vous Café Avec Moi, has come to Paris to help open British tea shops, despite the warnings of friends.

“’They made all us Brits redundant the day after the French football team got knocked out of the World Cup. No way was that a coincidence,’ Chris told me.”

This peculiar travel diary is divided into months of the year, such as Octobre in which, “I visit different parts of Paris, touristy and less so, treading in plenty of dog-poop, literal and metaphorical,” and it’s incredibly funny. It may all be true but somehow the strange adventures of Paul West in Paris strike me as a wildly exaggerated version of events by a wickedly funny observer. It’s way more in the nature of David Sedaris but with the added attraction of whip smart, lightning-fast conversations that would waggle Groucho’s eyebrows.

It also has that air of something true, with the voice of someone who has been there, where living day-to-day is vastly different than the traveler passing through or the student on sabbatical. Oddly enough, Clarke touches on language, economics, sex and the European Union just like the cultural guides but does so in a much more authentic and knowledgeable way that seems effortless, like a funny friend telling war stories in the pub. A Year in the Merde has too just a twinge of that slight craziness that comes from living out of one’s element, tempered by the genuine affection for the difficult, complicated, adulterous, incredibly sexy French.

Make amour, not war, mes amis. Same again?

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox
Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 0340834455
424 Pages

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoit Nadeau & Julie Barlow
Robson Books
ISBN: 1861057156
320 Pages

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1582345910
304 Pages