Ah, Paris! There’s no other city quite like it. And these days, when Americans are finding vacations as scarce as video rental stores, it’s hard not to look with longing at the six weeks’ getaway still in vogue across the pond.
In truth, American-born columnist John von Sothen didn’t move to France for the vacations. Fifteen years ago, as a young writer living in New York, he fell in love with a French actress. When Anais became pregnant, the couple moved to Paris. Now the father of two teens, von Sothen has penned an entertaining memoir of his life as a husband, father and constantly surprised expat.
Take those notions of idyllic vacations. “I learned the hard way my first few years in France that vacation wasn’t to be trifled with,” von Sothen reveals. Turns out vacations are more like expeditions, undertaken with a group of friends and requiring extensive planning. Forget long, unscheduled days of relaxation. Instead, group activities reign supreme. “On the first night of my first French vacation, I was told I’d be running a two-week workshop.”
Von Sothen also dissects dinner parties, for which guests often arrive more than an hour late. We witness him learning the ins and outs of urban parenting and shepherding his children through the French education system, where timeliness does matter. Latecomers must sit on “a bench of shame.”
But while von Sothen’s vibrant memoir is often humorous, he is also a thoughtful observer of politics and modern family life, including the pain of living far from elderly parents and the unique perspective that comes from being an outsider. As his wife, Anais, tells the author, “We critique best what we love the most.” And that is definitely true for Monsieur Mediocre.