John von Sothen is an American columnist who lives in Paris, where he covers entertainment and society issues for French Vanity Fair. He moved there after meeting his wife, Anaïs, in a café in Brooklyn. They now have two kids who, with Anaïs, are featured throughout his first book, Monsieur Mediocre, which is ultimately a love letter to France — to its absurdities, its history, and its ideals.
In this comical collection of essays published on May 7, von Sothen walks us through real life in Paris — myth-busting our French daydreams. When he is not writing about what it’s really like to be an American living in Paris and how he’s treated by the French, Von Sothen often does voice-overs in English for French perfumes and luxury brands, and occasionally performs stand-up comedy in French and English at The New York Comedy Night in the SoGymnase Comedy Club in Paris. He is a regular guest on the French radio station Europe 1 discussing all things U.S.-related.
France-Amérique: Who is Monsieur Mediocre?
John von Sothen: Monsieur Mediocre is that person I’ve become since moving to France. On paper, I’ve ticked all the French boxes. I married the French aristocrat. We live in the heart of Paris. Our kids are French-raised. We renovated a French country house. We take long French vacations. But each of these things is not what I expected it to be, and I’m far from living the exceptional French life.
© Courtesy of Penguin Random House
We tend to hold France to this unattainable standard of taste and sophistication and well mannered living, when in fact, if you live here on a day to day basis, you eventually take the rose-colored glasses off and appreciate your surroundings for different reasons based on a new set of criteria. For me, France isn’t pristine nor is it unattainable. It’s weird and complicated and contradictory and sometimes even vulgar — just like everyday life everywhere else. And that’s the France I want to celebrate. Not the picturesque and the cliché-ridden, but the everyday, run-of-the-mill, mediocre life which the French (by the way) have made a high art of living.
￼Some Americans think most French people are snobs who don’t like Americans. Is this true?
No. And I’m not at all a French apologist. I’ve found the French defeatist at times and cynical and maybe too reserved for my taste, but not snobby. The French are a proud people, and that’s different than being snobby. Just because a Frenchman is fairly sure he’s not going to find a better wine in New York or Cleveland than he will in Burgundy, doesn’t make him a snob. It makes him a realist. I think sometimes Americans are taken aback by the French because they don’t systematically kiss our ass. They may love visiting the States, and love going to Target and Trader Joe’s. But they’re not at all sold on the American Dream. Nor do they fantasize about becoming American one day. When Americans visit us in Paris, they always remark at how polite the French are, that people actually gave them directions to the Louvre or didn’t spit in their food. I think today we’ve put so much stock into enthusiasm and niceties (which is often bullshit), that general day-to-day interactions that don’t include lovey-dovey exclamations are interpreted as standoffishness or as someone being a snob. Frankly, after three weeks in the States, I’m exhausted from thanking everyone and saying hello to strangers and “amazing” all the time. I can’t wait to get back to Paris with my gruff waiters and their sour faces, a place where everyone’s allowed to keep to themselves and be sullen. It’s actually refreshing.
What do you think American readers will be most surprised to learn about the French?
The French vacation more than us. That I knew. What I didn’t anticipate was how woven it is into the national fabric. The French treat vacation like a national right, and in a lot of ways, it is. Vacations are often a topic of conversation, “Where are you going for Easter?” “Where are you going for Christmas?” And it’s also a way to judge people. The swankier your vacation, the more jealous everyone is of you. What I also didn’t know was that everyone took off for long periods right around the same time, which means you have an entire country looking for the same vacation rentals all at once, so you need to organize early. You have to book your February skiing vacation in the fall and your summer vacation over Christmas and your Christmas plans during the summer, which means you’re constantly booking and paying. And since it’s expensive to vacation all the time, you find yourself splitting the cost with others, meaning you’re often vacationing with French people.
After marrying a French woman you met in New York, you followed your mother’s dream and moved to Paris. After fifteen years there, are you ready to admit that your mother’s Paris was mostly a fantasy? If so, in what sense?
The biggest fantasy I had (and I know this sounds weird) was that France, in a way, was cut off from the world; that it had its own ecosystem of good taste and refined living, and it could pick and choose what it wanted from the rest of the world like some awesome concept store. It was a place where you could have the best of both worlds: The good food and no guns, great fashion and no obesity, long vacations and no work burn out. Good schools and no student debt. The reality is that France is much more connected and part of this world than I thought, and with that comes the same problems. Its language is riddled with English and Snapchat phrases. Its magazines are trashier than American ones. It’s sometimes dangerous, sometimes not. Its cities are dirtier. There’s a giant wealth divide in the country. Students are burned out. It also comes with certain advantages. Its population is super diverse. Couscous is the most popular national dish. And this is the France I adore — the one still surprising me at every turn. So yes, the fantasy I have is fini.
© Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Ironically, the one who fantasizes the most in our house is my daughter, who’s sixteen and looks at the city I used to live in, New York, much the same way I used to look at Paris. At night when she goes to bed, she continues to ask me about the subway and who my roommates were and where I jogged in Central Park, and which Starbucks I went to. I can tell she has this giant image of America and New York, much like I had of France as a kid. And perhaps when she lives there one day, that fantasy will crash upon the rocks of her reality, and she’ll fall in love with something else instead.
What was your biggest French culture shock?
I’d say it’s the subtle, old-school formality that still exists in France. I’m still amazed when I arrive at a party and realize it’s expected of me to give everyone the bise instead of just doing one big group wave. The whole thing can take minutes. And when I leave these parties, I’m still expected to say goodbye to everyone in the same way instead of just ghosting. Also, I’ve yet to find a friend who’s OK with me texting from the café below his building to see if he wants to get a beer right now. My friends want long heads up and time to plan. They don’t like my improvisational and informal style. Sometimes, I’ll watch two French people interact, and one will ask the other “Is it OK if I speak to you in the tu form?” while I’m there laughing. As if it really fucking matters. The guy who mows the lawn of our country house keeps talking to me in the third person (Was he happy with the cut last week?) as if I’m some squire. I’ve been told by my wife that I shouldn’t pat people I don’t really know on the back, and I shouldn’t discuss health issues I’m having with strangers. Even with emails, I think I’m too informal. I address my bank manager by his first name (Hey Jacques!) and I once addressed Anaïs’s 90 year-old grandmother (the matriarch of the family) in the tu form and patted her on the back. Everyone was shocked, except for her grandmother, who loved it by the way.
Playing on national stereotypes while laughing about them has become a genre in itself (think Peter Mayle, Pamela Druckerman, Stephen Clarke, etc.). Which writers in that tradition inspired you the most?
My wife hates when I say The French. She says to never use that around her because it’s lazy and lumps all French people into one group, and she says, “I am not just one person.” (I’m not sure what she means by this.) For that reason, I’ve gravitated towards writers who go microscopic at the beginning as a way to make that macro statement later. It’s why I loved Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence so much. He plunged into the details of his life and the people around him, and through those characters, he could make his broader statements. I learned if you do the spadework and pull together all the opposition research, then you’re allowed to say Les Français.
© Courtesy of Penguin Random House
There’s an old book I love, which my French father-in-law put me on to, called Les Carnets du Major Thompson (The Notebooks of Major Thompson) which was written in the 1950s and is a collection of observations on the French seen through the eyes of a crusty, middle-aged, British military officer. What I love about the book is that the real author, Pierre Daninos, was French, but made fun of the French through an Englishman (who, of course, he was stereotyping as well). In this way, Daninos was allowed to say The French. The film was adapted into a movie by Preston Sturges called, The French, They Are a Funny Race.
Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French by John von Sothen, Penguin Random House, 2019. 288 pages, 34 dollars.