Fed up of the cold weather? Wishing you had taken a year abroad somewhere hot and exotic? Well, for the time being you can read about it here in a review of Ben Chatfield’s recent novel based on his year in France.
Mediterranean Homesick Blues, A Diary of Life-Affirming Disaster on the Cote D’Azur is the rather lengthy but explanative title of Ben Chatfield’s recently published novel concerning his turbulent experiences on his year abroad in Southern France, almost a couple of decades ago. Ben worked as an English Language Assistant (ELA) for the British Council, as I did in Madrid last year. Having returned to Nottingham as a fourth year, and desperately wanting to relive my ‘life-changing’ year abroad experience, I read the book.
The cheeky chappy tone of the autobiographical novel and highly observational, amusing anecdotes make for a very enjoyable read. It’s divided into three formats: daily Adrian Mole-esque diary entries taken straight from Ben’s time in France (ranging from lengthy tales to philosophical one liners such as, “Why do we call the French ‘frogs’?”); very personal letters to his best friend Sod; and informative chapters, with a healthy personal slant, educating the reader on an array of French cultural aspects (entitled for example, ‘The Existential Guide to French Football’, or ‘MC Solaar and the Rise of French Hip-Hop’). The author looks back on his 20-year-old self with a certain nostalgic disdain, documenting the novel with insightful and reflexive footnotes to demonstrate the true beauty of hindsight.
The novel doesn’t present just a pretty picture of the exciting European life you can lead on your year abroad, but a real gritty day-to-day account. The title reflects the general sentiment of the book; it’s not all fun and games. Although most of the time posing as a young Lothario, managing to romance a multitude of women from all different walks of life and generally living it up, Ben does suffer bouts of homesickness. The realisation comes that although not geographically France is a world away from England and the culture that greets you just those few hundred miles South is far removed from what you are used to at home.
Two things that both I noticed and the author points out that are vitally missing from Mediterranean culture are, 1) the total lack of sarcasm, and 2) Heinz beans with cheddar melted in. Home comforts are desperately missed after only a few months. Whilst living in a foreign land, the constant worry that no one really knows you due to your still limited vocab and grammar – the native friends you do make are often slightly superficial – a huge chunk of personality goes undiscovered.
The book ends with a satisfying “where are they now?” run-through of all of the fore-mentioned characters. It is heart-warming to read that Ben has managed to keep in touch with many of the people he met and gives me hope for the relationships I formed last year. Particularly touching is the friendship formed with Enzo, who begins as arch-enemy but is quickly discovered to be a kindred spirit, the two sharing some solid experiences that has lead their friendship to endure the test of time; Enzo helped Ben to edit and polish the finished product and is recognised on the cover. Thankfully though, a soppy, happy-ever-after conclusion is not reached, because, after all, it still recalls real life.
If you are a language student about to embark on your year abroad, this is a must-read in order to realise the extent of the freedom that going away for the year gives you and prepares you to make the most of your time. I am not implying that shadowing the journey Ben takes is a great idea and a perfect way to live your year but it will expose you to the open-endedness of the opportunity available to you during such an independent adventure.
If you are a language student who has just returned from your year away, I also strongly recommend a skim through the novel (though undoubtedly being a fourth year doesn’t leave us with much time for reading for pleasure). It will no doubt spark off happy (and less happy) memories of last year and a fondness for all the good (and less good) experiences you had there, helping to cement all that you gained and achieved and realise how it formed any changes to your outlook or general being.
And if you are a non-language student, but have been to France in your lifetime and fancy a LOL, (this should encompass everyone else); READ IT. For the pure reason that it really is a laugh out loud, insightful and relatable story.