An American in Paris: An interview with John von Sothen

The author of "Monsieur Mediocre" talks about learning to live the French life, without becoming French

Why is your book called Monsieur Mediocre? Are you referring to yourself?

Oui bien sur. 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. And that's a good thing.

We tend to hold France to this unattainable standard of taste and sophistication and well mannered living, when in fact, if you live here (or anywhere) 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 and which I've been lucky enough to uncover.

Some Americans think most French people are snobs and they don't like us. 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 thrown by the French because they don't systematically kiss our ass. They may love visiting the States, and love going to Target and Trader Joes. But they're not at all sold on the American dream. Nor do they fantasize about becoming American one day. And a lot of Americans might take this as a slight. "Well why wouldn't you want to move here. What, you're too good for us?"

Paris Metro station
Despite negative stereotypes, the French are happy to give tourists directions while navigating the metro. EyesWideOpen/Getty

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 interaction, which doesn't include lovey-dovey exclamations is interpreted as standoffishness or 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. That's human for me, and it's actually refreshing.

What do you think American readers will be the 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 at the same time, so you need to organize and 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. And for me that was the craziest part, taking vacations with people I don't really know.

How does your French wife's approach to child raising differ than American mothers you know?

In this day and age of helicopter parenting and tiger moms, my wife Anais offers a refreshing third option – the 70's throwback mom - with her cigarette and smokey voice and ability to never second guess herself as a parent. Our American friends and their children aren't sure what to make of Anais, who's not afraid to scold other parents' kids or lay down the law at the dinner table or when it's time to go to bed. Anais never finds herself in a position of having to explain to a child why she's decided it's time to leave the pool. Nor does she give children tons of choices for dinner. It's her word that counts, and c'est tout! For Anais, there's nothing more cruel to a child than giving him or her tons of options or the lay of the land. Anais is also a big proponent of down time. While many American kids nowadays run from activity to activity, sport to sport, camp to grandparents to school, Anais insists our kids be bored for a while. This doesn't mean she wants them on the iPad. She just wants them sitting or walking outside bored, letting their brains just rest. In the house it's known as "le Temps Calme." It's like an extended time out that goes for half a day, and the rule extends to parents too.

Cassis beach
A typical Parisian vacation is to the crowded beaches of Cassis, near Marseille. Frederic Soltan/Corbis/Getty

How did Trump's winning the election affect you as an American in Paris? What is France's view of Trump's policies, Supreme Court pick and general modus operandi?

Before Trump, I was like the George Bailey (Jimmy Stuart's character from It's a Wonderful Life) of my neighborhood; the one shaking everyone's hands in the street and always wishing bonjours and au revoirs. When Trump was elected, the next day I had the status of a registered sex offender. People didn't want to chat with me anymore. People crossed streets. People declined invitations to dinner. But it wasn't because they thought I voted for Trump. They were just embarrassed for me, like the friend you finally go to see at an open mic concert, and he's awful, and you can't bear watching him bomb.

Trump is such a calamity at this point, the French don't even bother trying to analyze what he does or says. They don't parse his words or second-guess his appointments. For them a Chernobyl industrial accident occurred on November 9th, 2016 and they're just trying to contain the mess and prevent the cloud from coming here. They also have a lot of other stuff on their plate. There's Brexit. There's Macron who's not as popular as he thinks. They're not wringing their hands wondering "What does Trump mean by that?" or "Can you believe he said that?" Doing so would actually acknowledge him as a President. And for a lot of them, right now, the US doesn't have a President. They have a huge chemical spill.

You and your family live in the 10th arrondissement, not far from the Bataclan Music Hall attack and the site of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. How did these tragedies change Paris in your eyes?

What I'd always appreciated about living here post 9/11 was that France had never bought into the paranoia and fear I felt whenever I returned to the states on vacation or for work– that sort of in your face, on steroids, by the book officialdom that made you feel afraid even if you weren't already. Compared to the States, Paris just seemed chiller, which lulled me into this "it couldn't happen here" denial. You took the subway and never feared big crowds. You never said to people "be safe" or "be careful." That was for America.

When the attacks occurred, for the first time I felt the bill for Paris being maybe naïve and inclusive had just come due. Within months, the city morphed into the fearful America I'd fled. Candles and photos of those killed were everywhere. My six year-old son Otto was learning tuck and rolls at his school. Armed soldiers walked our sidewalk. We even learned that some of the terrorists had grown up nearby. Suddenly everything I thought I knew about Paris had taken on a bad acid sheen, and it made me question where I'd been living for the past decade.

The great moment though was right after France's World Cup victory in the summer of 2018, when after the victory we returned to all of the places we'd earlier laid flowers and lit candles in 2013. And to see the hugging and singing and general pandemonium in the exact cafes and places where people were killed was very powerful. It was if home had been returned to us, and that Parisian joy we'd lost had somehow overcome these years of fear.

Bataclan
Bataclan was the site of a terrorist attack in November 2015. Marc Piasecki/ GC Images/Getty

You played Spiderman on French television! How did this come about and what was it like working for France's version of SNL? What were some of the other parts you played on the show?

The series in question was looking for an American, and although I'd never acted, I was the most American person they knew, which made me the most qualified. I was hired to write too, but none of my stuff was ever chosen (or read it for that matter). The show runners had in their head what they wanted from me, so I shut up and followed orders.

I was one of the hosts for the show's Weekend Update, but since I didn't master the language, the producers thought it would be funny for me to act out the news instead of report it. For example, if there was strife in the Middle East, I'd jump up from my desk and imitate a man firing a machine gun. If there was a correction on Wall Street, I'd mimic guys in the pit yelling "Sell! Sell! Sell!" in English. Basically I yelled a lot.

I was also a Belgian secret agent who's bumbling and dangerous, because, Belgians, I was told, were complete idiots. I was a coked up producer at the Cannes Film festival pitching Vin Diesel a new series. I was a radical far right protester who bullied bearded Muslims and knocked them off bikes. And of course I was Spiderman, who works in an office, but he's always dropping into other people's workspaces and fucking things up. Ad when I say, "dropped in" I mean it. I was literally held upside down on a fifty-foot wire half the skit, delivering my lines in French. All of it was horrible.

After living in Paris for fifteen years, how would you say your French is now? Are you fluent? Are you still struggling with language?

I tell people I speak French like Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks English, meaning you understand everything I say, but nobody thinks I'm French. I'm in that weird zone between fluent and native, and because of that, I sometimes get into trouble. Since I'm not French, I can't anticipate the double meaning of certain words. They're like those magnets you have on the refrigerator, which I use willy-nilly, not knowing their real impact. I once accidentally told Otto's eight-year-old friend that his toy was "fucked up." And one time following a robbery, I mistakenly told the gendarmes that we'd been raped (violé) instead of robbed (volé).I couldn't understand why they were so shocked by my story and kept insisting over and over that we reaffirm we'd really been raped. "Of course we were raped! I was raped. They were raped. We were all raped! Why do you think we're here?"

I've never been one of those Americans embarrassed to talk because they think their French isn't up-to-snuff. I'm the opposite, actually. I'm like the bad golfer swinging away, oblivious that his balls are slicing and braining people on the course. The swing feels perfect to me, so why is everyone ducking? Often, I confuse facility with mastery (if it rolled off my tongue with ease, then it must be correct) and take compliments as confirmations of my talent, not as people just being painfully polite.

In your book, you talk about growing up in Washington, D.C. and having a family beach house in North Carolina. Your mom was an original and had a creative approach to cooking a turkey one Thanksgiving. Can you please tell us what happened that year and about her special way of cooking fish when the oven broke at the Hatteras beach house?

One year, on our way down to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, our car's fan belt broke, and we were stranded for a day in Elizabeth City, NC. My mother, of course, took this set back as a way to launch her audacious plan of "saving Thanksgiving," which meant cooking the turkey on the car's engine the rest of the way down. And we did this. My mother wrapped the turkey in aluminum foil and fastened it to the engine block with bungee cords. During the drive, my mother yelled at my father to gun the engine as much as possible, all while checking the bird every 50 miles. Of course, the turkey was a disaster, but it didn't stop her from pulling the same stunt, three years later, when our oven broke down at the same house. This time Mom seized the moment as a way to cook a fish in the dishwasher, which, like the turkey, wasn't great shakes. But in each instance, what I took away from her efforts, (and which I've applied to much of what I've tried here in France) was that anytime you're bold, the return doesn't need to be that exceptional. The act alone is noteworthy. If anything, she used to say, "it'll make for a wonderful story."

Hatteras National Seashore
The beach at Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. Eric Peterson/Getty

The last chapter of Monsieur Mediocre is a love letter to your parents and how you coped with their illnesses and deaths, just months apart from each other. They were both extraordinary people. What would you say are the greatest lessons they each taught you that you would like to inspire your children with?

I think the biggest gift my parents gave me was their capacity to enjoy a moment. Perhaps it was because they were much older than the other parents and had reached a point where they could reflect more than project. But there was never a rush. Time could be dilated, and then somehow be converted into a wonderful memory.

I feel I've been blessed to raise kids in a foreign country, because a lot of the stuff Otto and Bibi are experiencing is also new for me. And since we're learning on the fly together, it's allowed for the mundane and everyday run of the mill to be special. And just like my parents, I'll find myself mythologizing certain moments in a "remember that time!" way, whether it be carving pumpkins in Normandy or seeing Kendrick Lamar with them, or savoring an incredible hot chocolate in some Paris hole in the wall, just so they'll have that same reflex, to cherish moments and make memories. It's a way for a story to gain a second and third life, and it's a way for people to live on through generations. It's a form of magic really - creating a light that doesn't dim.

John von Sothen is an American columnist living in Paris, where he covers entertainment and society issues for French Vanity Fair. Von Sothen has written for both the American and French GQ, Slate, Technikart, Libération, and The New York Observer; he has written for TV at Canal+ and MTV; and he is now penning a column for the political site Mediapart. His book Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French is now available

Monsieur Mediocre book cover
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An American in Paris: An interview with John von Sothen | Culture