After starting two or three books that turned out to be duds, I was delighted when my friend Terry recommended Let Them Eat Pancakes by Craig Carlson. Terry shares my taste in reading material so I knew I would like it . . . and I did! It was like taking a mini-trip to Paris without leaving the house. The title is a riff on Marie Antoinette’s famous saying and perfectly captures the spirit of the book, which is a light-hearted look at Carlson’s early life and how it led to him opening the first American diner in Paris.
I’m always fascinated by true stories of young people without the advantages of money or even a stable family who are able to make a success of their lives. Carlson’s father was negligent and irresponsible, and his mother was often confined to a mental asylum so Craig and his siblings were practically feral. A complete lack of parenting characterized his early years and at the age of sixteen, he was ‘kicked out’ so his father could move in with his new girlfriend unencumbered by a teenage son.
Craig Carlson gives due credit to two of his elementary school teachers who recognized something special in him as a young boy, and despite his difficult childhood, encouraged him to rise above early challenges. Carlson started studying French in grade seven and by the time he finished high school, he had a manageable command of the language, which to his surprise qualified him for a college credit. That was the kick-start he needed to launch his trajectory to becoming a successful restauranteur and author. His interest in French was rewarded and enhanced when he took advantage of a one-year opportunity to study in France as a college student. The love affair began.
The chance suggestion that he qualified for college was a turning point for Carlson. He studied film-making at college. Leveraging this experience in the outside world, Carlson decided to turn his love of France and in particular, Paris, into a vocation. He set about learning the restaurant business and with American investors and undaunted enthusiasm, he opened his first American-style diner in the Marais district, followed shortly by a second location.
French bureaucracy and labour laws defy the imagination. The book of French labour regulations consists of tens of thousands of pages of minute and painstakingly precise rules and regulations aimed at protecting French workers from evil and exploitive employers. Those employers like Carlson who are not evil or exploitive also suffer the oppressive hand of the law for the tiniest infraction which French workers are only too happy to capitalize on. In France you’re eligible for paid maternity/paternity leave even if you don’t have a child! It’s easy to see why strikes are so commonplace in France.
While Carlson was becoming a man of the world with no emotional ties to the land of his birth, his family remained unenlightened and proud of their redneck roots. Carlson’s retelling of an American Thanksgiving at his brother-in-law’s home at a storage facility two hours outside Los Angeles is hilarious. His struggles with French bureaucracy are equally entertaining with no fewer than a dozen trips to the Hôtel de Ville required to acquire one simple marriage licence.
I loved the way he intersperses French words and phrases with his English narrative. I found myself testing my own knowledge of French translation before reading the actual translation. He shared my ability to make myself understood but totally unable to decipher the French habit of rapidly speaking entire sentences in what sounds like one long single breathtaking word. His comparisons of French culture with the American lifestyle are entertaining and informative. For anyone who has visited France, his experiences will resonate. Well, except maybe for his story of the pigeon man who lived in a van in front of his apartment building. It reminded me of Maggie Smith’s role in the movie Lady in the Van, based on another true story set in London, England. People like that actually exist.
I can’t recommend Let Them Eat Pancakes by Craig Carlson enough. We’re all feeling in the doldrums from the ongoing lockdowns and COVID restrictions and this book will transport you to Paris in the arms of humour and excellent story-telling. Anyone who enjoys books by David Sedaris will enjoy this one as well.
If you are unable to obtain a copy of Let Them Eat Pancakes by Craig Carlson at your local bookstore or library, click here to have it delivered by your door from Amazon.
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Added to my very long list of books to read.