Little did Ben Chatfield realise almost 20 years ago that his adventures during a gap year on the Côte d’Azur would one day form the basis of a hilarious coming of age tale about his on/off love affair with France.
Set in 1994, Mediterranean Homesick Blues charts the 20-year-old undergraduate and hopeless romantic’s journey from teaching English to rowdy youngsters as a language assistant in Cannes to taking drinks orders from their topless mums on a beach in St Tropez.
Described as a cross between A Year in Provence, The Beach and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, the diary style account, which is based on letters to his best friend Sod and journals Ben kept, offers an amusing and frank insight into his Graduate style crush on the seductive femme fatale Madame Cocheteux and fellow language assistant Charlotte as well as quirky tongue in cheek city guides of the kind you’d never see in Conde Nast Traveller.
Ben, who wrote the book with his actor friend Enzo Cilenti, says: ‘I had read lots of books and articles about living in France and found them clichéd and unrealistic. I had piles of letters and diary entries from my time abroad and my experiences were altogether different – more fun, edgy and real.
‘I was always getting asked about my year abroad so found myself constantly talking about the wild times on the Côte d’Azur. I suppose because it was quite hedonistic and a bit celeb-y, it brought out that ‘I wish I could do that’ in lots of people.
‘It was written before the internet age. Students find it amazing that we actually wrote letters to each other. It was pre-emails and pre-Facebook. When you are 20, you think you are the centre of the universe but you find yourself in a foreign country where no-one really cares and you just have to make it work.
‘It flies in the face of traditional guidebooks and foreign memoirs; you won’t find a top ten list of restaurants but you will find a list of the most boring French literary classics.’
It also offers a quirky inside track on truly understanding and embracing French culture, covering topics as diverse as Johnny Hallyday, bronzage a l’integral, existentialist footballers, why French women are mad as trees but as enticing as cold lager, the importance of the redundant ‘ne’ and exactly how the Cannes police like to extract confessions.
The pair got into a publishing race with Sky One’s self-styled travel guru Karl Pilkington of An Idiot Abroad fame before deciding to self-publish last October. Their witty recollections of life on the Cote d’Azur in the early 1990s attracted the interest of former Labour party communications chief Alastair Campbell, himself a former language assistant, who endorsed the book, saying: ‘My year abroad was one of the happiest and most formative of my life. Ben Chatfield’s witty and insightful book brought a lot of those memories flooding back.’
Ben’s year in Provence taught him much about the French, values he still holds dear today. ‘I learned to be less judgemental of the differences between the French and the British because we are more similar than one might think,’ he muses. ‘First impressions are often way off the mark and the French, whilst taking a while to get to know, are incredibly substantial and loyal.
‘I also realised that I am not at the centre of the universe, just mine. Franz Kafka put it best: ‘In a battle between you and the world, back the world.’
‘And finally, even if they are sniffy with you for speaking French at first, in the long-term they love and respect you for it, and never stop bigging you up about it!’
Following the viral success of the book, with close to 50 reviews on Amazon, London-born Ben is hoping to follow it up with further guidebook style diaries about Los Angeles and London.
Despite returning to London where he now runs his own creative marketing company OscarMike, Ben’s love affair with France endures to this day. ‘I work in Paris for Hermès a couple of days a week so I often head to the Gare de Lyon and get the train down to St. Raphael,’ he says.
‘I normally go six times a year, at Christmas and always in June or July. It has barely changed and I love it for that although the proliferation for all things Indonesian and Thai has increased! Some of the bars have changed names but many haven’t. Enzo recently came back for the first time since 1998 and I think he was amazed at how little it had changed.’
Almost two decades down the line, Ben is still close to many of the characters who feature in the book. ‘Alistair, Pollyanna and I all have dinner every few months,’ he adds. ‘Sod and Enzo were my two best men when I married my wife Victoria last summer. I met her in 2008 when she worked for my old company as a kind of project manager. But it was just a ruse as I had had a crush on her for months.’
Ben chose the beach belonging to his former St Tropez bosses Patrick and Bernard as the venue to marry Victoria surrounded by family and friends. ‘Our wedding was held last summer at Patrick & Bernard’s beach, a few beaches along from where I worked with them, in St Tropez,’ he adds. ‘Patrick is my closest friend in France and I see him five or six times a year. His daughter, Ines, was a maid of honour at the wedding. All the St. Trop characters are still there and I bump in to them regularly.’
So what does Victoria make of the love affairs, crushes and romantic desires lustily described in Mediterranean Homesick Blues?
‘Victoria is an enormous dude and understands that this was a long while ago,’ says Ben diplomatically with a smile. ‘Like any partner, she is obviously not wild about some of the details but she was the first person to read the draft and was very supportive throughout.’
Mediterranean Homesick Blues - extracts
Marseille Marseille is sprawling and filthy and stinks. It is rough and aggressive and confrontational. The fact that the drink they all neck is the rocket fuel-like pastis may well be a contributing factor. The main thoroughfare, La Canabière, is filthy and putrid. Behind it are alleyways where gangs and prostitutes lurk. You need to drink pastis just to be brave enough to leave your apartment. It’s why morning drinking is so big there. Everyone is petrified. But that’s just the edge. It is also the most proper, working, living city in France. It’s got massive couilles and an incredible life and soul to it. Its crumbling beauty and epic, proud port makes everywhere else seem bland and lifeless.
St Tropez St Tropez hit the headlines big time in 1956 when Roger Vadim made a film called When Roger Vadim Created Brigitte Bardot, AKA Et Dieu Créa la Femme. The place went mental and the whole world wanted a bit of it. In the sixties, the Stones and The Beatles hung there, Priscilla Presley bought a villa there (though her and Elvis never actually came) and in the early seventies, Jagger even married Bianca at the town hall with Bowie, Clapton, McCartney and Ringo in attendance. By the 1990s spraying Cristal was enforced rigorously and St Tropez also became camp as Christmas. It took on the moniker of St Trop, (pronounced TROP, like DROP) meaning the Saint of Too Much, as appropriate as it was linguistically clever.
Mediterranean Homesick Blues
Available from Amazon in paperback and as an e-book