How many people have imagined running off to the City of Light, opening their own café and starting a whole new life in the most beautiful city in the world?
Well Craig Carlson actually did it and his debut memoir Pancakes in Paris tells this story. When I saw the title pop up in my NetGalley reads, I was immediately interested. When I lived in Paris back in the mid 90s, I arrived all gung-ho about not *just* making friends with expats in the way that only a clueless early 20-something can be! I mean I was there to immerse myself in the culture and language and hanging out with only English speakers wasn’t going to help me get ahead there, was it? Within a month of arriving, though, I had a job at a now-defunct Australian restaurant, Woolloomoolloo where pretty much my only friends were expats. In the strange, often confusing world that is living in a foreign country and navigating administrative tasks, language challenges and feeling homesick, the restaurant provided an escape from all of that. From being able to commiserate about daily admin frustrations to enjoying a Vegemite sandwich (! yes!) the restaurant was that little piece of home for all of us for a few years (and I’m actually still in touch with some of the people I met there after all this time). So, the story of a guy who opens up a classic American diner in the heart of Paris was a story that was close to my heart in a lot of ways. From understanding the need for that escape from French life to the need to surround yourself with other people who “get you” when times are tough, Carlson’s story touched on a bunch of feelings from that time in my life.
But this is not the sort of person you’d expect to up and move to Paris though – Carlson has background in journalism and an M.A. in film production from The University of Southern California. He’s received numerous awards for his work, is a produced screenwriter and worked as a translator for Letters: Jean Renoir, a book on the famous French director. He’s definitely followed an unconventional path to “living the dream”.
With absolutely no connection to France or the French language and culture growing up in a working-class town in Connecticut (living, quite frankly, a tough childhood), Carlson’s first step on his future path was made in the sixth grade where he chose French as his seventh grade language (and only because of peer pressure NOT to take Spanish!). From his first language classes, Carlson fell in love with the language (and the idea of France) and continued his studies through high school. He went on to study journalism and in his first year, came across information about a study abroad program. That was an eyeopening year in many respects – from realising that the French you learn at school is nothing like “real life” French, to discovering French food – really good food – Carlson really connected with the county, culture (and eventually the language!) that year.
But Carlson didn’t just abandon his studies there and then and move to Paris (that’s just not do-able for most of us). He went on to complete his studies, continued into film school and enjoyed some great success in the fields of writing and producing. His career brought him back to Paris for a year and it was shortly after returning home to that he has his epiphany. As he sat desperately missing Paris over a plate of pancakes in an LA diner – the one thing he had missed about America while he was in Paris – he thought to himself:
At that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do—no, had to do next: open an American diner in Paris….
Pancakes in Paris is the tale of how Carlson turns his dream into a reality. And unlike many books of this type, it does a wonderful job of telling it like it really is. Moving to another country is not a walk in the park. Moving to France (or indeed, buying a house in France) is not all berets, baguettes and endless glasses of wine. It’s mighty hard work and Pancakes in Paris lays it out, how you go from simply having an idea to making it a reality. For Carlson, the work begins with trying to find investors and continues as he navigates finding *the* location, archaic and illogical French bureaucracy, employment laws, employees, the “freedom fries” era and so much more. Seriously, this book was so eye-opening for me about the ins and outs of starting up and operating a small business and was truly a breath of fresh air in this book category. If you’ve ever harboured secret dreams of opening a café in Paris, this book will either make you think again or hire Carlson as your consultant ! I couldn’t put it down as I rooted for Carlson to overcome the endless obstacles to making his dream a successful reality – indeed it does read more like a thriller than just a “food memoir”. There are truly dark parts of the book – death threats, heart attacks and lawsuits, just to name a few – but if you google “Breakfast in America Paris” you’ll see they are now operating at three locations across Paris (and Pancakes in Paris was a New York Times Bestseller already!). You’ll have to read the book for yourself to see just how much of a “can’t put it down” read it really is!
Congrats to Craig on his well-deserved success with the diners and the book. I know where I’m headed for breakfast next time I find myself in Paris. To toast him with a cup of good old American “jus de chaussettes” (sock juice, the French name for American coffee!).
US/ Canadian readers – win a copy of Pancakes in Paris! Click here for details.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Pancakes in Paris via NetGalley/ Sourcebooks but opinions are, as always 100% my own.