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Bonjour, Happiness!SECRETS TO FINDING YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE
By JAMIE CAT CALLAN
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2011 Jamie Cat Callan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJoie de Vivre!
There is only one happiness in this life—to love and to be loved. —GEORGE SAND
Looking for Happiness
In America, we are entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
There is no such expression in France. In fact, in France, the equivalent expression is la recherche du bonheur (looking for happiness). On the surface, this might seem as if I am splitting hairs, but if you really examine the idea of "looking" for happiness as opposed to "pursuing" happiness, you'll see there's actually a big difference.
If we're looking for something, it feels as if it's there hiding in plain sight. It's under the table, for instance. And all we have to do is be patient and when the room is quiet, quickly lift up the tablecloth and voilà! There it is! Happiness!
On the other hand, pursuing implies a kind of chasing after something. For us, happiness is down the street somewhere, but moving fast. We'll have to move even faster. We'll have to put on our cross trainers and chase after it, really chase it down, faster than the competition. Maybe we'll even have to push a few people to the side in our pursuit, until we final wrestle it to the ground and capture it.
Or perhaps we believe we already have happiness, but we're a little insecure in our lives and so we want to send out a message to the world. Perhaps we'll buy a big car and a bigger house to let everyone know, including ourselves that "we're happy, dammit!"
"Looking for happiness" seems gentler. There is happiness, and we just need to look. Perhaps happiness is sitting there in our garden and is nestled between the green leaves and the fragrant tomatoes. Then again, perhaps we just need to open a few cupboards and take out some nice spices and melt a bit of butter in a pan on the stove. Then again, perhaps happiness is in the eyes of our loved ones and we only need to look, to put on some music, take their hand, and dance. It's not something we can truly own. We certainly can't purchase it.
Isabelle is a thirty-six-year-old Frenchwoman living in Paris. She's traveled all over the world and she works in personal development. She's also incredibly articulate and wise beyond her years. I recently met her in Paris and we talked about life and love and family and work. Later, she wrote this about what joie de vivre means to her:
Joie de vivre is about loving life, loving people, loving to be alive, feeling alive. It is about smiling, being in your heart, and being grateful for all the beautiful things in your life: being in good health, being able to hear, to see, to walk, being grateful for all the lovely and loving people (people we know or strangers we meet), being grateful for the nature surrounding us and all that it gives to us. It is to be grateful for the mystery of life, that we are able to live and breathe.... Joie de vivre is about sharing with others, smiling, laughing, making people feel a little less down, feeling useful to one another, making them believe in the future. It is making the choice to be positive. Joie de vivre is about trusting that nothing happens without a reason, and everything can turn out positive in the future. It is about accepting what's in your life in the moment and feeling contented inside.
This kind of happiness is already within you, and it's simply a matter of choosing to embrace the simple beauties of life. Perhaps happiness is right there with you at this very moment. In fact, he's upstairs taking a shower, getting ready for his day and whistling a catchy little tune. Yes, love is joie de vivre. Laura K. Lawless is a dedicated Francophile behind the Guide to Learn French at About.com, a free website for students, teachers, and lovers of French. Laura is also the author of seven books, most recently Intermediate French for Dummies. She's lived in the South of France with her husband since 2008. This is what she tells me about joie de vivre:
I think of joie de vivre as optimism about one's life and the ability to enjoy what you have without worrying too much about what you don't. Finding joy in the everyday isn't necessarily easy, but it helps a lot to share your life with someone you love. I was fortunate enough to meet my husband and partner, in every sense of the word, fifteen years ago, and together we have created a life of adventure, laughter, and joy, even when money, job stress, or the weather all seem to be conspiring to get us down. When we feel too poor to go out to movies and restaurants, we think up cheaper alternatives: we raid the recycling bin for art supplies, make each other scavenger hunts, seek out fancy recipes made from inexpensive food, and reminisce about great trips we've taken and meals we've eaten. We both recognize and appreciate how lucky we are to have each other, and our shared joie de vivre.
So you see, this kind of happiness has nothing to do with how much money you might have in the bank. However, it does have a lot to do with having a big heart and a strong imagination.
Dancing with the Stars
A few years ago I visited the small town of Gien with my husband. He was there to take part in a science conference not far from Cannes, and I was basically along for the ride. We stayed at a modest, family-style resort hotel. It was off-season, so the place was rather empty, except for about one hundred climate change scientists (who are a rugged bunch. I like to think of them as the Indiana Joneses of the science world) and a group of elderly French people. This was a funny combination—these rather serious international climate change scientists with a group of about fifty fun-loving French who often travel together. We met up with them at meal times and then later in the evening, but generally the two groups kept to themselves.
Then one night, while my husband was having a heated discussion on uranium series carbon dating with a couple of scientists from Great Britain, I heard the sounds of music and so I wandered off and found myself in the social room. There was a small but very lively band, including a singer playing the accordion. The Frenchwomen were dressed up in colorful, swirling skirts and everyone was dancing or standing or sitting near the dance floor, talking and laughing and having a great time. This was obviously the place to be. And so I decided to sit down and watch for a while. And then, suddenly, a rather chubby Frenchman sat right down on my lap! He began laughing and saying something very fast in French and I honestly couldn't understand him. Plus, he was bouncing up and down on my lap, which was very distracting. The ladies next to me did their best to explain what was happening, but they spoke no English and I was left even more confused, until I realized he was saying, "Danse! Danse! Danse!" And I tried in my terrible French (honestly, I'm better now!) to say, "Mon mari n'est pas lá!" (My husband is not here.) But still, he persisted. "Danse, danse, danse!" And then one of the ladies took my hand and said something about "avec vous!" And I understood that he wanted to dance with me and before I knew it, I was up there on the dance floor, going round and round, twirling breathlessly and laughing, and you know what? This chubby French guy was some heck of a great dancer. He was very strong and very sure of himself and he had loads of stamina. What fun! I gave myself over to the music and the movement and the arms of this very sweet man. The dizzying quality of being swung about the room, twirling and dipping, the closeness of the other dancers, the blur of faces and legs, shoes and smiles. My heart beating. And then breathing harder. Even sweating. The music built to a crescendo. All this brought me to a place of rapture. Well, if not that, then certainly happiness. Definitely joie de vivre. And when all was said and done, I had a really good time. Thanks to the funny French gentleman who sat on my lap.
Let the Good Times Roll
And actually, the word "happiness" translates as bonheur in French, which literally means a "good hour" or "good time." It's something you experience. You can't own a dance. You can't bottle a man and take him home with you and then take him out of the bottle when you need a good laugh and a pick-me-up. Inherent in the French concept of happiness is the knowledge that time is limited and joy is fleeting. It's a moment, never to be repeated. Dancing captures this feeling beautifully, because it involves all the senses—touch, sound, sight, smell, and even taste if the dance leads to a stolen kiss.
Dance can lift your mood and, yes, change your life. It's a fleeting joy, but honestly, the experience of dancing to good music is so much more powerful and lasting than something you might buy in a store and bring home with you.
When I asked Sylvie Gourlet, the artist and documentary filmmaker who lives in Paris, what she thought joie de vivre meant, she told me to rent the Danish film Babette's Feast. "This is a true example of joie de vivre." Without giving away too much, I will tell you this—the film's climactic moment evolves around the most lavish dinner party imaginable. Babette sacrifices everything to give this gift—this experience— of the most sensual, delicious, life-changing fête. No detail is spared when it comes to the preparation, the serving, and the partaking of the astoundingly sensual and delicious meal. And while the diners try to resist, ultimately they are transformed by the beauty, the generosity, and the unforgettable pleasure of Babette's feast. There is even a spiritual undertone to the film, as if to say good food, company, joie de vivre will save you. And I loved the message that if you are an artist, you will never be poor. And certainly Babette is une véritable artiste de la cuisine!
The next time you are tempted to microwave your dinner and eat all by yourself in front of the television, think about Babette. It's true, we lead busy lives and it's not always possible to create a sit-down dinner for one's entire family, but if you can plan a group dinner, even once a week, you'll see your life change.
And even when Frenchwomen microwave a dinner (yes, they do occasionally), they will take it out of the plastic container, put it on a nice plate, serve a salad beside it, and sit down at the dinner table with their family. Oh, and they'll really have a conversation. One conversation builds on another and another and before you know it, you are truly connected to your family and friends. And that's because there really is something to this idea of "breaking bread together."
My Red Leaf Lettuce Epiphany
I will make a confession. I tend to get a little panicky when I go to the supermarket. Perhaps it's the enormity of the place, or the people with the big shopping carts, the glaring lights, the hypnotic music telling me to buy, buy, buy! Then again, perhaps it's all the signs shouting at me that paper towels are on special, or to buy two for the price of one. It may be the overwhelming plentitude of choices: fifty different kinds of breakfast cereals and ten different brands of yogurt, each one with five different flavors.
When I was thirty-two, my husband and two-year-old daughter and I moved from New York City to Huntington Beach, California. Eventually, I would end up going to UCLA for a graduate school program in screenwriting, but I didn't know this at the time. At the time, I convinced my husband and myself that we would be happy if we just got out of the big city and raised our daughter in the country, by the sea.
Little did I know that we would end up in a land of unlimited choices: Orange County, California. Many people have suggested that unhappiness is not caused so much by lack, but by having so many choices it's impossible to focus in on what we really want and what we need. Because of this inability to focus, we get confused and we are no longer able to see clearly who we are and what we are supposed to be doing in this world. Hence, too many choices in yogurt will send me into an existential crisis.
And this brings me back to Huntington Beach, California. One day, I walked into the Pavilions—a gigantic super market. I walked up and down the aisles, my heart thumping, full of confusion. My face flushed, as I struggled with this overwhelming feeling that I could never be good enough, smart enough. I worried about my little daughter, my marriage, my writing career, and I wondered what the heck I was doing in this life. Here I was in the land of sunshine, and there was so much wealth around me, and everyone was saying how lucky I was to live in Huntington Beach, but the truth was we were kind of broke and I missed New York City and I feared I had made a terrible mistake. I missed the gritty streets, the small markets in Astoria, Queens (we had moved there from Greenwich Village for the last year before coming west). I missed working for Estée Lauder in the GM Building and coming home every night on the RR train and picking up the ingredients for dinner at the fish store, the green grocery, the little bakery. I had my own little French village in this mostly Greek and Italian neighborhood. But there was no grass or trees and no fresh air for my daughter, and the winters were miserable.
And so I found myself in Huntington Beach, a place that was so foreign to me, I might as well have been on Mars. And now I was in the supermarket faced with a plethora of choices, in a state of frenzy. I walked quickly, trying to figure out what it was I was supposed to buy in the first place. Then I remembered how my Weight Watchers leader told us to "walk the circumference of the supermarket," meaning avoid the aisles in the middle that held the most dangerous foods: the processed foods, the foods full of sugary and fatty goodness. She told us to stick to the outside—the dairy, meat, fish, and produce aisles. So I did.
And this is where I had my life-altering experience—what I like to call my Red Leaf Lettuce Epiphany. It was 1986 and I honestly had never seen red leaf lettuce before. I knew about iceberg lettuce, romaine, and butter lettuce (which my grandparents grew in Connecticut). But here in the Huntington Beach Pavilions produce aisle, there must have been twenty different kinds of lettuce. And they all looked so beautiful, so green, so vibrant and fat, arranged in such a way that they seemed to be bursting out of their displays and begging me to buy them. All of them! And I stood there, paralyzed. I couldn't decide. There were so many choices. And then, the automatic sprinkler system switched on and sprayed all the vegetables, drenching the lettuce in water. This was also something I had never seen before, so I just stared. After a minute, I found myself focusing on the bunches of red leaf lettuce. They were so pretty—the reddish-green leaves, and they made me think of a ruffled cancan girl's skirt bordered in ruby red and the sparkling dew from the supermarket produce water seemed like sequins sewn on a dress.
It was in this moment that I found illumination. Staring at the droplets of water on the leaves, I confess, I felt pure, unadulterated happiness. Those bunches of red leaf lettuce were so beautiful and so simple and, honestly, right there in the Huntington Beach supermarket, I began to cry. I cried big, fat tears of joy. And as corny as this may sound, I felt I learned something so valuable—and that was that I don't need a big cartful of stuff to make me happy. I don't need things in order to calm my nerves. Rather, happiness comes from slowing down and looking. Really looking. Happiness is not "out there." It's right in front of you. If you look, happiness is right there among the bunches of red leaf lettuce.
Excerpted from Bonjour, Happiness! by JAMIE CAT CALLAN Copyright © 2011 by Jamie Cat Callan . Excerpted by permission of CITADEL PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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