JOIE de VIVRE
Originally published in Orange Life Magazine, No. 15, June 2008
Joie de Vivre
Joie de vivre. The joy of living. lt is a French term but is it
really a French concept?
To find out, I decided to ask a sampling of French people
what joie de vivre means to them. As with all of my
quests for knowledge, I started with the concierge of my
Parisian apartment building. I had mixed feelings about
doing this because I had been avoiding my concierge
ever since an incident a few months earlier, when my
downstairs neighbour slammed her door one too many
times and I retaliated by dropping barbells on the floor.
Complaints were lodged, and we ended up hashing the
whole thing out with the concierge serving as referee. Afterwards,
in the spirit of conciliation, I told my neighbour
that it was amazing a simple door could inadvertently
make such a jarring sound. In the same conciliatory spirit,
she told me it was amazing that I owned barbells yet
seemed so out of shape.
I asked the concierge how she would define joie de
vivre, and once I convinced her my quest was not a joke,
she did not hesitate at all. “August,” she said. “August
“Because it sounds so poetic?”
“No. Because all the Parisians are gone.”
Outside my building, I spotted a battalion of meter maids working
their way around Place des Vosges. I have always
admired French meter maids because they are on
their feet all day yet wear slender, attractive pumps. I did
not get to ask my question, though, because as soon as
I walked up and started talking, one of them said, “Is this
yours?” jutting her chin towards the car she was ticketing.
“Because we cannot stop writing a ticket once we
have started, so do not waste your breath.” The car was
a sassy, silvery Audi and I was thrilled that she thought it
belonged to me. Very few people ever mistake me for a
wealthy scofflaw with entitlement issues.
“But nothing. If you can afford an Audi, you can afford to
feed the meter,” she said. “N’est-ce pas?”
You cannot argue with logic like that, so I headed towards
the centre of town and went into the Bazaar de l’Hotel de
Ville. I found a talkative saleslady and when I asked her
what brought her happiness, she said, “A job well done.”
That surprised me because the French are not exactly
famous for hard work. France has a maximum 35-hour
workweek, and when I was still at my old job – you know,
before I was fired – the firm had to pay half of my first
four movie tickets each month. By law. Still, the saleslady
told me she gained pleasure from helping her customers.
“Finding the perfect gift, for example.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well, I had a woman in here looking for a gift for her
niece’s baby shower, only she did not want to spend
more than 30 euros because the niece cannot be bothered
to send thank-you notes.”
“So what will 30 euros get you?” I asked.
“A beautiful, boxed set of hand-milled, thank-you note
stationery,” she said.
There are always people in front of the BHV because that
is where several bus lines stop, so I was hoping I could
canvass a cross section of the population there without
having to leave my neighbourhood. I did not choose
randomly, though. I passed up anyone who had leeks
or celery foliage poking out of their shopping caddies.
People willing to take the bus to buy their vegetables do
not suffer fools lightly – everybody knows that – so I did
not think they would be interested in my survey.
I got lucky and found a man in an expansive, philosophi-
cal mood waiting for the 69. The 69 is one of the most
beautiful bus lines in Paris because it finishes at the Eiffel
Tower and part of it runs right through the courtyard of
the Louvre. lt is also the slowest bus in Paris, so we had a
lot of time to talk before the bus appeared. I asked him if
he thought French people were happy, and he said “No.”
He said that French people like to “râler,” which means to
moan and groan, although the word has a darker undercurrent
swirling lust below the surface because râler also
means to “rattle,” as in the death rattle.
He was right. French people do complain a lot. He also
said that French people were reflexively uncooperative,
bad-tempered and unsurpassed in the art of scowling.
This was not the first time I had heard French people
deliver such a surprisingly frank assessment of themselves.
I think a certain degree of humility is required for
someone to criticize oneself like that. Americans often
criticize the United States, but they usually complain
about something the United States has done (dropped
bombs without cleaning up afterwards) or something
they have not done (universal healthcare). They almost
never criticize their national character. You will rarely hear
an American say, for example, that he is sick and tired
of everybody being so relentlessly optimistic. So, I was
touched by my subject’s willingness to own up to his nation’s
The 69 bus came and I thanked the gentleman sincerely
for his time and insight. When we were talking, I had noticed
that he had bought a glue gun at the BHV. As we
were saying goodbye, I asked him if he was planning to
put up some wallpaper.
“Wallpaper,” I said, pointing at his shopping bag. “Some
work around the house?”
“Oh, that,” he said. No, I’ve got a score to settle with
I headed back towards the Bastille and stopped in at
my local supermarket. At the customer service counter,
I started to ask the clerk about taking joy in life, but she
promptly pointed me to the pharmacy next door. Then
she voila’dme, which is French for “This conversation
is over.” She was not far off the mark with her advice,
because French doctors prescribe antidepressants for
everything. I am a case in point. When I was still working
as a lawyer, my bossy, steel-reinforced briefcase fell
out of the overhead compartment on a plane and hit my
defenceless shoulder. My doctor fixed me up, physically
speaking, but said I looked stressed about the injury.
He offered me a bucket-full of anxiety pills. I was suffering,
but not from stress. I was suffering from “my job is
slowly killing me.”
Still, I took the prescription and when I filled it, I was delighted
to see that French happy pills come with a little,
detachable compartment so you can always keep a few
pills handy without having to lug around the entire bottle.
It is like a landing pod that detaches from a spaceship.
However, instead of leading towards one giant leap for
mankind, my landing pod led me toward a blurry chemically
induced sense of serenity.
I gave up on the service desk and went deeper into the
supermarket, ending up talking to a customer in line at
the cheese counter. Cheese is quintessentially French
(when it is not from Wisconsin), so this encounter seemed
particularly promising. I asked the woman if she thought
the French had a reputation for having joie de vivre. Wise
woman that she was, she answered my question with a
question of her own. “Are you a student?”
“Me? l’m 44.”
“So you are a grad student?”
“Let us start over again,” I said. “l am doing an unof-
ficial poll …” By that point, it was her turn at the cheese
counter and our chat came to end. I eavesdropped on
her order and when it was my turn, I asked for the same
thing. It was a cheese called Brillat-Savarin, and it turned
out to be delicious. It is also 75 percent fat. Butter, just as
a point of reference, is usually 82 percent fat.
Before leaving the supermarket, I had another idea: I
should talk to the store’s undercover detective. I am on
friendly terms with her because I was once hauled into
the back office and accused of shoplifting, but it was all
a case of mistaken identity. An employee downstairs had
radioed a description of the marauding desperado to the
store detective, and she had nabbed me as I was leaving
because I fit the bill, which, she later admitted, was
“About 5’9″. Glasses. Kind Of a thrift-store look.”
I did learn some valuable lessons during my time in the
supermarket slammer. Notably, that it is important to
buy at least one winsome or charismatic item so you
will seem interesting if you are searched. When they
searched my bags, all I had were humdrum things like
milk and oatmeal. (If I were going to steal from a supermarket,
I would steal something challenging, like a pineapple.
Only a moron would steal oatmeal). My point is
that if there was one true student of the human condition
in Paris, it was the plainclothes cop at the supermarket.
However, I did not want to blow her cover, so I just paid
for my cheese and left.
On my way home, I stopped at the bakery although I
had just been in the supermarket, because that is the
way things are done in France. A second line to stand in.
A second opportunity to get into an argument with the
clerk” A second chance for the cash register to break so
everybody can sigh and bemoan the state of this world, a
world where cash registers break and the harried French
clerk has never heard of a concept called joie de vivre,
or if she has, she probably thinks it is the name of some
long-forgotten Edith Piaf song. Not a completely bad
guess since they are both warbling, ethereal throwbacks
to concepts that really have no place in France today.
So was it all a mistake, associating joie de vivre
I do not think so, because joie de Vivre is not about
lounging by a pool sipping drinks out of coconuts. Besides,
I think there is nothing wrong with complaining
when something goes wrong. If I am ever hooked up to
a head-lung machine and it breaks, I am certainly planning
to rattle out a few complaints before I head off to
my final reward.
In the end, I think joie de vivre is about taking pleasure
wherever one can find it. That could mean the simple
pleasure of loving one’s neighbour, which, as the French
have discovered, is most easily done when your neighbour
is not home. Or the subtle pleasure of a freshly
baked baguette, served up with that inimitable mixture of
attitude and indifference. Because the truth is that while
we may go through a big hassle to get it, the bread is
good. Really good. And sometimes when we are lucky
enough to get a piping hot baguette straight from the
oven, we have to jiggle it around to cool it off as we walk
home. And that is really where the answer lies, because
in French, baguette means bread but it can also mean
a conductor’s baton. It is that gesture – that distinctive,
fluttering way we dance the cooling loaf of bread on the
tips of our fingers – that lets me think that each of us is
really conducting his own little Ode to Joy.