In Pursuit of Happiness

Montmartre

There are people who feel compelled to leave the place where they were born and the culture in which they were raised and go to Paris, where they find themselves.

The mere act of going through the motions in another city, in another language, can be a distraction from the mundane. In Paris, every errand requires a new vocabulary, words one would never come across in Molière or Baudelaire: tournevis, crochet, marteau for a trip to the hardware store; tache, doublure, before heading off to the dry cleaner.

But the truth is, Paris also takes one’s mind off troubles in unforeseen ways. Everywhere, something urges you to pay attention: a taste, a smell, some subtle flourish that a person trudging through life might otherwise miss.

From a walk-up apartment half a block from the Seine, you might listen through open windows on a summer night to the chamber-music concerts across the street at the Musée de la Monnaie, with Mozart’s ripe harmonies carried upward on the dense, warm air. Going on midnight, the noise of the traffic might be interrupted by lurching, bleating oom-pah-pah renditions of popular standards as the Fanfare des Beaux-Arts, a marching band of students from the school of architecture, snaked its way through the narrow streets, its gusto fueled by wine.

Shopping for groceries, you might bring home fraises des bois, plump figs from Turkey, and yogurt made from goat’s milk. At the bakery on the corner, you might discover congolais—haystacks of pure, intense coconut or, if it is Christmastime, crystalline marrons glacés. In the Luxembourg Gardens, you might see children sailing their boats in the fountain or, in October, watch a parade of citrus trees in their jardinières, being taken to the Orangerie, where they will sit out the winter.

Many of us in North America share the middle-class values instilled in our parents by their parents: diligence, discipline, thrift, and a particularly Calvinist delight in the virtues of self-denial. Work is every upstanding person’s reason for being, and pleasure and leisure are the rewards for a job well done. From this austere outlook, we might conclude that the self is to be constantly policed and kept in check.

Spending time with the French allows us to loosen our iron grip. We envy their capacity for moderation, and realize for the first time that pleasure makes moderation possible. We begin to build little treats into the day: a walk along a street we love, 20 minutes with a book in the Tuileries on the way to an appointment; a late-night glass of Champagne at a café; Poilâne’s walnut bread for breakfast. Where we might consider flowers a reckless indulgence, except for Mother’s Day, in Paris, no vase ever goes empty.

The French know that pleasure is something to be discovered, there for the taking, and something to be cultivated. Its pursuit, as it turns out, is not a mindless slide into debauchery but a science, rigorous and exacting, discriminating between the merely good and the sublime. The thing about pleasure is that it immerses you in the moment. The present becomes more compelling than the future or the past. There is no better cure for heartache.

Having spent time there, could one ever be happy living anywhere else? That’s not the lesson.

Because in the course of learning to love the city and its inhabitants,  one also learns to savour the texture of everyday life, in Paris or anywhere.

Sacre Coeur Dufy

Adapted from Holly Bruback, Gourmet, September 2008

Image: Arnaud Frich, Montmartre

Image: Eglise St Pierre et Sacré-Coeur par Jean Dufy

3 responses to “In Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Speaking as a person who has, in fact, moved to France in search of the ineffable, I totally agree that what one learns here is the pursuit of joy and pleasure unfettered by our American Puritanical notions. It’s only in France that I’ve come to understand what it really means to have Puritan roots, and to cast them off.

    http://frenchletters.wordpress.com

  2. the smell you feel in paris is the scent of Baudelaire, Hugo, Gaugain and – why not? – of the countless artists that only lived there for a while: Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and so on, and so on.
    But there is another think yet: french manner. English is not my language, nor french because I’m romanian, so I don’t know if in english there is such a phrase: “savoir de vivre”. Like in italian “dolce far niente”. That is something you could not understand, you can feel it instead.
    Think if an american could write this:
    “La femme est le contraire du Dandy. Donc elle doit faire horreur.
    La femme a faim, et elle veut manger ; soif, et elle veut boire.
    Elle est en rut, et elle veut être f…
    Le beau mérite !
    La femme est naturelle, c’est-à-dire abominable.
    Aussi est-elle toujours vulgaire, c’est-à-dire le contraire du Dandy.” (Mon coeur mis à nu
    JOURNAL INTIME par Charles Baudelaire).

  3. We certainly have an English phrase, “Get a life!”.

    This Torontoise is fortunate to have Quebec just next door to remind us how we might live in this grey centre of commerce. And marrons glacés are not as difficult to find at the charming Montreal Christmas markets.

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