“For me, French culture is not necessarily the height of civilization (depending on how that is defined); nor does it represent ‘the best of all possible worlds’, as Candide ironically intones. But the infusion of other people into this already culturally rich society has made it richer, and better equipped to think differently. Whether it’s over coq au vin or couscous, to the backbeat of Bizet or African drums, through the eyes of an aging farmer from Auvergne or a young Parisian professional—the French are still inventing new ways of living well.” —Cathy Yandell, author of The French Art of Living Well: Finding Joie de Vivre in the Everyday World
When I began reading professor of French Renaissance literature and culture, as well as contemporary cultural and political issues in France and the French language Cathy Yandell’s new book released this past May, I immediately discovered a book that is far less common compared to the sea of French-inspired living books, and it is her different approach that kept me intrigued and most appreciative of all that she shared.
Sharing through her academic lens of experience, an American expat living and teaching in France, her first experience visiting France was traveling abroad as a young girl and being immediately engrossed and curious about this ‘new world’ she could not have imagined, but that immediately intrigued and ultimately inspired her to return and eventually live in France.
As we kick of TSLL’s 8th Annual French Week, I felt this book would be a lovely apéritif so to speak to give a taste of the French culture as we dive in throughly the next coming days.
The French Art of Living Well is part memoir as we read anecdotes of Yandell’s experiences in France that further her discoveries about the French culture, and part academic, literary and historical exploration of what makes France what it is today.
I have pulled ten tips from the book and expanded upon them below, but rest assured, there are many more, so I encourage you to pick up the book and dive right in. I do think you will enjoy.
1.Embrace the French phrase for which there is no English equivalent: Joie de Vivre
Translated into English to mean ‘joy of living’, the French phrase joie de vivre coined by the French in the 17th century is found alongside a few other French phrases involving joie (joy) – joye de papillon, defined as “momentary gladness”; fille de joye, defined in the French-English dictionary to mean pleasant sinner even though the literal translation is daughter of joy. Yandell goes on to teach readers that the phrase actually didn’t catch on to become a catchphrase until Émile Zola’s ironically titled novel La Joie de Vivre was published in 1883 (in other words, don’t read this book for an uplifting jolt of inspiration). However, at the core of this now well-known phrase whether one knows the French language or not, it is a reminder to savor moments of joy throughout our daily lives.
Something often written about here on TSLL and shared on The Simple Sophisticate podcast with the Petit Plaisirs, when we savor the beauty, savor what is going well, drink in all that captures and delights our eye, and thus our senses, the quality of our lives deepen, and that is how we embrace and welcome into our lives the phrase that is joie de vivre.
2. Let the meal be the message and let the message be ‘Enjoy!’
To lose track of time, to not need to look at the clock or our phones for the time being, whenever we sit down for a meal, especially one with others, but we must not forget to do so when we are our in own company as well, let the pleasure of the food, the drink, the company, the ambiance, the conversation be prioritized over time.
I so delight in a meal when I do not look at the clock and only upon heading home when I do glance at the time do I realize that time flew by due to the choice to just savor and be and engage.
Such a moment happened over a week ago at a new restaurant where we tried three different entrée items, chatted with the waitstaff and had a wonderful conversation with each other. Sipping cocktails and wine, before we knew it, we were one of the last two people in the restaurant and heading home three hours after having arrived. A divine time.
3. Embrace and engage with passion to create a priceless magic
Yandell shares a comment from one of the boulangers who won the Le Grand Prix de la Baguette, Mahmoud M’seddi. When asked what the key to a perfect baguette is, he said, “Passion . . . You could have exactly the same recipe, and if one person is more passionate than the other they’ll have a better result. Even if you’ve done exactly the same thing, it won’t be the same. It’s like magic.”
In other words, take pride and care in what you do. Your love will speak through the food, or whatever it is you are creating, upon its completion. Of course, it may take some time to become well versed in what you love, but once you do, it is that fuel, that passion, for what you are doing that will enable you to continue to learn, to improve and to stick with it until the gems you have to offer are just that, much like a treasure to be savored.
I often think about this when it comes to business. There are many brands that build their business hoping to one day be sold or purchased by another brand. But when a company stays true to its founding principles, continues to offer with integrity and quality what they began doing many years ago, competition may come and go, but it is the quality that remains and people return decade after decade, and over that long duration, when there is passion, there is a skill that is being utilized that cannot be purchased anywhere else due to the experienced gain through the energy created by doing what you are passionate about.
4. Prioritize knowledge and never cease to learn
Stimulating the mind, growing your knowledge of the world, cultures, languages, anything that you are most curious about, to choose to prioritize knowledge is to feed your curiosity and that will always be a savvy life decision. Keep reading, sign up for that class, go listen to that lecture, and instead of viewing learning as a chore, embrace the benefits of knowledge. Now you have the keys to have a lively conversation with people, to playfully banter, to debate critically and with sound reasoning, all the while seeing it as a conversation not a personal attack. “Knowledge is power” as Francis Bacon famously said, but it also elevates the enjoying of living.
5. Read and explore the essays of Montaigne
Yandell devotes a full section of her chapter titled ‘Sparking the Mind’ encouraging readers to explore the French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne who lived and wrote during the 16th century, during the time of the French Renaissance. In one essay he writes about focusing on one thing at a time, otherwise understood in our current culture to being more mindful of our daily living. Encouraging through his choice to savor time, to cling to it, “to find it both pleasant and valuable”, we are reminded that the present moment is all we have, and to appreciate it and see it and be wholly a part of it.
~purchase a book containing all of his essays here (English edition)
6. Walk amongst nature and let your troubles subside
Discussing Swiss writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings, a writer and philosopher who spent much time amongst nature along the border between Switzerland and France, Yandell reminds us that Rousseau discovered the joy of solitary walking. Writing “He feels ravissements and extases (raptures and ecstasies), a perfect and fulfilling contentment, as he drifts into reveries during his walks or while lying in a rocking boat or sitting on the banks of the lake watching waves.”
When we step into Mother Nature’s domain, we step away from the tugs and pulls and yanks of the bustle and busy in our modern world. This frees our mind, this deepens our breathing and thus deepens our appreciation and yep, our joy of living.
7. It is okay for something to just be beautiful and hold no proper function
Citing the example of Le Tour d’Eiffel, which now solely stands as a monument with no function (even though, admittedly, it was a radio tower for a time), Yandell goes on to remind that something beautiful can be just that, to bring enjoyment and that alone is its function, and that is more than enough.
When talking about this French truth to embrace, she writes about art, both paintings and sculpture, music, film and may other mediums that to gaze upon them objectively would be to note there is little if no function, but we would be mistaken. To gaze upon something of awe, of beauty, of a uniquely hand-crafted piece of art, the medium speaks to us, teaches us, reminds us, guides us – Art is powerful if we choose to let it be so.
So when is that new exhibit opening in your home town? Why not go check it out. 😌
8. Invest in your neighborhood
Speaking of village life in the book, Yandell writes about how “the village remains a fundamental element of French identity” even though they have experienced a steady decline in population since the early 1990s. Yet, “inhabitants of small towns in France also report increasing satisfaction with their quality of life”.
Belonging to a neighborhood, knowing your neighbors and living your lives next to each other, conversing and expressing compassion, supporting your local businesses, this is a French way of life in the villages that continue to thrive today. It’s not about going in and grabbing and going about your day. You stop, have a chat with the vendor, and as these conversations unfold over the years, you are seen, they are seen and this deepens the sense of community. The conversations may not be deep, but they acknowledge each other, extending appreciation, exchanging a thoughtful smile of joy to been seen and to see.
9. Teaching and practicing critical thinking as a way of life
At an early age, “French children are taught to defend themselves, even against parents.” Non, I am not talking about physically defending themselves, but in conversation, debate, banter, but in a civilized manner. In other words, to use the art of critical thinking. For example, “You like that movie? Why? I didn’t think it was very interesting? Why? [followed by specifics based on what was actually presented].”
In other cultures, there is a fear of disagreement. Part of the reason it is shied away from in the states is because we haven’t been taught how to be critical thinkers, and thus we talk and conversely engage from a personal standpoint. In other words, we don’t discuss from a place of open-minded curiosity, but also with no specific supports of evidence. Yes, we can have an opinion, but if you don’t know soundly why you have an opinion, you haven’t critically examined your thoughts (a practice of mindfulness), then is your opinion one to hold, especially if it is bringing you stress and strife?
France values nimble thinkers. This is beneficial not only in living well but in enjoying life as well, as to have a healthy debate can deepen our understanding as well as be “exhilarating”.
10. Savor the moment
I realize I am ending on an idea that is similar to the one I began with, but it bears repeated and further explored. The only way for us to savor anything is fully being present. “Being there” as Yandell writes is what “expands time”. And once we realize this paradox that is often disbelieved in the states (we tend to always hustle to get more done or gain more, etc., etc.) to be true – that it is by slowing down and being fully in the moment that gives us more, our lives deepen in their quality. However, the only way to know this French truth to be true is to experience it, to try it and change our ways from busy to being present, doing one thing at a time balanced with just being. In other words, we don’t have to be ‘doing’ all of the time. And in so being, we begin to savor far more and much more often.
May you welcome more Joie de Vivre into your everydays and may your everydays become a way of living that deepens your appreciation for living. Bonne journée. 😌
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