Of Melancholy and Marvels; Paris Years On

Sion_Crossroads_PereLachaise
Did I ever tell you about my first trip to Paris?

A rainy weekend in late November 2005.

At that time, I didn’t know the gray of the sky was semi-permanent, that the drab monotony even had a name (la grisaille). I did intuit, however, that the city always looked beautiful anyway.

A transport strike (another common feature, I would learn) was in full swing and so I arrived into central Paris only after a chaotic RER and metro ride.

But out I finally popped onto Rue de Rivoli, the Hotel de Ville lit bright by early holiday lights. Beautiful. There’s that word again. I was overcome by my first sight.

Skaters at Hotel de Ville

Skaters at Hotel de Ville

I couldn’t stand transfixed for too long, though; the accommodation I had booked didn’t allow check-ins after a certain hour; due to the strike I was already late.

I had no map, no smartphone. Instead I held simple phrases written phonetically and the naive belief that these would get me to where I needed to be.

I soon learned that stopping people on the street – Bonjour, Madame! See voo play! – did not translate so well. Most people gave me strange looks. Many walked away before I had finished struggling through my sentence. Roo Duh Bars! No one knows eww sa troove Roo Duh Bars!

Of course I realize that no one had the faintest idea what on earth I was trying to say.

To my credit, I stumbled across Rue de Barres myself – it was a small side street not that easy to find.

The MIJE youth hostel was housed in a former monastery from the thirteenth century. The tall, heavy doors were already shut when I arrived. Between some combination of gestures and pleading about the trains they agreed to let me in and I settled into my monastic room (a strange choice, on second thought).

That weekend saw a mixture of confusion and isolation, sensuality and rapture. At one point I was crossing a bridge across the Seine, near Notre Dame. The cold had snuck into my bones and the falling rain soaked me further.

“I would gladly suffer here,” I thought, looking down at the river, up at the Gothic cathedral, all around at the cobblestones and light. It would be a beautiful suffering.

How serious! How silly! Did you know I can be quite the earnest soul? I laughed at myself, too – I’m rarely too far gone to forget that. And yet, it was lodged there, the feeling, and how prescient it was, too.

Andre_Gill_Pere_Lachaise

There have been a lot of articles in the press lately about the glum outlook of the French. I first caught sight of this trend in The Guardian, with a headline proclaiming “The French are ‘taught to be gloomy by their culture.'” An image of Edith Piaf accompanied the text as a picture of iconic Gallic gloom.

Next came a New Yorker piece which countered the argument, though in a sidelong fashion: Glad to be Unhappy (emphasis mine).

Finally an article in the Financial Times by the French researcher herself, Claudia Senik, whose study was stirring all the frenzy. “Why are the French so miserable?” she began.

There is no easy answer to that – and is it even true? are they miserable? – but something about seeing these ideas swirling around actually comforted me. So I’m not completely crazy.

When I first moved here I ran into many longtime expats speaking bitterly about Paris. In one such conversation – I remember it clearly in front of Shakespeare & Co – a writer said he was decamping to Sweden because he actually felt happy there. “I’m tired of hating where I live.”

I remember being almost physically repulsed by the negativity, wondering why people complained so much about a place they had chosen, a place where they stayed. (Besides the Swedish decamper, I know many grumblers who remain).

Now, however, I sometimes battle becoming a grumbler myself. No matter how hard I focus on gratitude (because I do! I am grateful!), I still have these moments where I feel this city – oh, city of light – dragging me deep into darkness.

A recent WIN-Gallup poll found the French’ expectations for the coming year rank lower than those in Iraq or Afghanistan. Suicide rates are high, the primary cause of death among people my age. The use of psychoactive drugs is staggering; so many feel they need chemically to alter their mood.

How does one remain upbeat with all of the negative energy? Can one not feel this invisible force all around?

Senik is a professor at the Paris School of Economics and she argues that the cause of this unhappiness is cultural and due in part to the education system. The New Yorker piece questions whether it’s the language of happiness that eludes, not happiness itself. It offers connections between rhetorical pessimism and collective discontent while also acknowledging the French kind of enjoy “self-affirming unhappiness” (think joie de malheur, not joie de vivre).

While all these hypotheses are interesting – and admittedly I see the truth in a lot of them! – I was most struck by this sentence in the Guardian, and obviously for selfish reasons. “The longer immigrants live in France and become part of its society, the less happy they claim to be.”

Yes, this struck a chord with me.

Last summer you might remember how thoroughly taken I was with Barcelona – that the sun and Spanish and the seaside revived me. That may all sound like vacation, but I worked very hard while I was there.

The revelation wasn’t just how much better I felt, though. It was how clearly others who know me sensed it, as well.

“There she is,” one of my best friends said. “Happy Sion.”

As if “happy Sion” had all but disappeared.

Sion Dayson in Benissanet, Tarragona, Spain

The most disconcerting aspect of this peculiar struggle is perhaps the resignation – something about living in Paris zaps a vital force. And yet I quietly accepted it?

Why is this? And so why do I insist on staying? What is the pull? There is certainly some spell because I am not the only one to experience this powerful phenomenon.

I’ve taken a few long walks in the past week. Where normally I might hop on the metro, I have walked 45 minutes, an hour, to get to my destination. It’s not always practical, sure, but it grounds me in that knowledge again – of the beauty here and how it can seep into the soul, too.

Beautiful suffering. My first ever impression of Paris. What if I focused on beauty more than suffering? Must they really be intertwined?

On my walks I pass bakeries and the smell of fresh bread wafts through the air. There is the warm glow of brasseries; I spy friends and couples and families gathered over good meals. Men crowd at comptoirs, well-heeled women push strollers. Cute boutiques, contemporary art. I am closer to the beating heart. I see so many things to admire.

I look at some recent photos, too, shot this weekend in Pere Lachaise. I see my essential self is still in there even if she’s gotten buried a little far beneath.

Wide-eyed in wonder.

Me, pink hat, Pere Lachaise

Head thrown back with abandon. Wild, sheer delight.

I am still me.

Portraits of Sion Dayson in Pere Lachaise

And so I’ll keep sorting through all these feelings, these questions of culture and place and life. But remind myself that yes, I’m so, so lucky. The sun bursts through from the overcast sky at times. Rare, yes, but it means we appreciate it all the more for its appearance. Look up and exclaim: My! It’s so bright!

To the marvels and the future. Flares of hope, love, light still burn.

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35 Responses to “Of Melancholy and Marvels; Paris Years On”


  1. 1 Laura Matthews April 9, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Fascinating. I so want to visit Paris someday and experience its morose beauty for myself. Until then I must be satisfied with plain old sunny SoCal.

  2. 3 Linda April 9, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Interesting ruminations, Sion. For me, Paris can be compared to a classic work of literature – it hits me differently depending on where *I* am at any point in my life. The beautiful atmosphere and weather are so ancient and layered that there is always something new for me to discover – about both the city and myself.

    I find myself smiling. Thought the city has very little in common with Dublin in my experience, it demands the same sort of work from me that Ulysses does. It’s not a city easily read, but well worth the effort. I, for one, envy you your engagement.

    Thanks for the provocative post.

    Warm regards,
    Linda

  3. 5 Karin B April 10, 2013 at 12:13 am

    A great commentary on the luminous gloominess of the City of Light (and often Depression).

    I loved what I read, as always, but this actually made me laugh out loud: “think joie de malheur, not joie de vivre”. That whole section = knowing laughter!

    Honestly? I think a lot of it is the lack of sunshine and Vitamin D. If I were a scientist, I would try to get the largest samples possible of Parisians versus people in other areas of France, versus people in other areas of Europe and see if there is any correlation between the amount of annual sunshine and Vitamin D levels as well as if the people are on psychotropic drugs. :D But that is a lot less beautiful and romantically expressed than what is written here, lol.

    Also, I think the gloom and doom applies more to Paris than to a lot of other places in France… Just my own unscientific and totally biased observation. The people in Antibes never seemed as grouchy as Parisians, even in their winter rainy season. I could be off-base. Maybe they are the same. I don’t think so, though.

    I also confess, I laughed at this, too, and thought to myself, at first, “I am so glad I have matured past this notion!”

    It would be a beautiful suffering.

    *snort*

    But then I realized I totally get it, I still kind of feel that way, too, and did not feel so past myself and smartypants after all.

    Damn Paris. *sigh*

    It is an amazing city. But I still have to say that luminous picture of you in Spain is still so wonderful to see, and I hope that you will continue to visit other places even as you call Paris “home base” for now. Take those regular escapes so that the Borg does not assimilate you, hahaha. ;-)

    (I say that with all love and respect to Paris and Parisians. I’m just being like one of them with that statement is all, hee hee.)

    xx
    Karin

    • 6 paris (im)perfect April 10, 2013 at 12:31 am

      I was just talking to someone today who told me that both he and his wife had started taking Vitamin D and they felt SO MUCH BETTER. So yes, I think I might try that. The lack of sunlight really ain’t no joke!

      I also think Paris is more grouchy, too. All of these articles kept talking about France as a whole, but I was like you: but wait, really? Isn’t Paris even more gloomy? ;)

      And please, yes, feel free to laugh. The ‘beautiful suffering’ bit was included expressly to make people laugh! I suddenly realized, wow, have I never shared my first experience here? It was so cliched and angsty and wonderful and weird. I was actually almost outside of my body looking at myself feeling this ‘beautiful suffering’. And I was cracking up, too. Really, Sion? Really? Jeez. Paris makes you think and feel all sorts of things!

      And yes, trips outside the City of (Little) Light are definitely in order. It’s not confirmed yet, but I think Spain may be happening again. Fingers crossed.

      In the meantime, I enjoy my beautiful gloom :)

  4. 7 Laurie April 10, 2013 at 1:21 am

    Sion, you so beautifully describe the allure of Paris. I have only had short, albeit delightful, visits so I never did remove the rose colored glasses. It’s one of my all time favorite cities, but I’m sure like any great love affair it get’s complicated at times. So glad you can still appreciated it.

  5. 9 Jennyphoria April 10, 2013 at 2:13 am

    I really appreciate your honesty here. It’s easy, I think, when you first move to Paris to take the romantic view. And then, as time goes on, you feel you need to cling to the romantic view, even if it’s no longer completely honest.

    I find this whole subject endlessly fascinating: is it language? Is it culture? Is it history that makes the French seem gloomy? Is it even true?

    And I’ve been thinking along the same lines as Karin lately; toying with the idea of taking Vitamin D. It certainly couldn’t hurt. There’s so much to love about Paris. Sometimes we just need a little help to remember.

    xoxo

    • 10 paris (im)perfect April 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm

      I think in a way it’s a disservice to always present the romantic view of Paris – or anywhere. There are real struggles here, as there would be any place. I think living in a city that so many transform into a fantasy actually feeds the discontent a little. Doses of reality are good, too!

      I am fascinated by the subject, too. While we keep mulling it over, might as well start taking Vitamin D :)

  6. 11 Kelly April 10, 2013 at 3:35 am

    This post really struck me. I’ve followed your blog for some months, but this is the first I’ve felt compelled to comment. I’ve been happy to read about your experiences, but this may be the first I’ve felt some sort of strange connection. I say strange because I normally don’t think of Paris and my home in the northern Midwest (right up near the Canadian border) as having anything in common.

    I’ve read about the lack of sunshine in Paris, but I’ve never considered how living with it long term could lead to discouragement and/or depression. I’m usually too focused on the beauty of its history, architecture, art, etc. I imagine that I wouldn’t even miss the sun on a trip there (I’ve never been, but want and plan to go someday). The reason I make a connection is that our winter (LOTS of snow) has lingered now into April and won’t be leaving for a couple more weeks. We have the sun, but the continual cold and snow can really be a downer. It’s not semi-permanent like Paris’ lack of sunshine, but the winters are still long and brutal in comparison to the rest of the US. The feeling of gloom (and lack of vitamin D) that you describe doesn’t sound too different from from what is experienced by many here. Yet, despite all of these drawbacks, people stay. We find beauty not in the weather, but in the simple pleasures of our respective homes. Paris has the culture and North Dakota and Minnesota have wide open spaces. :-)

    • 12 paris (im)perfect April 10, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      Hi Kelly. Thanks so much for commenting! I love knowing who is out there reading!

      Oh, brrr! Northern Minnesota must be freezing in the winter!

      It really can’t be discounted how this long-term lack of sunlight affects mood. I think it’s a big part of it. I think there are other factors, too, though. An endless fascinating subject, as Jennyphoria says up there.

      And to Laurie’s point, too, on a short trip you probably don’t have to worry. Paris tends to dazzle in many other ways ;)

  7. 13 Debbie April 10, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Thank you so much for this post. You have expressed so beautifully (there’s that word again) the way so many I know are feeling right now. As an expat in Paris this is definitely the time of year where I question why we are here. And being from sunny SoCal myself, I have to acknowledge that the lack of sun has a lot to do with my feeling of suffering. Time to pull out the light box that my family gave me before moving here…

    • 14 paris (im)perfect April 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm

      Thanks so much for chiming in, Debbie. Does the light box help? I’m seeing lots of calls for Vitamin D and lightboxes now. Sounds like an experiment in the making!

      Here’s to spring and sunnier skies (inner and outer).

  8. 15 Kate April 10, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I think suffering is the key word here. I think there comes a time when you have to ask yourself, am I forcing myself to live here and is it worth it? Life is too short to have to force yourself to stay somewhere. In your heart you have to know whether or not a place is really for you. Everyone has their own limits, even Parisiens themselves. I have realized that not even Parisiens stay in the city, the only way they stay sane is to go away every weekend, and take long vacations. You have to ask yourself, why is it that even the natives here jump at any chance they get to get out of this city. I have lived here for the past four years, and I think my expat experience has reached its expiration date and I am ready to go back home. Paris is a beautiful city, and I want it to keep a nice memory of this city not an ugly one.

    • 16 paris (im)perfect April 10, 2013 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Kate. And of course, I am asking myself questions! Exactly!

      Where is home for you? That’s another can of worms. For me the very notion of home has become a bit slippery.

      There is much to consider but for the moment I stay. As long as I can name the reasons (and I can) I am happy to. It’s a great moment being certain, though. Congratulations on reaching your decision and I hope returning home is a welcoming and wonderful experience for you.

  9. 17 Hamatha (@passtheham) April 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I can really relate to this post! I think that, as expats, we develop a type of matrimonial relationship with their adopted country. It’s quite possible to be in love with a city and have moments where you hate it. Sometimes, you’re just sick of it and want to divorce it, other times a little spat here and there makes you love it even more. Does that make sense?

    Expats complain a lot, it’s often a type of therapy, I think and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course, if you find that your days are more and more frustrating and you’re at a point where you just aren’t happy at all, well, maybe it’s time to look at other options.

    And as far as the French being sourpusses, I wonder if that’s just a case of overanalysis? I know nothing of Claudia Senik’s study, but this does seem like a continuance of the old French stereotype. Just because people aren’t running around with big, toothy smiles smacked all over their faces (hello Americans!) doesn’t mean that they’re all doomy and gloomy. Maybe they’re just reserved? Maybe it’s the weather at a particular time of year, maybe its the state of politics, the crisis, etc. but to really pigeonhole a whole population as gloomy is a bit short-sided I think.

    In Madrid, on the street, people don’t seem to be very happy either and believe you me, they could win the Gold Medal of complaining if it were an Olympic sport. But, I wouldn’t describe the whole population as depressed. Sure, some are, some aren’t. Just like in any other country….

    As far as your own expat world, just take some time and do what’s right for you. There are always options out there.

    • 18 paris (im)perfect April 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      Thanks for chiming in! I like the idea of a matrimonial relationship – definitely makes sense! I also agree that it can be therapeutic to complain with other expats. It can be helpful to talk with others going through the same struggles.

      And of course it can be dangerous to stereotype any large group of people. I do think there is meat to the premise, though. But certainly one study does not explain everything! Articles also don’t always do so well at presenting complex ideas or nuance. I would never claim to speak about places I’ve simply visited, but I can speak to my own personal experiences in places I have lived for several years. France is the most doomy/gloomy of anywhere I’ve lived (I like how you said doomy/gloomy). I thought it was also interesting that the study found that French people living in other countries report lower happiness levels than the natives. (Maybe it’s back to language, though, and how we talk about our emotions). Anyway, I find it fascinating stuff and I don’t think it can be so easily dismissed.

      Of course I’m still here, so there are things I love, too. Back to the marriage analogy :)

  10. 19 poetsdoublelife April 10, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    My dear, Sion, your ‘beautiful suffering’ has inspired a poem. I will post it when I am done.

  11. 21 david downie April 10, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    It was great talking gloom and doom with you yesterday, Sion! Good thing we both take vitamin D and don’t thrive on thoroughgoing negativity! Shared your great post on Facebook and Twitter, and am looking forward to your reactions to my new book (lots about gloom, doom and the French obsession therewith). A bientot, David

    • 22 paris (im)perfect April 10, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks so much, David. Looking forward to your thoughts on the subject in your new book (attention blog readers: a giveaway will be happening soon! :) ).

      You actually gave me the idea for Vitamin D. Not taking it yet, but looking forward to seeing what it does for the spirits!

      • 23 david downie April 10, 2013 at 2:58 pm

        Your spirits will fly sky-high, joining with the Holy Spirit or Ghost if you prefer! Just try one little phial of concentrated vitamin D and it’ll give you a Barcelona-boost! In “Paris to the Pyrenees,” by the by, I do not discuss vitamin D. That was a grave error. Perhaps in my next book I’ll weave this nugget into the tale… Salut et fraternite’, David

  12. 24 Richard April 10, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    The light box works. I have been far less depressed since moving to Paris from L.A. (the “geographic” worked), but I bought the light box for this last winter, and haven’t had any depressive relapses at all. Highly recommended.

  13. 26 XpatScot April 11, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Your piece reminds me of my last night in Paris at the end of a 2 month stay in 1981. I went into a bar on the Rue de Buci for a quick (last) drink before returning to my hotel to pack for an early start. There, at the comptoir, I was accosted by three young men in their twenties. They were locals; and locals in St-G-de-P don’t care much for tourists who fill up the restaurants and force up the prices. They asked me where I was from and I told them. Then they asked me, in a rather pugnacious way (they’d had a few by then), why I had come to Paris. Had I come to see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe? I told them I had never climbed the Eiffel Tower and probably never would. But I did think the Arc de Triomphe was quite magnificent when seen up close. Then I went on to complain about the telephone system, and the plumbing and the traffic congestion and the state of Football in France. But in the end, when I found myself walking westward along the boulevard St-Germain in the late afternoon, with the sun shining through the trees, I knew that there was nowhere in the world I’d rather be. And after that, they bought me another drink and told me, quite emotionally, that I loved Paris the way the Parisians do.

  14. 28 Tom4 April 12, 2013 at 5:58 am

    I haven’t read this research – your lovely essay seems to capture it well – but I would hazard a guess that some of us French are glad to be me miserable because it is a symptom of our wealthy welfare state hiccuping its way through a changing world. It’s old money’s affrontment to the economic realities of the 21at century…we are used to sitting through 4 hour, 7 course Sunday lunch at the same time as we try to innovate and find new ways to retain our 19-20th century comforts.

  15. 30 Oneika the Traveller April 17, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Girl. I feel the same way about London! (By the way, how are you?!?!?)

  16. 32 Amy Thomas (@GodILoveParis) April 29, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Love this post, Sion! It’s the most beautiful paradox out there, n’est-ce pas??


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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