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.
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.
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.
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.
Head thrown back with abandon. Wild, sheer delight.
I am still me.
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.