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How to Settle Down Without Losing the Traveler's 'Joie de Vivre'

by Emily de Beer May 23, 2014

When I moved back home from teaching abroad in Indonesia, I had no job and very little money. I kept busy, though, and one day found myself admiring a mural on the street. I met a boy there, we started dating, and I told him of my love for the French language. He smiled walking into the room one day carrying a pen and handed it to me.

“What color would you call this,” I asked as I twirled it with both hands.

“Mint, or a pale sage?”

I thought to myself how the only way I could ever describe to people how living in Paris felt was that it was like seeing pastels. I looked at the pen and realized it was “Ladurée green.” There was no other name for it because the sight of the color should always be followed by the elegant excitement of opening a box of the most special macaroons, so perfect that even children know to eat them in slow, appreciative bites.

“Read the writing on the side,” he said.

The inscription on the pen read as follows:

lundi: voir un film
mardi: écouter un disque
mercredi: lire un roman
jeudi: écrire un poème
vendredi: acheter un billet
samedi/dimanche: faire un petit voyage

In English:

Monday: watch a film
Tuesday: listen to a record/CD
Wednesday: read a novel
Thursday: write a poem
Friday: buy a ticket
Saturday/Sunday: take a little trip

I laughed. I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I was thinking that every second not finding a job or advancing my career was time wasted. That I was doing nothing. When really, I had been given a gift. And that gift was time to experience la joie de vivre.

La joie de vivre, or “the joy of living,” is a sacred concept that some of you may be familiar with and probably put into your own words. But in French I think you can truly sense its beauty, its legitimacy, and the importance of maintaining it. What’s the point of living if you don’t enjoy it? And enjoyment is born from such small acts or souvenirs that anyone can experience it if only you allow yourself the time.

Before I found a job, I woke up when I wanted and therefore chose to start my day. And I did all the things the inscription suggests and more. I would peruse an antique furniture shop with no intention of buying anything. I would go for a run while listening to music. I would read The New York Times. Whatever I wanted, I just followed my instincts and whims.

I realized that to many people, it seemed like I had accomplished nothing with my day, and in a way I guess they were right. But it felt like that’s what I was put on this earth to do. It wasn’t “nothing;” it was thinking, feeling, experiencing, sensing, creating, observing, admiring, appreciating, loving. It felt like everything. The day felt like a sentimental duration, complete all on its own.

My days feel quite different. Each one feels like an X on a calendar.

With what traveling I’ve done, so many different cultural mentalities are rolling around in my head and bouncing off one another. And then this French phrase always comes to mind: la joie de vivre. So inherent, you would think it doesn’t need explanation, yet somehow it can be lost so easily.

Speaking French eventually got me a job, and don’t get me wrong — I’m very grateful to have one because I do need the money and doing “nothing” gets old. Now I work in a corporate office where I process obituaries for Canadian newspapers. (Strange, I know.) I do a count for the number of public death notices that will be available to the people of Montreal the following day. I see the cost of each line meant to signify the effects of a human life. I work late into the evening trying to call families and funeral directors of this French-speaking city, and they all have the same reaction: You cannot call me after 5pm.

My days feel quite different. Each one feels like an X on a calendar. All that matters about it is that it’s over. (This is what the French call “ennui.”) And I wish these people knew that I don’t want to call them on their personal time to talk about death or money. I want to see only pastels. I keep this pen, this “petite trouvaille” given to me as a gift, to remind me of how much joy there is to be had. I clock out for the day and try to find as much of it as I can.

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