During the year we spent in France, my husband and I said repeatedly how much we admired the French philosophy of life. We felt we fit in; we matched. We watched our new friends effortlessly balance the demands of work, family and home—and spend their weekends relaxing because that was a priority.
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Every Sunday morning we would see families walking through the park, a patisserie box bound up with string swinging from the papa’s hand on their way to the grandparents for a big Sunday dinner. We saw women buy one or two nice outfits and wear them again and again, always looking their best when they left the house. We noticed more people walking, and the way the city had a small army of men who constantly replaced the flowers so that the park was always in bloom. When we went out to eat, either at a restaurant or in the home of some friends, we noticed the emphasis on quality over quantity. Dinner parties lasted hours, till late in the evening, and the time slipped by unnoticed as we deepened burgeoning friendships, sampled wines from different parts of the country and discussed ideas.
Jamie Cat Callan, author of Bonjour Happiness, noticed the same things. Inspired by the style and élan of her French grandmother, she began to wonder: what is the French women’s secret? How is it that they exude such style and confidence while American women run around, dressed in faded stained yoga pants and fruitlessly chasing the latest diet fad? (Yes, we are both stereotyping, but we’re both American so we can.)
Callan decided to figure it out. She moved to France for a while, where she interviewed French women as well as American women living there, and spent time tracking down the secret to their joie de vivre. Callan finds that while French women have not discovered perfection, they have discovered the art of slowing down and simply enjoying life. A woman who grows up taking a circular worn stone staircase to her apartment on the fifth floor has learned that everyday life has ample opportunity for drama and beauty, she argues. Looking your best—maybe just by adding a dash of lipstick, or wearing sexy lingerie beneath your prosaic jeans—will make a difference in how you carry yourself and how you interact with the world around you.
The author spends a fair amount of time dealing with different approaches to food, even including some scrumptious recipes. Callan diagrams her own long struggle with weight management and her years in Weight Watchers in America and then attends a French chapter. She sums up the differences: In America, people tend to love or hate food. They think about it constantly, deprive themselves massively and then binge; they obsessively count calories, carbs or points. In France, at the Weight Watchers meeting, people laughed and enjoyed themselves. They focused on portion control and allowed themselves to enjoy butter, cream and chocolate in small amounts. It’s about self-control and enjoyment, rather than pendulum swings.
The book also contains practical advice for making your American life just a little more French. Walking to your local supermarket daily to buy what you need for the evening’s meal not only involves you more with your food, but it gives you the opportunity to build relationships within your community. You may not be able to enjoy a two-hour lunch everyday, but work to live, don’t live to work. She encourages small steps like fresh flowers on the dining room table, using the nice china, walking as much as possible and guarding a sense of mystery by keeping your own secrets.
Bonjour Happiness resonated with me, mostly because I think Callan and I both noticed some of the same things about the way of life in la belle France. She gives lots of tips on how to bring joie de vivre into your environment. While not everyone can travel around France, this book is packed with small good things you can implement to make your everyday life just a little bit better.
Elizabeth D. Jones has loved reading for just about as long as she's had a cognitive memory, and she loves working with the 5 Minutes for Books team. She is an ESL teacher who has lived and worked around the world with her husband and three kids. She blogs about adjusting back to life in the U.S. at Planet Nomad.