Joie de vivre

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” — James Taylor, American songwriter

Here in the United States of Self-Improvement, daily life can feel like a major project. Watching TV or flipping through magazines, we’re bombarded with ads reminding us that we’re not quite up to standard. We’re too fat or too wrinkled or too sad. We’re not getting enough sleep or enough sex. Our wardrobe, not to mention our living room furniture, needs updating…

Meanwhile, a vast publishing industry thrives on this insatiable need to fix our broken parts. Over the years, most of the self-help books I’ve reviewed bank on the premise that I can’t possibly relax until I’ve repaired all of my character flaws and met every goal on my bucket list.

I’m guessing this might be why the French and their elusive joie de vivre continue to fascinate me.

Traveling in provincial France and Paris for an anniversary trip a few years ago, my husband and I had a rare chance to observe a lifestyle noticeably different from our own. As it turned out, the best souvenirs we brought back weren’t the trinkets we’d collected from museum shops or boutiques, but the sweet lessons we gleaned from French cafés.

The highlight of our trip was Aix-en-Provence, the birthplace of Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne. Today it’s a university town bubbling with ancient fountains, art galleries, and sidewalk cafés.  We quickly discovered that cafe life is the nucleus around which the entire town revolves. Outdoor tables and chairs are deliberately turned to face the streets and sidewalks, making people-watching a legitimate pastime. And whatever the beverage of choice — coffee, tea, beer, wine, or pastis — it is always sipped and savored, never slugged or gulped.

During our visit, a few of our American traveling companions complained that French café service was too relaxed. They had to keep moving. But I would have gladly frittered my time watching the parade of people from the vantage point of those delightful cafes.

All too often, our over-booked schedules get in the way. We define ourselves by our tasks, commitments, and projects.”

A longtime fan of French style, I was thrilled to see plenty of middle-aged women wearing scarves and flaunting Catherine Deneuve allure.

But what charmed me even more were the French families strolling together on the streets of Aix and Paris. Dads pushed baby strollers while teenagers (yes, teenagers) walked arm-in-arm with their mothers and grandmothers.

One evening, while observing a large family at a cafe table next to us, I nearly dropped my fork when one of the adolescent sons draped his arm affectionately around his mom’s shoulder.

A romance with ordinary life was palpable everywhere in France. On market day, parents and kids shopped for fruits and vegetables at the colorful outdoor stands, then paused for long lunches in the town square. Nobody looked rushed or frazzled; toddlers weren’t whining. Clearly, pleasure was to be found in the simplest rituals of the day – shopping, eating, and sharing conversation (with few cell phones in sight).

Here in America, we give lip service to the pursuit of simple pleasures. But all too often, our over-booked schedules get in the way. We define ourselves by our tasks, commitments, and projects.

It occurred to me, on the flight home, that the secret to enjoying the second half of my life has less to do with fixing what’s imperfect or broken, and more to do with slowing down long enough to savor and appreciate what I have.  With that in mind, I bought a small CAFE sign from a local thrift shop here in Royal Oak, and displayed it in our kitchen as a reminder. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo: Pronto in downtown Royal Oak, MI. Here in Royal Oak, we’re lucky to have many European-style outdoor cafes, which is one of many reasons why I love living here. Bottom photo: French actress Catherine Deneuve–