I’m a pretty happy person. At least I’ve always considered myself to be. In fact, it takes much less to make me happy than it does for many others. I’ve never been one for fancy clothes or extravagant jewelry, luxury hotels, or anything beyond economy class seating on long-haul flights. When it comes to food and wine, basic blocks of cheese and inexpensive Loire Valley reds tend to call my name. Point blank, I’m simple. And I’m happy with all of it. Even as I get older, happiness still tends to come pretty easy for me; though it wasn’t until the other day that I truly experienced a whole new level of this so-called French joie de vivre.
I’m lucky enough to come to France as often as I do. And every time I’m here, it seems to somehow get better. I leave, thinking it’s impossible that anything could possibly top the trip I’ve just made, return shortly after, and continue to have my mind blown time and time again. So what is it about this place that relentlessly pulls us Americans back in for more?
Simple. It’s the joie de vivre. No, not the stereotypical image of a millennial woman with her hands in the air, baguette in one hand, passport in the other, all with a flawless Eiffel Tower backdrop to match her totally unplanned striped shirt and high-waisted pant get-up. No, the real joie de vivre goes so much deeper than this, past the immaculate Hausmannian style architecture and hashtag nofilter Instagram photos of flawlessly placed food.
Joie de vivre is defined as the joy of living, the delight in being alive, an exuberant enjoyment of life, the sense of being weightless, carefree. In a technology-fueled, social-media addicted, workaholic culture like the one we have in the States, this simple state of happiness actually becomes much harder to reach. We never power off, we never shut down, and we certainly never stop comparing ourselves against the people to our left and right– or even worse, on the other side of the screen. I’m not saying this state of happiness is impossible in America, and I’m definitely not saying that it doesn’t exist. It’s just rare– and much harder to achieve.
We can read about it all we want, look up photos, or even take those ‘really long’ ten day vacations across the pond to witness it ourselves, but until you actually come and live it, joie de vivre simply remains a patchworked phrase sewn onto a pillow at Home Goods. In France, simple pleasures are almost harder to avoid than find. There’s a certain happiness that comes from plucking a ripe tomato the size of a golf ball directly off the vine and biting into it, letting its juicy red flesh dribble down the front of your chin. Or the basic act of walking into a boulangerie on a random weekday morning, the smell of baking bread and flaky butter wafting through the air, causing your eyes to flutter shut and soak it all in, simply out of reflex. And there’s something irreplaceable about going to a market and buying a bottle of wine directly from the winemaker himself, handing him a 5 euro bill and still receiving change, the rough calluses of his hands scratching up against your own as he places the bottle that he quite literally made himself into your palms. Joie de vivre, simple pleasures.
This past week, I went down to Châteauneuf-du-Pape to visit a winemaker I’ve known for some time. Rather than walk through the vines and relentlessly sip, spit, and take notes, we prepared a lunch from the family garden and sat on the terrace, sharing a simple meal over effortless conversation. We plucked basil from the garden, snipped the leaves with scissors over the tops of our sliced tomatoes drenched in olive oil– that yes, the family also made in addition to our afternoon labelless bottle of rosé, and sopped it all up with fluffy, seven-grain baguette. With stomachs full and summer sun beating down on us, our eyes wandered to the garage; two short minutes later, I was jumping on the back of the motorcycle in front of us, helmets strapped to our heads, engine hissing loudly as we pulled out of the gravelly driveway.
The wind whipped against my cheeks as the bike hit 120 km/h, my knuckles turning white from the relentless grip around my pilot’s waist. Endless rows of vines flew by as we mounted our way through all of the surrounding Provencal villages, stopping every so often for a beer or an iced tea. Lavender intoxicated my senses, an unavoidable yet quite pleasurable side effect of a motorcycle journey through the region. By the end of the day, we’d scaled the entire slope of Mont Ventoux, chilly mountain air replenishing my lungs from the numerous times my breath had been taken away throughout the journey. On the descent back down, I closed my eyes and breathed it all in, releasing one of my arms from the tightness of my own grip, letting the breeze find its way into the sleeves of my denim jacket, a sense of pure freedom and weightlessness that I’d never experienced up until that moment.
To go to Châteauneuf-du-Pape as a wine journalist and not taste through even one lineup of wines could almost be considered a sin, and I’m sure many of my industry colleagues will have their own opinions on what a ‘waste of a trip’ I made. But I lived. And I regret none of it.