Le Weekend, 3/1/24: A State of Happiness in France & Fill ‘Er Up With Super 🇫🇷

Famous tourist landmark of Lyon is a Notre Dame Fourviere Cathedral. Travel and catholic destinations in France
Is it ok to feel joy right now?  ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌


March 01, 2024

Dear Frenchly Readers,

A week ago, I was sitting in a wooden pew in the Notre-Dame de Fourvière cathedral, which overlooks my beloved city of Lyon from the top of a steep hill. It was built in 1872 and consecrated in 1896, making it a not terribly old cathedral by France’s standards, but certainly one of the most gracious and lovely. (Just down the hill, for instance, is the incredible Lyon Cathedral, begun in 1180, and finished in mid-1400.)

But the Fourvière is considered the “Marian soul” of Lyon, and it is thought to be a physical representation of Mary, who not only watches over the city, but guards it. One of the most moving pieces of art in it, I think, is a marble relief made by the Lyonnais sculptor Louis Castex, of the annunciation. In it, Mary looks so vulnerable, and so young–barely a teenager. The look on her face of shock, sorrow and resignation to the inevitable is breathtaking. Across from this relief is one of the crucifixion; if Mary only turns her head, she can see her terrible future, just across the nave.

That day, the priest was giving a  midday mass followed by midday prayers, or “sext,” and he was talking about happiness. In the cordoned off area, maybe 30 people sat in the pew listening. I sat behind them. As I understood it, he was talking about happiness, the state of being happy, or être heureux. (The verb, être, to be; heureux, happy.)

He said something that really resonated with me about, and I am paraphrasing here, how one must cultivate inner happiness or joy in a world full of darkness. He discussed how hard it can be, and how the impetus to make change can often be a form of darkness, anger itself. But he firmly believes that in order to do good in a world gone haywire, one must cultivate happiness–joy–within themselves. Joy, he was saying, is the most powerful and simplest antidote to evil.

Ok, so I am going to go a bit circuitous here. Stay with me: My nine-year-old is just starting to learn about the Holocaust. There are subjects I would love to have never happened so I never have to tell my kids about them. I know this is immature, ostrich-like of me. But mostly, I worry that once you know about evil on the level of something like the Holocaust, or 9/11, or what happened in Gaza yesterday, it’s hard, as an adult, and much harder as a child, to see the contradictions in a world that has both good and evil; it’s hard to stay with joy, I worry. Maybe I am just being overprotective. But tell me, what good does it do to know? Do we prevent more evil in knowing? I am no longer sure. (Tell me what you think?)

Anyway, I digress: So all over Lyon, right on the street where we stay, for instance, are plaques commemorating the fighters of the Resistance against the Nazis; people like Jean Moulin, who was the leader of French resistance and was killed just outside of Lyon. With the discussion of the Resistance comes the ugly discussion of the collaborators. Which brought my younger boy, just nine-years-old, to turn to his dad and ask, “Daddy, why would someone murder someone else?”

So, a few days later, I am sitting in that pew. And I am looking up at a careful and awe-inspiring mosaic of Joan of Arc arriving by horse, triumphant but never self-satsified, in Orleans. For a moment, despite how unfair it feels to be able to access peace or joy in a world full of tumult and suffering, Reader, I did feel joy. After, I went outside to the gift shop and for three Euros I bought myself a little medallion to hang about my neck. It has a little depiction of of Mary on it and the words, “Notre-Dame de Fourvière.” I wanted to remember the message, I wanted to try to always remember joy.

For the rest of my trip, I was thinking about what makes, or to be more precise, cultivates happiness. Is it good food and wine? Moments of laughter? Health care and government subsidies that make the basic foods a family needs to survive affordable? Is it time off, or a culture that believes in families? Is it longer lunches? Now a French person (or perhaps anyone else) might tell you, the French do nothing but complain! They protest the age of retirement; their farmers block the roads; they say ‘non’ as a daily matter of course.

But through my rose colored glasses, here is what I see: On the streets of Lyon I am always shocked by how much happiness moves freely through this humble city–children running around with such unpretentious and un-helicoptered freedom while their parents talk and drink wine at 5 pm; workers unloading vegetables into a supermarket while laughing at each other; construction workers paint-stained, smoking and laughing with each other on the corner; a group of kids kicking a soccer ball at a wall near a steep staircase and playing music; friends eating oysters–les huîtres–outside, dressed in down coats, drinking beer.

It’s hard these days to feel OK about being happy, when so much of the world suffers. (Was it even ok to be in France? For pleasure? ) I learned today that Maine is getting ready for war–essentially. We are building out spaces for welding, pouring money into Bath Iron works, training Mainers. This is terrifying. Someone, somewhere, thinks it’s coming.

And yet in this antithetically bizarre social media press-a-button-and-smile-at-a-kitten culture, I sometimes worry that our American ways lead us to believe that a yoga class or a nice dress; a trip to Target or a bag of chips will make us happy. Perhaps a new electronic gadget.

Happiness is so much deeper than that, so much more layered, I realized in France last week. Any happiness that comes from a thing outside ourselves, something we can buy, is so fleeting.

Happiness, for me, was our last night in Lyon, before going up to Paris, when the entire family, my nine year old and my 76-year-old dad included, all went out to play frisbee in a square. Happiness was walking home slowly and then eating an absurd pile, made by fils no. 1,  of enormous meringues stuck together with crème fraîche and covered with passion fruit and lemon sauce.

Happiness is realizing that joy does not belong to any one person, or group of people, and that we all deserve it. If we first deliver the foundations of basic human rights: safety, food, water, homes and green spaces, so then we can cultivate joy. Happiness needs to be infectious to be real. It needs to be outside, on the streets, in the markets, in the parks.

And so we go on, boats against the current tides of worldwide suffering, trying to find small, bright cut-outs to stick our hands through and rip a bit more out of a thick curtain of evil that diminishes us all, no matter where we are, or how safe we feel. The evil in the world belongs to us all, after all. So, too, though, can the joy.

Here is a poem by Mary Jo Salter about a rainbow over the Seine–joy is so fleeting, like a rainbow. (The poem that comes first, “A Kiss in Space,” makes me hope we never forget that peace can look like anything, even a floating kiss.)

À cuisiner, boire, regarder et lire ce weekend:

I was really glad that Cat wrote about how to get to France (or not) during the Olympics this coming summer, as this is something I was wondering about when I was there: How big a thing  will the Olympics be? Here it is.

We came home with a perfect pot of such pungent Maille mustard. Dan and I are putting it on everything. It will be gone before we’ve been home for ten days. I am going to make this mustard shallot vinaigrette this weekend; though I can’t get greens as gorgeous here as I can in France, I am still craving salad and more salad lately. (Maybe happiness is a salad, let’s ask Department of Salad’s Emily Nunn.) Melissa Clark writes about mustard you should lug home from France. And, here, is her recipe for crispy mustard chicken–this is just the ticket, I think!

I heard about a French movie that is considered a classic from 1976 that I never heard of! Voted one of the best French movies of all time. Fill ‘Er Up With Super–a movie (with a terrible, and perhaps misogynistic title) about a guy who has to cancel a holiday with his family to deliver a car from Lille to the French Riviera. He takes a buddy, they pick up two hitchhikers, and I guess it’s like Hurly Burly (from one of my all-time favorite playwrights, David Rabe, made into a movie with Sean Penn), minus the Los Angeles separate cars thing. In short,  it’s a bro film. Any of you seen it? I am tempted. A restored version came out on BluRay last year.

But not as temped as I am to find The Taste of Things in a theatre near me.

If you need a short hit of happiness, here’s a moms and baby dancing class–you can’t NOT smile. I am starting to listen to Michelle Obama’s “The Light” podcast (yes, I think I may be that desperate for something positive)–maybe you can try it, too?

Take care, cultivate joy, shine light into the darkness on the edge of town, find a way to do good in the face of evil and just… eat more mustard,

À bientôt,


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