melancholic air

I often feel like an optimist living in a world of pessimists. In other words, an ex-pat living in Paris. At first, and even second glance, Parisians do not appear a happy bunch. They rarely smile or laugh and formality is evident in their manner of speech and body language. Is this attitude contagious? Will I become more serious and less smiley in time?

What is the reason behind this seemingly grim outlook on life? Perhaps this pensive look is a facade, meant to imply depth and intelligence. The French highly value knowledge and like to question almost anything. And anyone, for that matter. This is all in high contrast to the ‘light and happy’ approach to life Americans are known to possess. (I tend to live somewhere inbetween.)

The French are lucky, given the expansive healthcare system and 35-hour work week, not to mention the haute cuisine, enchanting landscapes…I could go on. France is a country often rated number one in terms of ‘Quality of Life’. There is no reason not to feel the joie de vivre. Unless there is a secret I have not been privy to. 

Perhaps we can blame the weather for this ‘melancholic air’. It’s currently Spring and the temperature rarely exceeds 60 degrees fahrenheit. More often than not, the sky is filled with clouds releasing torrents of rain. I can sulk beneath the varying shades of gray, spend late afternoons at a local cafe plotting a protest, or debating Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s socio-political role in French affairs. Or any number of philosophical musings.

Or I can continue to search for that and those which make me smile. And simply enjoy what is. Aware that after the rain the sun will shine, and I might even catch a glimpse of a rainbow.

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  1. Barbara May 12, 2010

    Lovely, Kasia. I’ve been here for 9 years and I don’t think I smile any less than when I first arrived. Although I have grown exceedingly protective of my August vacation. Stay strong!

  2. Lauren May 13, 2010

    I just came across your blog a couple of days ago. You write beautifully and your positive outlook on life is inspiring.

    • Kasia May 21, 2010

      Thank you Lauren!

  3. reader May 21, 2010

    Oooh, what has happened to your blog. I used to enjoy reasing it, but you have been silent for most of the last few months.

    • Kasia May 21, 2010

      I have just returned from adventures in the UK and will update soon I promise!!! Keep reading and I will keep writing…

      • reader May 21, 2010


  4. Isa September 28, 2010

    Hey Kasia,

    About this melancholy,
    I guess this is true. Parisians are a little cold and guarded. It’s crazy how much the country you grow up in , shapes you though…no matter if you want it or not.
    I am from Paris but I have lived in the US for almost 7 years now. And trust me I haven’t changed a bit melancholy-wise.

    A part of me wishes I could have the ability like everyone in the US to put a smile on my face even when I feel like crap. But I can’t and I don’t want to. The same way you are trying to keep that smile on your face no matter what. I actually find that it almost hurts me to smile when it’s not natural. I am me, I smile when I want.

    I am pretty sure my co workers think I have a problem, I don’t care. I don’t smile all day at work and go home and take prozac. What you see on my face is what is in my heart. And it’s not all black or all white. It’s just always in between.
    I realize it t makes people unconfortable in the US because they don’t know if I am happy or sad. Same way in Paris it’s weird to have to have a smile on your face 24/7. From a Parisian perspective, it’s almost abnornal.
    I came to realize I actually will always have this little melancholy in my heart.
    To be honest that’s what makes a Parisian. I need this melancholy in a weird way, and I miss Paris because this city is all that.
    I believe Americans always remain big kids. I went in college in the US and as a freshman, I remember students telling me “why do you act so serious, like you are 21 years old.” LOL. I used to respond “well I don’t know everyone is like that in France”.

    To sum up I think Americans think French are complaining all the time and unhappy about their life. While French think that Americans are annoying by smiling all the time and being so naive about everything.

    I think it is all true, but it is just a question of perspective. I am not sure why it is Americans are this way, you will tell me. But I think I can speak for the Parisians.
    It’s true we complain a lot, but it is not something we ever consider like a bad thing.
    We fight and we complain because we care about our lives. We don’t give up( hence the numerous strikes). Actually what I miis the most is being able to speak my mind whenever I want. In the US, I stop myself because I know people would get scared because they are so used of consensus. And it kills me inside. And of course, there are the cops… We don’t want to mess with that. Ironically, I feel more free in France, at least free to speak.

    You said ‘French rarely smile or laugh and formality is evident in their manner of speech and body language. ‘
    I actually think you are right on your observations, but not for the causes.
    I am melancholic even in hot weather.
    I don’t think the importance is that we rarely smile or laugh. It’s just that we only laugh and smile if we find something to be funny.
    And I guess we can regret that French don’t always choose to voice appreciation. But you are true, in a way we don’t know that we have it good. I certainly realized that now after 7 years in the US ( I am married trying to get my American husband to move back to Europe).

    For the defense of French , I would say that we don’t get to be naïve and carefree too long in France.
    I remember how much in high school teachers would tell us how bad we are and how much we need to work harder, to be more serious. In France when a teacher asks a question, you only respond if you know the answer. You don’t really get to be creative and impulsive in that way. I was amazed in US college, how much they make education playful. You know it kind of felt like you can never be all wrong. In France, people will tell you if you wrong starting when you are 14years old. So you don’t grow up thinking you can do whatever you put your mind into. You know it’s never going to be perfect. You learn your limits early on. These limits grow on you. That’s your melancholy right there. In France you don’t study Spanish or sociology in college and then become a lawyer. Actually, in French you can’t even study literature in high school and then become a doctor. We make choices early on. We understand the meaning of impossible.

  5. Lindsey September 30, 2010

    Isa made the same comment my husband makes when we get into an argument just before going out to see friends and I say, ok let’s get over it we’re going out and he says, I’m not going. I can’t pretend like everything’s okay. There’s this notion that smiling when things aren’t right or in disarray on the inside is disingenuous. It’s lying. Americans look at it as a form of social etiquette – our problems are not to be aired for everyone and all to see but we can’t very well stay locked up indoors just because of a disagreement. So we go out and see friends because for us, that is often just the trick to change our mood.

    Again, a lot of this has to do with how we each are raised – Isa touches on this as well. They’re forced to make choices very early on that Americans have the freedom to delay. They’re told their work is “not bad” in school as opposed to “excellent”. All of these factors – the education system, parenting strategies, the governmen’t coddling and subsequent abandonment – all impact their behavior. That isn’t to say that there aren’t Parisians who are as consistently smiley as you but it’s less common.

    I say, keep doing what you’re doing. The French will likely stay rooted in their ways (fear of change), but what they might not tell you is that they actually appreciate this quality in you.

  6. Samantha Verant September 30, 2010

    I tried waving to a neighbor the other day. An old lady, I received the stink eye back, like how dare I smile. In a small village in the South, I’m not even in Paris. I will say MOST everybody else here is quiet friendly – especially the shop owners. I find the men to be friendlier and more outgoing than the women, but I suppose it’s the same in any country. Maybe more so here in France?

  7. Shannon September 30, 2010

    I find it amusing that our smileyness is annoying to Parisians. It’s as if we should stop being happy because it grates on them lol. 

    I’ll join in with Isa & defend the French by adding: I know a SLEW of carefree, fun, smiley Parisians. They’re not all frowns and pensive pouts.

    Though I’m convinced the French take life, and usually themselves, very seriously they aren’t ALL this way. Even if a lot are, there are two sides to that coin.

    It makes them ardently defend what they believe is right, ripe with provocative, uncensored honesty. I generally like this about them, but I get that the first degreeness bugs some Americans.

    But all that doesn’t mean the ying can’t enjoy the yang. The French have matured me a tad, all written evidence to the contrary, and I’m grateful for that *smile*.

    I haven’t lost my American grin or naïveté, but I’ve gained some French sensibilities and I think it’s made me a bit more palatable to the sober-fart-joke-despising crowd.

    In my experience, the longer you know the Parisian in question, the more they will lighten up around you and feel less pressure to be, always, right.

  8. Ana October 13, 2010

    I’m not American, I’ve lived in a few different cities in 4 countries on 3 continents and traveled to tens of cities and Paris has the most negative energy of anywhere I’ve ever been. No need to smile if one doesn’t want to but that only leaves me to think that all Parisians want to do all the time is to frown and scowl because that’s all I see. I can’t use the word melancholy here, I can only say it’s all downright depressing.

    • Kasia October 15, 2010

      Ana, do you really reel like Parisians are so miserable that the energy in the air is downright negative? I find it more tainted with melancholia, hence my post. Don’t you think it’s possible to create your own positive energy?

      I do agree that each city is unique with it’s positive and negative attributes, Paris seems to be one that is more challenging to ‘conquer’.


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