Fine Interview with the Author of „Bonjour, Happiness!” on Living Life the French Way
There are certain books one falls head over heels in love with and that stay forever in one’s heart – and library – for rainy days and soul-searching moments. ,,Bonjour, Happiness!”, by Jamie Cat Callan, is one of those rare finds, which is why I had to interview Jamie herself and get an insight on the deeper inner universe of a truly inspiring lady.
I first read Bonjour, Happiness! in a time when I was exhausted, overworked and, truthfully, quite brokenhearted. I devoured it in one lazy summer afternoon, on my living-room couch, and suddenly the world looked just a bit more joyful.
It wasn’t only about the way it spoke to my heart, reminding me of all the little things that I had ignored, paused or simply never stopped to think about anymore. No, it was also about the way it made me feel. Hopeful, serene, with the acute sense that there is a life out there that can be more beautiful, more meaningful and more soothing with only one minor change: me getting reacquainted with the daily magic of the little things in life.
French had been my first foreign language, as a child, and I had already traveled to France extensively, but somehow I needed a clever and charming American lady to remind me that my life truly needed a makeover and a changement des ideés, like Jamie charmingly puts it. A change of thought. That was over four years ago, but Bonjour, Happiness stayed with me, as I re-read it, re-bought it and gifted to all
the dear people in my life, in certain moments of their struggles and quests.
Jamie Cat Callan wrote Bonjour, Happiness! (and other two books) channeling the wisdom of her French grandmother and getting reacquainted herself to the tiny and gorgeous daily reasons for happiness: from enjoying a scalp massage to learning how to eat, shop and age beautifully.
She interviewed hundreds of French women on the secrets of their inborn serenity and joie de vivre, so I simply had to interview her for a change, on the little pieces of wisdom that can make everyday life truly magnificent. Read, enjoy and get inspired, since in our global age of endless possibility being Parisian is a state of mind more than a mere question of geography.
Here we go:
I must confess that ,,Bonjour, Happiness!“ was re-bought and gifted by me several times, because I consider it to be a manifesto for a somewhat lost sense of normality and serenity of life. It struck me as the kind of book that could have well started as a journal. At what point in your life did you find yourself when you decided it to write it: were you living by your principles or was it still ,,work in progress” back then?
Jamie: What an insightful question! Yes, in fact, all my books begin in my journals. I’ve been journaling since I was a teenager, and in fact, even today, I journal daily. For me, it’s a way to puzzle out what’s going on in my life—what is working at any particular point, and what is not working. I began Bonjour, Happiness! shortly after I remarried and moved with my scientist-husband to Cape Cod.
Now, for many women, living on the beach by the ocean would be a dream-come-true. However, for me, it was not where I found my joie de vivre. And this got me thinking about the nature of happiness and how every woman must redefine her source of joy at various points her life. And I think it’s important for women to create their own roadmap to happiness, because no matter what the outside world might tell you, happiness is something you find in your own heart.
Nowadays, can you abide by your own rules 24/7 or do you also tend to get carried away in the whirlwind of everything that surrounds us: computers, social media, smartphones, over-sharing? What’s your antidote when that happens?
Jamie: Another great question—yes, I often “fall off the tracks” and get swallowed up in the social media/computer/smart phone over-sharing. However, I do have a mantra that keeps me grounded. And that is this: I always ask myself if what I am doing or sharing is of service to others. It is always my goal to be helpful. This is what my books are about. And while I might talk about my own life or my personal struggles, I do this to be of service, to offer by example how I found my happiness. For me, it was France and the example of French women—beginning with my French grandmother. However, I don’t think all women will find their sense of self necessarily from following the French way completely. I do think, the essential point is go look at your family, your own personal history and to appreciate who you are as a woman in this world, and to celebrate femininity.
What is your favorite #slowlife habit and how did you manage to implement it in your daily life?
I love spending an hour in bed in the morning, before I’m fully awake. I daydream and write in my journal and plan my day. I also think about all the things in my life that feel me with gratitude. I heard that the author Edith Wharton used to spend her early mornings in her bedroom, as a kind of secret garden, and so it seemed like a good idea. Then, one day, I told my husband how much I love this morning time and he offered to bring me coffee in bed. Oh my goodness—this sweet and generously gesture changed everything for me. I am so grateful and delighted every morning when he arrives with my cup of hot coffee. I do believe it’s the simple pleasures that make our lives especially delightful.
How would you put together your perfect day in Paris: a sum of places, activities, strolls and lodging?
I would stay on the Left bank—in the art gallery district, off Boulevard St. Germaine and then I would wake up and go to one of the cafés along the boulevard. Perhaps, Café Bonaparte (right near Café Deux Maggots), after that, I would stroll along Seine, and cross over to the Louvre Museume. Then I would spend the afternoon, strolling through the Tuileries. I would stop and people-watch. And then, I would visit Monet’s Water Lilies in L’Orangerie.
After this, I would cross over to Rue Cambon, and stop for lunch at Les Flottes, then wander down rue St. Honoré, and finally, end my day by meeting a friend for a drink at Fumoir. Oh, and then a walk over to explore the Marais, then back to the Latin Quarter for dinner at my favorite Bistro Mazarine. In between all this, I would shop and buy flowers and gifts and take in all the sights and sounds of Paris, including catching glimpses of the Eiffel Tower all lit up and shimmering in the night sky!
Do you ever feel that even the notoriously discreet French women are nowadays slipping away into more “global“ behaviors, such as consumerism, over-exposing their lives, getting too high-tech?
I don’t really see French women succumbing to the temptations of consumerism. It just doesn’t seem to be in their nature. However, I do see more iphones on the café tables, but the French tradition is so fully engrained and the French are so protective of their heritage and culture (we could learn from this!) that their authenticity will never be lost. It’s in their DNA. I think it’s because they had very little for a long time and learned the art of making do with what was available.
My French grandmother was like this. She sewed clothes for my mother and for me. She recycled long before anyone talked about it. And she always embraced the simple pleasures of gardening and cooking. And she truly understood the philosophy of less is more. Oh, and the Secret Garden! French women don’t seem to want to give up their privacy for the temptations of over-sharing. They understand that the thing that makes them so attractive is their mystery.
What are the three French ladies that you admire the most for their style and charisma?
I adore and admire the style of three very different French women. First, my grandmother. She was a dancer in Vaudeville, a farm wife and a seamstress. She was so elegant and always created a sensation wherever she went. Even into her eighties, my grandmother was beautiful. I believe her charisma came from her dancer’s posture and her sense of simplicity.
I also admire Marie Joelle. I featured her in my first book, French Women Don’t Sleep Alone. She owns her own hair salon in the university town of Besançon. She is so bohemian and artistic and I just adored her style—different every day, as if she was playing a great role on the stage. I also loved her home, which features hot pink and zebra prints. It sounds wild, and it actually is wild, but it all worked beautifully.
Finally, I adore Madame M. She’s my French teacher. She truly believes in protecting her secret garden, so I am not even allowed to tell you her name. I have learned so much about the French language from her—not just vocabulary and sentence structure. She has taught me where words come from and how a French word might derive from the Latin root. She loves language and respects books, and I learned to slow down and really look at my world and appreciate history. From Madame M. I have learned to bring a sense of intellectuality to my style. Madame M. has taught me that beauty and brains go together!
What is your go-to outfit and overall style when you want to feel beautiful and to make a statement without putting too much effort into it? From your favorite pair of shoes to the hairstyle.
I always feel extra pretty when I let my hair go natural and wavy, rather than getting a blow-out. Also, if I’m rushing out of the house, and I want to look chic in a second—I put on my favorite red lipstick. J’adore red lipstick. My go-to outfit is a simple shift dress in a solid color—navy, cream or black. And then, I wear a scarf, cute ballet slippers (or heels, if I want to be dressier) and voila, I look put together. The secret is really the addition of the scarf, I have lots of them! It’s very French.
Paris is the perfect place for love stories, but also a place for finding yourself again in times of melancholy. What would be the one place in Paris that you consider ideal for someone who would like to stroll for what you call in your book “changement des idées“?
Whenever I feel blue and I’m in Paris, I like to go the Jardin du Luxembourg. It’s impossible to feel sad in the midst of such beauty. Also, I love to see the children launching their little boats in the water. I feel so inspired by people-watching, that I definitely changement des ideés. I suppose it’s the theatre of life and I am swept away in my imagination. I take a step back and see my own life as if it were a story and perhaps this blue period is just that and that soon the sun will come out again!
People that we share our lives with change us in ever so intricate and subtle ways. What is the most precious thing you learned from your husband and what do you think is the one lesson you gave back?
My husband taught me to live in the present moment. He’s just retired as a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and we now live on a farm in Upstate New York. It’s a new beginning for us. We have apple trees, we’re making apple cider, and growing lots of vegetables, this week we’re getting baby chicks and next spring, we’ll get sheep and make cheese and yogurt. It’s a little bit of Provence in our own backyard! He’s taught me sooooo much—about gardening and cooking and be aware of the beauty that’s right in front of me.
And, I believe I’ve taught my husband to be more playful and fantastical. I love dancing and make-believe and laughing. I bring a lightness to the serious business of being a lady farmer. Plus, I wear pretty lingerie!
What is your favorite scene from a book?
I love the scene in A Room with a View where Lucy Honeychurch is in the square in Florence, Italy. She witnesses a brawl, faints, and then is rescued by the man she will eventually marry. It’s so romantic!
What magazines do you usually read and how do you pick your books? Is it a ,,coup de foudre” kind of thing?
Actually, yes, for books, it’s often a coup de foudre! That said, I often return to the classics. I was a literature major as an undergraduate and I adore Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Collette, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen. In addition to this, I read all the books about French women, French style, Paris style, and French travel. After all, embracing all things French is my life’s mission! And for magazines, I read Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, and sometimes Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times, O Magazine and Martha Stewart Living.
Were there times in your life when you wished you could have been more “French“ in your way of seeing things and in the serenity of accepting life and oneself? Was there ever a struggle between the American and the French side in terms of outlook on life?
Oh yes, absolutely. I think, particularly when I was younger and wanted to be hip or cool, I neglected to listen to my heart. I came of age in the 1970’s and by the 1980’s women were entering the work force in a more powerful way.
I wanted to succeed and move up the “ladder” but I must say, I found wearing these big-shouldered suits and pretending to be a corporate-type, rather disheartening. It took me a long time, but the day I discovered that I was an artist, and that I need to respond to the thrum of my own heart, the struggle ended. I’ve found my true calling and my own special joie de vivre in writing and traveling and embracing all things French.
If you were to go back in time and change one single thing, what would you choose to do differently?
I first visited Paris in 1976, right after I graduated from college. I was so bent on being cool and hip and not looking like a tourist—I didn’t bring a camera!!!! Oh my goodness, if only had some photos from that life-altering, heart-stopping experience! Still, I learned the lesson—it’s okay to not be cool. It’s okay to be a tourist. In fact, I think we are all tourists of life, yes?
What is your favorite French song?
La Vie en Rose. Why? Because it’s French and it makes me cry.
Imagine strolling through Paris with a scarf wrapped around your eyes, without seeing the city, only smelling it. What would be the first three smells that you would feel, from deep down in your memory?
- Perfume (you sense it the moment you arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport).
- Strong coffee (walking past the cafes, there it is and you feel the allure of café life).
- Freshly baked bread (in the boulangerie, promising the joy of a new day and the simple life of the French).
Thank you for the inspiration, Jamie!
3 of My Favorite Quotes from „Bonjour, Happiness!” by Jamie Cat Callan
,,In America, we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is no such expression in France. In fact, in France, the equivalent expression is la recherche du bonheur (looking for happiness). On the surface, this might seem as if I am splitting hairs, but if you really examine the idea of looking for happiness as opposed to pursuing happiness, you’ll see there’s actually a big difference.
If we’re looking for something, it feels as if it’s there hiding in plain sight. And all we have to do is be patient and when the room is quiet, quickly lift up the tablecloth and voila! There it is! Happiness! On the other hand, pursuing implies a kind of chasing after something. Looking for happiness seems gentler. There is happiness and we just need to look”
“Many people have suggested that unhappines is not caused so much by lack, but by having so many choices it’s impossible to focus on what we really want and what we need. Because of this inability to focus, we get confused and we are no longer able to see clearly who we are and what we are supposed to be doing in this world”
“Truth be told, happiness is like the artist’s muse. She is very whimsical and loves to play little tricks on us. If we search too hard, happiness will slip away. And then, when we are not really concentrating on capturing her, she will suddenly appear in our peripheral vision wearing a green silk gown, winking at us.”