Monday, August 24, 2015

Joie de Vivre

Joie de vivre. The joy of life. The French coined the term so they ought to know something about it. Americans and others flock to Paris in search of joie de vivre, but most of them are probably disappointed. Instead of joie de vivre, most tourists merely find a bunch of sterile cathedrals and monuments. However, we've found joie de vivre in the vicinity of Pont-en-Royans - a small medieval village perched on the edge of a gorge near Grenoble in the foothills of the French Alps. 


"Street" leading to our apartment
It is not obvious that you would find joie de vivre here. Pont-en-Royans is a modest place with little evidence that it has ever enjoyed economic prosperity. Unlike most French towns and villages, the town has no large chateau, castle, cathedral, or other sign that it was once important or prosperous. Today, there are no construction cranes or other signs of an expanding economy. Some of the storefronts appear to have been vacant for the past 200 years. Apparently, there is not a positive correlation between material prosperity and joie de vivre.

Most of the homes in Pont-en-Royans seem to be one step up from a cave. The buildings are carved into the walls of the walls of the gorge. Sometimes the power goes out and sometimes the water supply stops. Because the streets are narrow and steep, it is a difficult walk to get to most of the houses. Life in this town is not easy, but the people here seem to have a zest for life.

Balcony of our apartment
Bedrock wall in our bathroom cave 
We are spending 10 days in Pont-en-Royans. The apartment that we rented is approximately 800 years old. The front side of our apartment is on the second floor (see picture with Bronwyn and Joan on the balcony) and the the naked bedrock of the gorge forms the rear wall of the apartment. The bathroom is basically a cave (see picture), and the plumbing appears to drain into the alley beside the apartment. We feel fortunate to have a bathroom with running water. Some of the apartments that overhang the gorge appear to have balconies with a circular hole under a room that looks like an outhouse instead of bathrooms with running water. I've also noticed the inhabitants of some of the houses come out to the street to get water from public water spigots.

You have to wonder what kind of person chooses to live in a place that seems permanently mired in the middle ages. Interestingly, many of the people we have met claim to have ended up in Pont-en-Royans by accident or marriage, ... and yet they have made the best of it. Almost everybody we have met seems to be passionate about the town, the region and their own particular niche. The owner of the small shop where we buy our groceries gave up his career in aviation to run a tiny grocery store. Each day he graciously shares his knowledge and enthusiasm for wine by helping us select the perfect five-Euro wine for each meal. A restaurant owner gave up a life of sailing and scuba diving to marry a resident of the village, but he greets each person who comes into the restaurant like a life-long friend. His food is fresh, beautiful and savory, and when he sat down with us to share his favorite champagne beer he made us feel at home.

The town even has a museum of water (Musee de L'Eauwhere you can learn about threats to water and taste hundreds of different types of water. The woman who led our water tasting infected everybody with her love of water.

Palais Idéal
In a nearby town, you can visit le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval. It is the work of one mailman who was inspired by an unusual rock he saw while walking his postal route.  So naturally he spent the next 33 years (1879-1933) building his perfect palace. (You can see better pictures at

Band consisting of musicians playing a grand piano,
saxophone, alto sax, drum set, and bass
give a concert while suspended over a rocky gorge
Today, the same streak of passion, eccenticity, and ... joie de vivre that led to the construction of the Palais Idéal continues to be evident in the people of Pont-en-Royans. As an example, a saxophone player periodically serenades the town from the back seat of a motorcycle. Two nights ago a band, including one member of the band who was in a wheelchair, gave a concert while hanging over the gorge from a bridge. In the pictures you can see a grand piano, bass, upside down saxaphone player, drum set, and various others hanging from the bridge. At the end, the piano was lowered to a raft, the wheelchair with saxophone playing occupant, was placed on top of the piano, and they floated downstream while entertaining the crowd.

At the same time as the aerial concert, a mime and a tightrope walker performed overhead from a rope that dangled across the gorge. As soon as the aerial concert ended, another band started up in a small park while residents of all ages danced.

The people around here might seem a little eccentric, or even crazy, but they definitely have joie de vivre. Whatever they do, they seem to do it with passion and joy. I love it here. Forget about the fountain of youth, we all need to get infected with some of the joie de vivre that is in the water in Pont-en-Royans.

For my part, I am already dreaming up crazy schemes for what I will do when I return to the United States.  I might even pour some of the water from Pont-en-Royan into Charlotte's water supply. It has got to be better than drinking coal ash waste.

No comments:

Post a Comment