Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Une ambiance infernale?

Christmas is coming and turning ordinary French people into wild-eyed shoppers. Angry drivers vent their impatience and frustration at the smallest delay. It’s hard to say which suffocating joy is destroying people’s tranquility the most.

Is it the ever-growing piles of marginal quality, cheaply-priced decorations in the stores? Who could find personal fulfillment in decorating their home with a plastic Santa Claus whose eyes are not carefully painted on his face? One eye looks off to the right, the other eye is half closed. The paint on his red hat is cracking. Shoppers study these strange objects, and like obedient robots, put them in their shopping basket. ‘Joy’ is cheap plastic.

Or is it the joy of hearing relentless Christmas carols? For some unknown reason, the small town where I live has installed speakers on the light poles in the shopping district to play Christmas music. Loudly and all day long. I hear songs, in English, that I have not heard in years. Less than 95% of the people around me can even understand the words but they can’t stop listening to them. “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the way...oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!” The owner of a small shop is frustrated by the endless intrusive music and says “une ambiance infernale!” Literally translated, it suggests that we are trapped in a diabolical or hellish atmosphere. ‘Joy’ can be relentless.

I was visiting a client whose office is located near the large department stores in Paris. The sidewalks were packed with people, going in and out of the stores, and also trying to see the window displays that are decorated for Christmas. I saw a small girl laughing and pointing at a large pink motorized creature in the window that slowly raised and lowered its’ arms. Then a crowd of people passed on front of me, a man stepped on my foot, and I lost sight of the child. My colleague struggled to keep pace with me but got hit from the side by a woman with large shopping bags. “Aiie! Une ambiance infernale!” she cried, as she almost dropped her briefcase and temporarily lost her balance. Like leaves being pushed ahead by fast-running water, we got caught in the sea of humanity, then suddenly popped out on the other side of the street. ‘Joy’ for some is shopping-till-you-drop.

Later, as I waited for the train to take me away from the frenzy of the city, I saw that all trains were delayed because of an “accident grave voyageur". This is a nice way of saying that someone jumped in front of a train. According to the medical information web site www.doctissimo.fr, “Chaque année en France, 160 000 personnes tentent de mettre fin à leurs jours. 12 000 y parviennent.” 160,000 attempt suicide and 12,000 succeed. These tragic figures say a lot about a country that has a reputation for the joy of life. Depression is a difficult topic in France and it gets even more complex at holiday times, when suicide rates dramatically increase. ‘Joy’ for some is jumping in front of a train.

Eventually I caught a train and then walked toward my home. I saw a woman walking ahead of me and recognized her as a neighbor in my apartment complex. She is not well-liked by people because of her direct way of speaking and strong personality. This neighbor is an artist and invited me one day to see her paintings. All the paintings were grey or black squares on giant canvases. I didn’t know what to say about the paintings but I found her interesting. Her eyes are very dark brown, almost black, and they look like a section of the night sky without stars. Remote, dark, blank. I wonder about her but I respect her fierce sense of privacy that she wears like a heavy coat.

My neighbor hurried through the entrance gate and walked toward her building with her head down, not looking to the left or right. She ignored the building manager who was sweeping the parking lot. He smiled and waved at me, I appreciated his friendly gesture and waved back. My neighbor disappeared into her apartment and I thought that she too lived in an “ambiance infernale.” The origin of the word hell, in Old English, is to literally build a wall or separation around something. Perhaps this is a good description even today. When we build a wall around our hearts, we separate ourselves from all that is good and positive in life. We don’t really see other people, we only see them as anonymous shadows.

A friend of mine recently commented, “For me, every day is Christmas!” She referred to the real essence of Christmas, which is to seek a blessed peace — in the world, with other people, and within ourselves.

Walk gently on the Earth and light a candle of love in your heart.