Sunday 9 March 2014

Black Bile in Sunny Paris by Caroline Lawrence

I'm in Paris this weekend on the first glorious days after a wet and miserable winter. On Monday I will speak to children at Marymount International School about Mysteries of Ancient Rome. One of the things I do when I travel is look for the past in the present. But where are elements of ancient Rome to be found on a glorious Saturday evening on the Île de la Cité? The cafes are packed with tourists. Pedestrians are eating ice cream, crêpes and the latest Parisian craze: les macarons.

On Eurostar, I was listening to a podcast on Rick Steve's excellent (and free) travel app, an interview with a native Parisian. In Stuff Parisians Like, Olivier Magny tells us what Parisians like and – more importantly – dislike.

Parisians are exquisitely delicate people who like all things in moderation and shiver in horror at any manifestation of over-enthusiasm. They mistrust indulgence, and when something pleasurable is mentioned in conversation, Parisians always have to dilute it with their favourite word: petit.

Olivier tells of Parisians' disdain for grinning tourists. "In Paris enthusiasm is considered a mild form of retardation. If you complain on the other hand, you must be smart. The person who complains is the person who spotted the problem. The person who spotted the problem is a smart person." This observation made me think of the melancholic type person on my questionnaire for kids about Which of the Four Humours are You?

Romans believed the world was made of the four elements, and so are people. We all have a balance of the four, but everyone has more of one humour than the others. People with too much blood are sanguine: cheerful, optimistic, flighty. Those with too much yellow bile are choleric: good leaders but tending to be hot tempered. Phlegmatic types have too much phlegm or mucus, which apparently makes you easy-going and fearless. But an excess of black bile makes you a perfectionist trouble-shooter on your good days and a moody pessimist on a bad, or black day.

Marymount School in Neuilly-sur_Seine
Someone in this century has likened the melancholic to a beaver: resigned to a hard life of work. In this pattern the lion is choleric, a faithful dog the phlegmatic and a person of sanguine temperament is an otter, floating on his back and enjoying his abalone, a type of giant oyster.

My son Simon is of a typically melancholy disposition. Like the beaver on my questionnaire, he always found my sanguine cheerfulness a burden to be borne. His father is French Huguenot by descent, and I suddenly wondered if the French are melancholy by nature. Of course you can't plop a whole nation into a box, but it got me wondering.

As we walked through the glorious evening full of laughter and ice-cream, the sun sparkling on the Seine and Notre Dame looming like a benign golden souvenir, I spotted these two Parisian men (look at their body language) walking resignedly through the streets of Paris. "Fait beau," one of them might be saying gloomily to the other. "Oui, mais il y a trop de tourists."

I have now downloaded Stuff Parisians Like onto my Kindle and am enjoying it hugely. It turns out I have a soupçon of black bile, too.

Caroline devotes the months of March and October to school events. Sometimes she gets to go to Paris. 

1 comment:

Joan Lennon said...

Paris, London, Venice - 3 cities that draw us again and again! Thanks for a taste!