Q&A with Ajiri Aki: Joie de Vivre

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Ajiri Aki in front of a pink door

One of the best summers of my life was the one I spent living in Paris. I was 21. The apartment I lived in was a tiny little attic space at the top of the Rue des Martyrs, a street lined with food purveyors of all kinds. Walking home from my office job, I would stop into the boulangerie, the fromagerie, the various marchés selling fish and fruit and wine until I had composed a meal of delicious odds and ends. Other evenings I would wander the city, picking a loose destination and then allowing myself to get totally lost with just a notebook and a map for company. I learned to eat slower that summer, to revel in being surrounded by beauty, to wander with only joy as my guide.

I lived the French idea of joie de vivre that summer, and maybe on some level I’ve been trying to capture it ever since. So I was excited to discover the beautiful new book Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life, by Ajiri Aki, which is filled with inspiration for making joy an everyday part of life.

Q&A with Ajiri Aki: Joie de Vivre

Ajiri (pronounced Ah-zhur-ee) is a designer, author, mother, and founder of Madame de la Maison, which sells beautiful antiques, linens, and objects for the home. As a Nigerian-Texan living in Paris, she has a unique, cross-cultural perspective on joy. Ajiri joined me for a School of Joy conversation about the differences between French and American concepts of joy, why pleasure is power, and how we can give ourselves more permission to enjoy our daily lives.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book begins with these words that I just love: There’s life and then there’s the good life. What are the hallmarks of that good life?

The French find joy as their North Star. For example, the French love to say “No,” but for them it’s about not doing things that don’t bring them joy. They tap into that every day, buying flowers, buying food that pleases them, having a meal and not constantly fussing over, “Is this good for me? Is it bad for me?” That’s something that the French do very well. And it has rubbed off on me after living in Paris for 12 years.

What is ‘joie de vivre’? Can you define that for us?

Joie de vivre literally translates to the joy of living. It’s not a big, grandiose thing. It’s little things that happen every day; little sparks of joy in your day.

It’s so aligned with something that we say in the School of Joy all the time, which is this idea that it’s these small, repeatable moments that happen day in and day out. I’m curious, do you see joie de vivre as different from pleasure, or are they related in some way?

They’re related in every way. I love the way the French use the word pleasure. When you have something to eat, they don’t ask you, “Are you done? Can I get you anything else?” They say, “Did it please you?” If you’re talking to a friend and you say, “Do you want to come over?” They’ll be like, “Avec plaisir” (with pleasure). Pleasure is very related to joy in that sense because it’s a verbal expression of saying yes, that that does please me.

I tell this little anecdote in the book where I was complaining that I shouldn’t have eaten this dessert. I was trying to not have dessert for the week. And my friend’s husband says, “But did it please you?” And I said “Well, yes, it was really good.” And he said “Well, that’s all that matters.” I like the way that they use the word pleasure a hundred times in a day to express what they like, what they enjoy.

This is powerful. You just made me think about how often we suck the pleasure out of things that are pleasurable just by feeling guilty about them. Whenever I give a talk about joy, inevitably someone asks me: How is joy different from pleasure? And it feels like the questioner has a big investment in those two things being different. The idea that pleasure is bad and indulgent and hedonistic, and joy must be about something more. So I appreciate what you’re saying, that pleasure is at the core of joy. You can’t separate them. The example of the way the French used the word pleasure is just so powerful because you can’t feel guilty about something when it’s that woven into your language.

Yeah, I also appreciate the way the French don’t do guilty pleasure. It doesn’t really translate into French. It almost doesn’t make sense. Why should you feel guilty about something that pleases you? We deserve to feel pleasure. I mentioned this in the book. Because of the disassociation in my mind of pleasure and guilt, I felt like pleasure was only associated with sex. Actually, pleasure should be associated with things in our daily life. It should not only go with hedonism or being indulgent, or sexual desire.

I would love for you to talk about what mistakes you made on the way to finding this new concept of joy.

So many mistakes. I tell this story about going to the grocery to buy some bread, and my French friend asks “Where did you get this baguette? Which store?” I had gone to Monoprix, which is like going to the regular grocery store. And he says, “This is not a baguette. This is bread for dogs. It has to come from the boulangerie.”

Even if they’re just eating it, it brings them joy to know that there’s something behind how this thing was made. It’s not snobbism, it’s an appreciation for the know-how that comes behind buying things of quality, like talking to farmers at the market, knowing that it came from their land.

They’re not interested in showing off for the sake of showing off. I’ve learned to appreciate that by making a lot of mistakes. I also tell a story in the book about trying to show off with a grandiose spread. I made these tiny little animals and decorated all of them with tiny little birthday hats. And I was just running around and barely sat down to enjoy my guests. And my French friend is like, “What are you doing? Isn’t this just a party for a two year old?”

It’s like you need those moments of tension to be able to see the constraints you have from the culture you’ve lived in your whole life. This makes me wonder, why is joie de vivre so hard for Americans?

Time is money. We live to work and not work to live. When that is your collective culture, it’s a challenge for you to integrate joie de vivre in your life. In France, the collective culture is you work to live. If everyone around you is doing that, it’s so much easier for you to do that. But if you’re aware of it, you can do this anywhere in the entire world and it doesn’t cost you money. If you understand it, you can do little things.

Maybe you could give a few examples of what some of those things might be?

Take lunch, wander around and see what you see. There’s something kind of joyful in that because there’s awe and wonder in spontaneity. Something you talk about in your book Joyful is how nature brings joy. I find it so interesting how important nature and gardens are to the French. Nature is definitely a simple thing that you can do.

Ajiri Aki and a friend sitting in front of the Seine in Paris

I’m curious, you talked a little bit about the beauty of nature, and I’m curious about the beauty of built environments and how you feel those contribute to this sense of joie de vivre in Paris. As I was reading your book, my overriding emotion was jealousy. I always felt that there’s a different sensibility when everything around you is beautiful. I’m curious what you think about the role of beauty and art and beautiful objects in joie de vivre.

In the book I talk about how interesting it is that the French see beauty as power. Dating back to the Sun King Louis XIV in Versailles, his accountant builds this beautiful palace at Vau-Le-Vicomte. Louis XIV goes there and it’s so beautiful. He puts his accountant in jail and steals all of his architects and designers and gardeners because it was so beautiful. It’s this idea that France wanted to be number one in the world for what they were creating. The culture, the music, the architecture of the buildings. And they do this thing called the “rayonnements.” It’s the rays of the sun. For them, that’s the power, making sure they’re spreading the rays out to, at that point, the lower classes, but also to people that would come visit.

Fast forward many years later and it’s so important to them, being surrounded by culture and the idea of awe. Awe is also joy. These objects that are so imbued with a story and a history. There’s emotion there when you see something that has a story to it. I might feel a sense of awe and curiosity, which contributes to joy, when I’m wandering a flea market or walking around a space that is full of history.

It’s interesting because awe is an emotion that is in many ways connected to power. In a lot of cultures, beauty is weakness. So if you start from this place of beauty as power, I think you have such a different relationship to it than if you see beauty as trivial, or weak, or distracting from what’s really important. This reminded me of a story in your book about your childhood. Can you talk a little about the ‘case for using the good china’?

My mother had wedding china she was gifted, and she loved it. She thought it was absolutely beautiful. She had it locked away behind this cabinet with glass windows so she could look at it every time she’d walk by. And she would never use it. I thought it was so fabulous. I wanted to set the table and she would always say, “no, no, no,” waiting for a special occasion.

We were having friends over one Easter, and we set the table together. I loved the ceremony of putting all the plates down and setting this big beautiful table. And when it was done, she started putting it all away. And I was like, “But no, wait, Mom, we’re going to sit and have our big meal!” And she’s like, “No, no, no. The plates are gonna get broken. Somebody’s gonna smash them. Another time, another day.” And unfortunately my mom died shortly after that and she never ate a single thing, not even a piece of toast, off of her plates.

I know so many people do that. They have plates or special china, and they’re like, oh, that’s, that’s the good stuff. We’re not bringing that out. And why? Why should you wait? Why did my mother wait for a day that never came for her to enjoy something that brought her so much joy?

I don’t think you should wait for a special day to come to use the good china and to do things that bring you joy. My mother could have enjoyed something that she loved so much.

Every day is a good day to use the good china.

That’s a hard way to learn that lesson, but the way that you share it is so beautiful. It’s interesting because it comes back to that American versus French thing where we place so much emphasis on delayed gratification and on this idea of waiting and rewarding ourselves at the end of doing something hard. We get into this mentality of, “It’s not time for that yet. I’ll get to enjoy myself later.” It makes me wonder, do you think there are any common beliefs about joy that are wrong?

That’s a really great question. There are some that we already talked about: you need to deserve joy, you have to work for joy, joy is for wealthy people, for rich people, for perfect people. I think a lot of people think that they don’t deserve joy because it seems so out of reach or it’s expensive.

My mom had the plates and she was worthy and deserving of eating on those plates. And if they broke, then guess what? The person whose hands made those plates are honored. Her spirit and what she would’ve felt, what she needed to feel, is honored.

Someone said to me on Instagram, “Joy is your birthright.” I’m like, you know what? You’re right.

It’s true. The way I always reframe it is that it’s not something that we earn or deserve, because it’s hardwired into us. So if it’s hardwired into us, it’s there for a reason. And if it’s there for a reason, then it’s universal. We all have it already. We don’t have to earn it because it’s part of us. So no one gets to take that and make that conditional. It’s ours.

Yeah, for sure. So we just need to learn or relearn or remind ourselves constantly how to tap into that, how to access it or, or use it.

It seems like the French don’t even feel like they need permission, but for a lot of us, we feel like we need some kind of permission to do things that bring us joy. Do you have any thoughts on how we can give ourselves more permission to do these things for ourselves?

It sounds kind of dark, but maybe if you remind yourself that you only have so much time on this earth, maybe that allows you, in the moment that you feel guilty, reminding yourself that you only have so much time on this earth, that time should be spent feeling joy.

And I always say happiness and joy aren’t really the same thing. While you might not feel happy or you might be going through a hard time, you can do one tiny thing for yourself because you deserve joy.

If it’s gonna make you smile, then you deserve that.

Q&A with Ajiri Aki | flower market in Paris

I’m curious if you have any thoughts about sharing joy with the next generation and being a parent who shares joy or models joy. How do you think about that with your own kids?

I tell a story in the book about how important it is to model joy for for the children. I do that with my children because I want them to not be like me, where I constantly have to give myself permission to tap into joy.

My children, they have glasses that they like to use setting the table because we’re all gonna spend time together. I show my children what I believe a joyful life is, and I’m pretty proud when I see them doing that on their own when I’m not around. I know that I’m doing a good job of that already. I’m on book tour and my husband’s sending me pictures of them setting the table with all of my linens because they love that evening moment of all of us being at the table together.

It’s not just like we feed them and then we eat, we all sit together and they love this moment of sharing and having conversation. So I think it’s a great way to teach your children that they also have to have joy in their life and making joy their north star too.

Beautiful. It makes me think of in the summer we go to this farm and we pick all of our produce. And there’s a period in the summer where the tomatoes go unlimited. There’s just so many that you have to harvest as many as you can, and my son will just stand in the rows picking the cherry tomatoes off the vines and eating them. It’s this moment of raw pleasure. I love that at this age, he already understands that you can just get lost in the enjoyment of a moment.

You know, sometimes I’m just rushing my kids along and I’m not realizing that this is a great moment. I don’t wanna teach them to always be rushing, rushing, rushing. I wanna teach them to ‘dîne ensemble,’ to have this moment together to share. But also like what you said, nature. That’s a little bit of awe for them. Let them run in a field and they’ll go pick you a bouquet of flowers.

Thank you so much for this amazing conversation, Ajiri!

Joie de Vivre

Find out more about Joie here, and pick up a copy from your local independent bookshop, library, or wherever books are sold. You can also learn more about Ajiri’s work here, and connect with her on Instagram.

Images by Jessica Antola, excerpted from “Joie” by Ajiri Aki, except the image of Joie, which was shot by Ingrid Fetell Lee.

May 31st, 2023


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    Discussion (2 Comments)

  1. Laura Gomez Gonzalez on June 1, 2023

    Hi Ingrid!! I’m delighted with the interview to Ajiri Aki.

    So passionate about simple things! A real pleasure. I’m leaving just a quick note to suggest you check IG of an Argentine artist who makes some works of art full of color and form: agostinabranchi. Best! L

  2. Sheila Gustafson on June 3, 2023

    Hi Ingrid, loved this interview. My husband and I took an apartment on Rue des Martyrs for a month in 2019. We had such a great time in this street of thriving markets, cafes, and shops—not to mention Bistrot Smiley which was directly across the street from ‘our’ quintessentially French apartment. Thanks for the memory-jog! Sheila G


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