French Custom and American Weddings

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Officiating at the hilltop marriage of my niece Kerrin and her husband Ben, the day after my return to the U.S.

In France you get married at the “mairie,” or the city hall. Even if you want a church wedding, you first need to tie the knot with a civil service, which is conducted by the mayor or deputy mayor. Religious weddings aren’t legally binding in France.

In the U.S. you can get married wherever you want and by, it seems, whomever you want. Pretty much anyone can now officiate at a wedding in the United States, which surprises and amuses my French friends. And you can hold the wedding wherever, as well – far from home, far from where you grew up, a good distance from anyone you know. In France, you have to have some sort of connection to the locale in which you want to marry – you yourself or a close member of your family must live in the town or village or region.

Many French folks have seen depictions of weddings in American films where the nuptials are held on beaches or in gardens or, of course, in churches, but the French consider most of these to be, for the most part, fictionalized Hollywood takes on reality, the matrimonial equivalent of an action hero running from a huge explosion without receiving the slightest scratch or burn.

A real wedding drew me back to New York from France that first time, a few weeks earlier than I’d planned or hoped to leave Paris. It was for the marriage of my niece. I wasn’t a guest. Or I wasn’t merely a guest. I was the one performing the ceremony, which was to be held on a hilltop in the Catskills, about two hours north of Manhattan. This also amused and even puzzled some of my French friends. Not the hilltop wedding – impossible for a legally binding French marriage ceremony – but that I would the one helping my niece Kerrin and her fiancé Ben to become espoused.

“So you’re a minister,” my friend Renaud said.

“Not really,” I said. “Or maybe sort of one. Thanks to the internet.”

He shrugged in that expressive French way. As if to say, “The internet. You Americans make it seem so easy.”

It was easy, actually. A $35 payment and I was qualified, in a manner of speaking, to marry people in most U.S. states. Renaud laughed at what seemed to him the inconsequentiality of an internet marriage ministry. But it was legal, I told him. Even though it was all done online. Not that he’s a Luddite. Far from it. Many French households are wired, and internet service in France is far, far cheaper than it is in the U.S. But even though Renaud, like many French of my acquaintance, isn’t religious, and doesn’t consider marriage to be an untouchable institution or even a sacred alliance, the customs of the country are ingrained in him and in other French, as in me is the sometime casualness of the American way of holding weddings.

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Arriving in time for the ceremony.

I cut it close in getting home for the wedding. Not only had I delayed my departure by seven days, but during that summer France was disrupted several times by strikes that threw rail and air transportation into chaos. The day I was to leave for New York, a strike of air traffic controllers led to the cancellation of my flight to Dublin, where I was to connect to one for New York. I ended up staying overnight at a Radisson at the Dublin airport.

This in itself was a return to another reality. The hotel was unremarkable. But the next day’s full Irish breakfast certainly woke me up to the idea that I would be eating something other than a French petit déjeuner for the next few months. I already missed my almost-daily pain au raisin.

Because of the strike and changes to air flights, I needed to fly into Boston rather than New York, and so I took a train from Boston down to Manhattan. What should have been a 10-hour journey turned into two long days, but I certainly couldn’t complain. It was I who had extended my stay, and I who had agreed to conduct the marriage ceremony for my niece, so it was I who needed to make sure I was in upstate New York for the next day’s activities.

I didn’t want to be back home, but I certainly wanted to be present for my family. At least the three-and-a-half-hour train trip from Boston to New York made me realize again how beautiful America is. As the train descended along the New England coastline in late afternoon, I could see the sun gleaming off white clapboard houses along the shore and glistening on the water in the inlets and marshes. I had seen nothing quite like it during my travels in France.

And another reality set in once I made it up to the wedding location. I didn’t expect to be greeted as a conquering hero – I’d only been gone for a few months – but I had expected slightly more than a polite “You’re here,” from my relatives. But, of course, it wasn’t I who was the center of attention. That would be the bride. Even though I was the one making it all legal, I was just part of the apparatus of the event. I was the uncle of the bride, the brother of the father of the bride and a family member who, for one reason or another, had spent some time in France.

What I experienced in France was really something for me to savor personally. What I realized on returning to my family for the wedding of my niece was that no matter how proud you are of what you’ve done for yourself, other people’s lives are just as important as yours, no matter what you or they have been doing during your absence. I might have begun to learn French, but I was taught again humility.

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