I don’t usually like destination weddings. You’re forced to travel to some remote spot that the couple consider romantic for their own reasons but that you and other wedding guests often find inconvenient. But since two Parisian friends, Walter and Bertrand were getting married, I flew to Paris from New York to witness the ceremony. And also to meet with the young couple who were going to swap their apartment with mine a month later. Whenever I was in France at that point, I always considered how to procure lodging for coming trips.
The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, married my friends Walter and Bertrand. Actually, he performed what’s known as a Pacs, which stands for le pacte civil de solidarité (the acronym also became a verb, se pacser). It’s a civil union. Marriage wasn’t legal for gay couples at that time, about five years ago. But as with regular marriages, the Pacs ceremony took place at the city hall (or in the case of Paris, at the city hall of one particular arrondissement). And as with a marriage, a Pacs is conducted at the hall by the mayor or by one of his or her deputies. (If you want a church wedding in France, you can have one, but it’s just for show. The only marriage ceremony that’s legal is the one that a particularly representative of the state or city presides over at the city hall. No beach, forest, hillside or garden weddings here.)
Bertrand, who works for the Sénat, used to work for Delanoë, and he asked the mayor to officiate. This was kind of a big deal. A few nights before the wedding, over dinner with Walter and Bertrand at their home, Walter told me about when Delanoë had dined there a few weeks earlier.
Delanoë was driven to their little house in the 13th arrondissement in a small electric car, which reappeared exactly two-and-a-half hours later just as Delanoë opened the door to leave. Walter kept the cuisine simple (Delanoë, apparently, was careful about his diet). There was one bodyguard, who didn’t come in, but stood sentry at the door. Walter told me Delanoë was charming, intelligent and frank. Among friends, apparently, Delanoë would really let his hair down. Walter said that at least for that evening the mayor considered them friends. He recounted personal stories, including several of his liaisons amoureuses, and engaged in a little bit of mild political gossip. The wedding itself was barely mentioned. The nice thing about weddings in France, or perhaps the fact that they take place at a French city hall, is that wedding planners aren’t really given the chance to ruin everything. You’re pretty much in and out. It’s like getting a license renewed.
The Pacs took place at the rather grand mairie, or city hall, of the 3rd arrondissement. There were about 70 people – Walter’s family from Italy, Bertrand’s from Normandy and Brittany, friends of Bertrand’s from the Sénat, friends of the two of them from Paris and elsewhere. Walter told me that the Italians to a person asked about what to wear (they were all dressed to the nines), while I noticed that the French (none of whom had asked about dress codes) arrived looking slightly disheveled and just-so chic.
The ceremony was fascinating to me, who never witnessed in person a French wedding or Pacs. I loved that the mayor wore a tricolor sash, very official, and that while the occasion could have lent itself to that particular French brand of pomp, it was actually rather low-key. The mayor slipped on the sash as he walked toward the front of the room, and slipped it off after the ceremony, as if the sash were the thing that had sealed the Pacs. Because Bertrand Delanoë was friendly with the couple, the mayor had insisted that the ceremony be held in the official marriage chamber, rather than the small side office for Pacs that people generally use when they get a civil union. Delanoë upped it for Walter and Bertrand to the ceremonial equivalent of a marriage.
He also gave a lovely speech about them, a personal appreciation and not just the usual anodyne words about the union. He pointedly mentioned Bertrand’s writing ability (at the time he was part of a department at the Sénat that wrote essays for the senators concerning laws under discussion), and their shared history of working together. The whole thing lasted about 10 minutes.
Afterward, there was a little cocktail reception in the same room. Delanoë stayed and chatted for about 45 minutes. Walter introduced me to him, saying I’d flown in from New York just to be there, at which Delanoë smiled, saying, “Welcome.” I could only respond, “Thank you,” even though I wanted to ask him about those racy stories he’d told Walter and Bertrand. But Delanoë resumed his politician’s demeanor, shook my hand and left me to the cacophony of indecipherable conversation carrying on around me as he worked the crowd like a pro. Plates of minuscule petits-fours were passed around (it was as if a normal-sized canapé had been cut into quarters), glasses of champagne and sparkling water were sipped. I eventually slipped out with a few friends of Walter and Bertrand whom I had recently met, for lunch at a café around the corner.
The reception was actually all that you could want (who really wishes to be held hostage to hours of American-style wedding-reception nonsense?), the ceremonial equivalent of one of those teeny petits-fours: just enough to whet the appetite and leave you wanting more.
That night, Walter and Bertrand had a party at their house. It wasn’t a reception but more like a blowout for friends and family, where Italian and French were widely spoken, with a smattering of English for those who wanted to seem even more international. No ceremonial cake, no toasts, no seating at tables in order of importance (no bruised egos when you were seated at the wrong table). Just a party for two people who’d had the luck to find each other and celebrate their union.
Walter mentioned to me at some point that I could probably stay at their house for a month in the summer, while they were in Tahiti for their vacation (one of Bertrand’s brothers is a doctor there). I leapt at that housing opportunity and knew I’d have a place to stay after my apartment swap for the spring. I wasn’t in Paris simply to find myself a place to stay, of course. I actually wanted to help Walter and Bertrand celebrate. But you’re never anywhere for simply one thing.