A Big French Wedding

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Mariage pluvieux, mariage heureux,” goes the saying in French – and on a spottily rainy day two of my friends. Gilles and Claude, got married. I hope it’s a happy union. It was certainly a happy event.

It began at the city hall in Versailles. Weddings take place at the local town hall or mairie in France (church weddings aren’t legally binding in France). And you get married in the town or village where one of you reside. Gilles lives in Versailles, on the appropriately named Boulevard du Roi, and so we gathered there at the Versailles hôtel de ville, upstairs in a gold-and-white room resplendent with the regal bravado of another time, to witness one of the deputy mayors of Versailles unite the couple.

As we entered the town hall, and started ascending the grand staircase to the room where the wedding would take place, the deputy mayor stopped a few of us men to ask if we were either Gilles or Claude – or one of “les mariés.” He hadn’t met the happy couple beforehand – but no matter. Once they were identified, and we were all present, he began his brief ceremony in earnest, and he tailored his remarks to the occasion, even if he couldn’t personalize them specifically to the two people getting hitched. He was kindly and welcoming – and far from what we had been led to expect in ultraconservative Versailles.

Versailles was a center of the anti-gay-marriage movement a few years ago – protesting what was commonly known as either the loi Taubira – for Christiane Taubira, the ex-minister of justice who was a major proponent of it, or simply as “marriage pour tous,” or marriage for everyone – but there were no protests this afternoon, although the high-pitched whoops of the wedding that preceded this one – a sort of Berber celebration – burst through the windows and made the soft-spoken deputy mayor a little hard to understand.

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At the Château de Malmaison after the wedding and before the reception, with Claude (l) and Gilles (r).

But I was able to hear how delighted he was in doing his mayoral duty – he said how touched and happy it made him to preside over a wedding that showed how France had evolved in embracing diversity. He recited the full names of each of the grooms, asked them if they would take the other in marriage, had them exchange rings, and that was pretty much that, with a little bit of necessary bureaucratic paper-signing.

And then it was over – it lasted perhaps 10 minutes. These things move quickly at a French town hall – weddings are held only on Saturday, and as we left the official room we saw a restless gathering of friends and family eager to head in for the next wedding.

Then we killed time before the wedding party three hours later. A few of us – including Gilles and Claude – headed to the nearby Château de Malmaison, the country home of Napoleon and Josephine, to soak in a little imperial overstatement (there was a lot of gold on display) before the festivities got underway.

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The wedding party was at a restaurant – named Josephine – next to the Malmaison estate and, like American wedding parties, it began with a cocktail party that was followed by a dinner. But unlike American wedding parties, which tend to get you in and out (relatively speaking, since we’ve all been to weddings that have dragged on), this French fête really took its time. In between courses were animations, or homespun entertainments, to honor the couple.

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For example, Gilles and Claude would be seated, their backs to the room, while a few guests would sing an excerpt they’d chosen either from opera (Gilles knows opera quite well and is an expert in Benjamin Britten), or from a popular song (Claude has long followed the Eurovision song contest), with lyrics rewritten slightly, to reflect the occasion. Then the couple would have to guess the composer and who sang the excerpt. The opera excerpts turned out usually to be from Jacques Offenbach, and the popular songs were, well, often Eurovision winners. In fact, a Eurovision winner, Anne-Marie David, was one of the witnesses for the wedding. She’s a friend of Claude’s, and she sang to the couple (and to us) during the reception, including her hit, “Tu te reconnaitras,” for which she had won the Eurovision contest in 1973 for Luxembourg.

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There was also a drawing for prizes – une tombola – for each table. And then, around midnight, came “les discours,” or the speeches. Luckily, it was just one, since it went on for a bit. An old colleague of Gilles spoke, and spoke, and spoke. At one point, after she had spent a good 20 minutes recounting their lives together as if in real time, she paused, took a breath and began again, “Then in 2002…” I turned to my neighbor and said, “And we still have 14 years more to go.” It sounded more like the kind of speech you’d hear at a retirement party than a wedding, but perhaps given the age of the bridegrooms – mid-50s and early 60s – this might have been expected. It was meandering but well-intentioned, of course – and the intention was what counted.

We were also supposed to have a barn dance – or a southern-style reel, à la Gone With the Wind (or, as it’s known in French, Autant en emporte le vent) – and I was to have called it. Gilles had sent a video of a rehearsal of the dance to everyone, so those who wished to dance could rehearse. I’d spent a couple of weeks making sure I had translated correctly what the women who led the dance on the video had said. At dinners with friends in the days leading up to the wedding I had even read aloud what I had done to make sure that everyone could follow the instructions.

But at the reception itself, the DJ – a shaggy-haired soul with a drooping mustache who resembled a touring-show version of the celebrated French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens – proved to be inept. He had misplaced the recorded music that was to be played. Hélas – pas de danse. I had been looking forward to the general clumsiness (both in my French diction in explaining everything and in the French execution of the American square dance), but we were all spared. Still people danced, as people do, to the music the DJ did find – such as old hits from Claude François, a staple of wedding receptions in France.

Just before 1 a.m. came the desserts. The dinner had begun at 8 p.m., and had unrolled at a leisurely pace. And rather than the wheeled-in cake and the messy cutting and force-feeding of American wedding receptions, we were treated to sparklers highlighting what’s known as a pièce montée – an assemblage in the shape of a tree. One of the waiters poured champagne onto a wall of flute glasses – to create a fountain of bubbly – and then Gilles and Claude took a spoonful of the little pastries and everyone began to dig into the sweets.

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It was old-fashioned and delightful, a celebration that took its time in the French manner – so that people could relax, enjoy themselves and honor the couple. I was grateful to be there. Even if I was a little chagrined when it came to wedding gifts. I was far less generous than the other guests. The couple had said beforehand that they didn’t expect gifts, though it had been suggested that, if they wished, guests might contribute to a trip that Gilles and Claude want to take to explore the national parks in the western U.S. One of the guests had even made a cute little valise into which you could place a check. But I had already spent any potential trip money for my friends on paying the change fee for my airline ticket so I could attend their wedding. So I arrived empty-handed or, as they say in French, les mains vides. But I don’t think they minded. At least I hope not. Gilles and Claude didn’t get married so that we could give them money – they got married because they finally could.

And we were there because we wanted to celebrate that. Isn’t that gift enough?

One thought on “A Big French Wedding

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