My big fat French wedding

IMG_2632This week marks the 28th anniversary of the day I said oui to a certain Frenchman in Paris. Given the number of years and the copious amounts of champagne we consumed that day, I may be forgiven if it’s a bit of a blur…

Let me share what stands out in my memory of our wedding day.

It began with a lie, albeit a white one. My husband, who can never remember where he left his keys yet can still recite all our old phone numbers, reminded me of this when he caught me telling people we were married in the city of Paris. It all came back: we were supposed to tie the knot at the Mairie of the 7th arrondissement, where we resided, but it turned out they did not perform weddings on Saturdays. So we found a city hall in neighboring Choisy-le-Roi with an attractive building and more accommodating hours. A friend of the family who lived in that town wrote us an attestation sur l’honneur (declaration in good faith) as proof that we resided with her, and we were able to arrange our wedding on a Saturday afternoon in late November.

Rings BWIn France, there are two weddings: a civil ceremony that takes place at city hall, followed by a purely ceremonial church wedding, often with several days or weeks in between. We did not want a church wedding but we did want to make it official and celebrate the event on the same day.

We took our vows before a mustachioed fellow who may have been the mayor or his deputy. Only close family and friends attended the ceremony. Our rings came from Cartier: identical double bands of intertwined white and yellow gold. My husband would lose his within the first months of married life while repainting a bedroom.

I had never imagined myself getting married, much less as a bride in a white dress walking down the aisle. I did not wear a veil but I did carry a bouquet and had flowers in my hair. It was the 80s, so there were a lot of big shoulders and wide silhouettes. I make it a policy never to wear heels; instead I wore satin slippers which unfortunately were ruined during picture taking in the sodden park. My husband wore a tux, which the French call ‘un smoking’. When I look back at our wedding pictures, we look like little bride and groom dolls. Were we ever that young?

Mel and Stefan WeddingIt did not rain on our wedding day, something of a miracle for the end of November. It was quite cold with patches of sunshine as we headed back to my beaux-parents’ home for a short reception in between the service and the celebration. The Canadian delegation included my immediate family – my dearly departed Mom, my Dad, sister and two brothers, along with a maiden aunt (also departed, slightly less dearly) whose alcoholic outpourings had us all fearing a diplomatic incident. In the end she got sloppy but the language barrier prevented her more embarrassing comments from going further than our own ears.

My in-laws were by no means well-to-do, but my husband is an only child and his parents pulled out all the stops for our wedding. We convened for a gala evening at a private club in the Bois de Boulogne. We’d been able to reserve this through contacts of my beau-père who worked on the catering side of Air France. The sumptuous food and the endless flow of champagne and wines owed much of its largesse to the generosity of his contacts in the food and beverage trade.

SpeechesThe speeches were brief and, if memory serves, included a few words in my own fledgling French. Given my horror of emotional speeches at weddings, I was grateful for the fact that the father of the bride’s speech was rather succinct. I believe it was only two words: “Merci beaucoup!”

IMG_2634The high point of the evening, le clou du spectacle as they say in French, and the only time there was not a dry eye in the house, was when the dessert was served. It was well after midnight when several waiters came bearing a magnificent pièce montée stacked with dozens of cakes along with sparklers and dry ice. We all formed a circle and danced around the dessert, as it were, to the stirring music from the popular television show, Champs Elysées.

We sipped and supped into the wee (oui?) hours of the morning, dancing our hearts out to fabulous 80s music between courses. Somewhere around 5 a.m. we poured ourselves home, taking a bottle of champagne with us and unpopping a final cork as the sun came up.

Say what you will about the French, they sure know how to throw a party.

A few days later, we took off for French Polynesia and a honeymoon financed by gifts from our wedding guests. Then we returned to Canada for a second reception for the friends and family on my side who hadn’t been able to come all the way to France. Also a lovely evening, but that’s another story.

I kept my name, or attempted to. All of my French identity papers bear both it and my nom d’épouse. Like it or not, the French will call you by your married name especially when you have children. This doesn’t bother me, as the people who know me use my real name. My husband’s family joke that if their name had been ‘Rockefeller’ I would have taken it. I laugh along with them while knowing that this is simply not true.

Looking back at our wedding photos, unearthed from a box two years after our move, I couldn’t have wished for it any other way.

What’s your fondest memory of a wedding, in France or elsewhere?

Madeline and me

 

“In an old house in Paris
that was covered in vines,
Lived twelve little girls
in two straight lines…
The smallest one was Madeline.”

 

 

 

When I was planning my move to Paris many years ago, a friend in Toronto introduced me to the delightful series of children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans. I fell in love with the heroine, an intrepid little girl called Madeline.

 

Madeline

 

“And to the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said ‘pooh, pooh.’”

 

 

 

I was enamored with the illustrations that so artfully capture Paris of the 1930s. And with the silly rhymes that recount the adventures of feisty little Madeline, who lives in a boarding school along with the unflappable Miss Clavel and Geneviève, the little dog who saves the girl from drowning in the Seine.

Intimidated by la capitale and its denizens, I was inspired by Madeline’s fearlessness. As I floundered my way around, getting lost and attempting to ask directions, I would imagine those little girls in their two straight lines, walking sedately as French children do. I would picture the bravado of Madeline as she chased after Pepito, the Spanish ambassador’s son. If ever there was a heroine after my own heart, it was she.

When I married my own Pepito, a Frenchman some seven years my junior, and we stood in gilded chambers before the moustachioed mayor, I thought of Madeline and said ‘oui’ with gusto.

And I was further inspired by Bemelmans’ heroine some years later. My husband and I wanted to choose names for our children that would ring well in both languages.

Our first child was a boy and we called him Elliott.

But our second child, the smallest, was a girl. Madeline.

Our daughter grew up to be as fearless as her namesake. Here she is with the lions.

IMG_2080

 

 

“And that’s all there is, there isn’t any more.”

 

 

 

 

Belle-mère: Memoir of a French mother-in-law

Belle-mère, Nicole, 2011The French forms for mother- and others-in-law are romantic rather than descriptive: belle-mère, beau-père, belle-fille, beau-fils. Isn’t it funny how the French see beauty where we see legal relationships?

Beauty is an appropriate beginning for a memoir about my mother-in-law. It was a big part of her life, and also defined her in many ways.

The first time I met my future belle-mère, I was in awe. It was at my apartment in Toronto, where her son had virtually declared domicile for the past several months. The living arrangements were no big deal: after all, they were French. But I knew somehow that our meeting was a test and was far from sure that I’d pass muster.

She was an attractive if somewhat daunting-looking woman: a sweep of neatly coiffed black hair with a silver streak, tanned face with precisely rouged lips, large lunettes, fur coat, Louis Vuitton bag and slim ankles rising above elegant heels. Although she stood barely five feet tall, she looked every inch a tough customer.

To be fair: she had every reason to hate me.

I was foreign, older by several years, unable to speak more than a few words of French – and about to marry her only son. Reasons enough for most women to take an instant dislike to their future daughter-in-law.

Instead we became allies. Different as we were, we discovered the only common ground we needed: her son. Turns out whatever made him happy, made her happy. That worked for me.

And as with so many things French, the facade was mostly for show. Contrary to appearances, there was little of the formidable grande dame in my belle-mère. She was entirely down to earth – terre-à-terre as they say here – and all the airs of sophistication she gave herself with the fancy clothes and makeup could not change that.

She was called Nicole, and grew up as the eldest daughter of une famille nombreuse in Normandy. They had a roof over their heads and food on the table but not much else – like most families in wartime France, they struggled. Her father worked for the EDF-GDF (electric and gas utility) and her mother cooked and cleaned and raised six children (plus one foster daughter).

When my husband’s grandmother, Mémé, died and the house in Normandy was sold, belle-mère recovered the simple plaque that had graced their home for so many years, and displayed it proudly in her own. It read: Petite est la maison, grand est notre coeur (Small is our home, great is our heart). It makes a fitting epitaph for their family.

When Nicole married my beau-père, Raymond, in the early sixties, they also struggled. Work was their ticket to a better life. They found jobs in Paris and settled there; after a few tough years they landed jobs with the airlines and thus began a more bountiful period. My father-in-law eventually worked his way up from chef de cuisine to manage catering operations for Air France.

Their only son was born in those 60s boom years. They bought a first apartment, then a house, then moved to a nicer suburb on the outskirts of Paris. Having only one child was how my mother-in-law made sure she had an easier life than her own mother had. They were able to send their son to private school, travel and fill their home with souvenirs from around the world.

Belle-mère had two faces: one for the world, which she put on early in the day, and another for when she was ‘à l’aise’ – as early in the evening as decency permitted. Her daytime face was full hair and make-up, a coordinated and accessorized outfit freshly washed and ironed every day of the week; the evening face was beauty cream and loungewear.

In our early married life we lived in Toronto, and my beaux-parents were able to make frequent trips overseas courtesy of Air France. During one of those trips, belle-mère discovered the magic of false nails and became an instant fan (her own nails being one of her less-than-perfect features). For years the famous faux ongles were part of her toilette, along with her signature red lipstick and jet-black hair. They did have an unfortunate tendency to fall off. Family lore included finding bits of them in odd places like the freezer.

She struggled to remain slim and was frequently ‘au regime’. During her dieting phases she looked and felt well but suffered from not being able to indulge in her preferred high-calorie treats. True daughter of Normandy, she had a particular weakness for camembert. She was a yo-yo dieter who loved to eat; the bouts of slimming staved off the worst excesses and, along with modest exercise, kept her weight gain at bay. But they starved her soul.

She did not drink wine or any alcohol, other than the occasional glass of champagne. I was never sure whether this was a refusal to follow in the footsteps of other family members (her father, known to all as Pépé, had enjoyed a tipple), or simply because she didn’t care for it. In either case, she never commented on my beer consumption, except to remark that I was lucky not to put on weight (which I did, but preferred to exercise off rather than diet).

Belle-mère loved to shop. She fell in love with the shopping in Toronto, especially the many off-label boutiques and underground shopping pedestrian concourses that allow you to circulate through the city without going outside. She inevitably found a French-speaking salesperson who was delighted to help her and returned home with bags brimming.

She especially loved the comfortable, elegant synthetics she found in North America and could wear with her usual style while enjoying the forgiving stretch waistlines. She always wore new and fashionable outfits, accessorized with a scarf or piece of costume jewelry. She had a weakness for flashy accessories but never considered spending a lot of money on the real thing. She confessed that she preferred what she called ‘toc’ (fake or costume jewelery) as she’d rather buy something new often than save up for the real deal. In fact, the only real jewels and designer pieces she owned were gifts or hand-me-downs.

She didn’t speak a word of English, although she had a talent or sort of antenna for deciphering our conversation. Once she asked my husband outright if we were talking about her when she decoded ‘your mother’ from my words. I learned to keep my comments to myself.

Like a cat, she was incredibly fastidious about her person and appearances in general while rather less of a clean freak around the house. Beau-père did most of the cooking and a good deal of the cleaning. Her domain was decorative. This included the laundry, wardrobe selection, social schedule, etc. She made the decisions about home decorating – painting, wallpapering, even upholstering – which were then brilliantly executed by my beau-père.

She didn’t smile all the time (no French person does) but she had a good sense of humor and frequently fell into fits of giggles, particularly over some family member’s embarrassing behavior or one of beau-père’s frequent practical jokes.

In one of life’s little synchronicities, she and beau-père shared the exact same wedding anniversary as my parents; and although she was considerably younger than my own mother, she had almost the same birthday.

Belle-mère was thrilled when we decided to settle in France. She graciously opened the doors of their home when we moved our newly expanded family from Canada; we stayed with my in-laws for several months while looking for jobs and a place to live. Despite their good will, living in close quarters with our two French bulldogs, two-year-old toddler and another child soon on the way tested everyone’s patience. The house, while a decent size by French standards, felt cramped.

A few months later we found jobs that enabled us to move away from over-priced, over-populated Paris; Lyon was close enough for them to visit often and take their grandchildren on frequent vacations. A few years later, the airlines began restructuring which enabled both my in-laws to take early retirement. They sold the house in Paris and moved to Lyon.

We had our moments, belle-mère and I. As relationships with mothers-in-law go, ours was fairly amicable but inevitably there were tensions. She was hypersensitive and couldn’t deal with conflict; she just wanted everyone to be happy. I come from a family where conflict is ever-present and volubly expressed, which didn’t always go over well.

She was indulgent with her petits-enfants, and didn’t understand when I would discipline them. Our son’s hijinks around bedtime were notorious, and if allowed he would carry on for hours. I was intractable. Bedtime was 8:30, lights out, no nonsense. She found me harsh.

Bringing up our kids to be bilingual meant I only spoke English to them, which she found frustrating at times. Once, when they had taken their grandson for a few days, she called in a panic to ask what he meant when he cried and demanded something to drink. They put him on the phone and I heard him cry, ‘Juice in it, juice in it’. I explained that I always filled his sip-cup with half orange juice, half water.

Becoming a grandmother was one of her life’s greatest joys. It took us a few years: I wasn’t sure I wanted kids (hence the bulldogs, which were practice.) But she nagged us endlessly to start a family, saying not to worry, she would look after the grandchildren anytime. She lived up to that promise.

She showered her petits-enfants with love and was generous to a fault. Sometimes this drove me crazy; she would spoil them with too many treats, dress them up like dolls and then take them out for la promenade at the park, where she would inevitably meet people and come back bubbling with stories and photos…while the children were like piles électriques.

La photo was her passion. She loved these souvenirs of happy times and would insist on taking far more than any of us had patience for. Beau-père was the official photographer and was always faithful to his job: “One more please,” he would say in English, as we attempted to put on happy faces for the camera. Belle-mère always managed to shine when the rest of us were past our prime. She organized the photos neatly into albums while mine still remain piled in boxes.

Later, she went digital and did it all on an iPad, trying her son and grandson’s patience when something didn’t work. She was an early adopter of all of the social channels that enabled sharing and engaging with family and friends. But digital belle-mère could be dangerous….sometimes it was just too much of a good thing.

Belle-mère also struggled with anxiety throughout her life. She was an insomniac who worried incessantly about her own health and the well-being of her loved ones. She believed that modern medicine offered a pill for every problem and regularly visited her family doctor to demand the latest drug du jour. She knew that I had also suffered from bouts of angoisse at different points in my life and seemed almost disappointed when I managed to put these fears behind me. I think she enjoyed the company.

When the children graduated and left home my mother-in-law seemed to feel like her life had lost some sense of purpose. My husband and I moved away from Lyon to be closer to our jobs; it was only a couple of hours’ drive but far enough that she felt abandoned. Although they had a large circle of friends – she was a natural when it came to meeting people and socializing – she became increasingly dissatisfied with her life, and talked about moving again, perhaps somewhere south or closer to her sister in Nice. She stopped dieting, put on weight and although she still gussied up on a daily basis, I felt in recent months that there had been a shift towards old age.

My belle-mère surprised us all when, just a few days before Christmas, her heart stopped. She was 71.

She is sadly missed and fondly remembered.

Have no fear

Madeline with the lions

My daughter, the lion-hearted, in Zimbabwe.

There is one word in the French language that is uncomfortably familiar to me.

It began when I was a child. After begging my parents for years, we finally got a dog. It looked so sweet and had silky ears. Then it bit me with its little pin-prick puppy teeth. I was terrified.

“Don’t be a nervous Nelly!” ordered my Dad. He made me put my hand in the jaw of the beast to prove that it didn’t really hurt. Or only a little. I had no reason to fear.

That was when I learned that there are times in life when it is better to pretend not to be afraid. Sometimes it works.

The French word for fear is ‘peur. The verb is ‘avoir peur’ (to have fear). ‘J’ai peur’ was one of the first things I learned in French. I’ve been trying to unlearn it ever since.

The first step was to conquer my fear of flying. I was never a fan of air travel but moving to France forced me to submit to transatlantic flights. Either that or never see my family again. So I made a deal with myself: have a drink, think about the statistics, stop worrying. And guess what? It worked. For the most part, barring major turbulence. Travelling with my husband, Mr. Have-no-fear, has also helped.

Fear of the unknown was the next big hurdle. I only knew one person when I first arrived in Paris many years ago: the fearless future husband. Everything else – the language, the culture, the working world – was unknown.

It took time but we got to know each other, me and France. I gradually decoded the language. The culture cues came, sometimes slowly. Life took over – raising kids, getting a job – and the unknown gradually ebbed. Still, the fears did not entirely disappear.

Fear of driving persists, especially on the highway where I am a true nervous Nelly. Along with fear of getting lost, still a frequent occurrence. Fear of terrorist bombs: there haven’t been any lately but there was a series of attentats when I first arrived in France, which forever marked me.

The biggest one – fear of making a fool of oneself – will probably never be vanquished. It haunts me in the street when I hesitate to ask directions, in social situations where I fear not understanding something obvious, looking or sounding silly.

It is dulled somewhat by familiarity. The fact is, I look foolish a lot. Every time something flies in my face and I pull a Basil Fawlty. When I try to pronounce an unpronounceable word. (Boursouflure. You try it.) When I try to say something that doesn’t make sense. When I talk to my dog.

But those are not real fears. The really scary stuff is things that go bump in the night. The fear of waking up alone, or not at all. Of people you love not coming back.

I try not to fear for my family, who are spread out all over the place and have a taste for adventure. Climbing mountains, taming lions, living in foreign climes. They don’t seem to have inherited the fear gene. I am grateful for that.

Daily I struggle to have no fear. I say to myself:  Je n’ai pas peur.

Sometimes it works.