Que de chemin parcouru

The trail seemed easy enough. The hotel offered a free shuttle ride up to the start of the three-hour walk along ‘Levada Nova’.

Levadas are the irrigation channels that carry water down to the seaside towns from the top of the mountains on Madeira. We were visiting the Portuguese island for an extended anniversary weekend, a mini holiday that we take every year around this time. The weather was perfect: spring-like temperatures with a few clouds and a bit of fine rain. Walking along the levadas is a popular activity for visitors to the island.

I was wary of getting in over my head, though. The Frenchman I married all those years ago is far more at ease than I am at altitude; he skis and climbs and can keep going forever. I figured we should start small and see how we went. So we chose the easiest trail.

It started out well. The paths were fairly narrow but flanked by lush vegetation of all kinds on both sides. Madeira was once the world sugar cane capital but these days bananas are the more lucrative crop.

But it quickly got a lot scarier. The narrow path edged along the mountain side with a fairly sheer drop just centimetres away in many places. Where it was steepest, there were barriers — stakes with ropes attached – which provided at least psychological support.

I had to fight my fear of heights to keep going. Coupled with my challenged sense of balance ever since I had inner ear surgery several years ago, the fear of taking a wrong step had me seriously considering walking in the irrigation ditch, lower and away from the edge. But it would have meant slowing down and soaking my feet, so I slogged it out. I was too afraid to stop and take photos of the steepest parts. You’ll have to take my word for it: it was impressive.

We didn’t have a map but had been told the path was clearly marked. No one said anything about a tunnel. Did I mention I also have a fear of the dark, of both open and closed spaces? Basically I am a mess. I thought the man I married thirty-odd years ago would have known this by now.

Reaching the tunnel, I balked. Then ensued a scene not dissimilar to many others we have navigated over the years together.

“No way am I doing this. Are they out of their freaking minds? It’s pitch black in there. Why didn’t they give us torches?”

“Don’t worry, your eyes will adjust.”

“Mine won’t. Wait, I’m going to use my phone flashlight.”

“But you can see light at the end.”

“No I can’t, you’re blocking it.”

“All right, then, just let me step aside…” There was a splash and my scream echoed through the tunnel as I turned my phone light and saw him struggling to right himself from where he had fallen into the ditch.

“Oh, god, are you okay? You could have broken your ankle!”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, just get moving.”

I walked as quickly as possible without running in the dark, as the speck of light at the end of the tunnel grew bigger.

We emerged on the other side to a gorgeous waterfall with another sheer drop. I collapsed on a rock. He looked at me and shook his head.

“You’re not your daughter’s father!”

I cracked up. “No, that would be biologically impossible.”

But he was right: I’m my mother’s daughter, not my father’s. My dad is the adventurous one, the guy who goes kite surfing at the age of 86. My late mother’s idea of sport went no further than the dance floor.

I inherited her fear of heights, of enclosed spaces, of flying, of fear itself. I also got her eyes, some of her kindness and a lot of her sensitive soul. Sadly I did not get her ability to cut a rug. From my dad I got a love of the outdoors and some of the exercise gene. Just not at altitude.

We continued on, through gorgeous vistas. Fifteen minutes past the tunnel, he couldn’t find his sunglasses.

“Where did you have them last?”

“On my head.”

“Right. They probably fell off in the tunnel.”

“I’m going back for them. You wait here.”

I put my foot down. I may have even stamped it.

“No way! There is no guarantee you’ll even find them. And I’m not going to wait here for half an hour worrying while you go and look. We’ll buy new ones.”

He was not happy. I reminded him that if we had made it this far together it was because we both knew when to pick our battles and when to cut our losses. We moved on.

A short while later, the path disappeared. We stopped at a fence where it had been washed away. Some other hikers confirmed that the steps we had passed some ways back led down to a different levada, one that would lead us back to the hotel.

On reflection I suppose that marriage is like that trail. Sometimes it is dizzying, and sometimes there are dark passages where you can’t see the light. But you just keep walking, a step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. You keep the faith. And suddenly you realize how far you have come. Que de chemin parcouru.

Happy anniversary, mon amour!

One of the last sightings of the sunglasses…

 

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?