We have exactly one month before we move. To calibrate the changes in myself that may or may not be coming based on this intentional French displacement, I’m jotting down some strongly held opinions I’ve developed of France from my current, extremely American perspective. The goal is to better track where I am now vs. where I’m heading, and where I end up in terms of Frenchness. It’s a calibration exercise.
The first thing I’ll tackle is something that Americans don’t seem to know is completely different in other western countries: the French wedding. My calibration can also serve as your initiation, as I haven’t seen much documentation on what these affairs are like, and they are really something.
When I attended my first French wedding in 2015, I myself had no idea it would be any different from an American wedding. My French husband was then my French boyfriend, and he hadn’t been to many weddings in either country, so he didn’t think to counsel me on what to expect. It was almost better this way, as with every passing hour I was able to be shocked by another surprising difference.
Let’s calibrate further by establishing what comprises an American wedding. Every wedding I’d ever gone to was 5pm to 10pm, sappy and uncomfortable ceremony, an all too brief cocktail hour where you have to practically tackle a waiter to get a sad and soggy canape, open bar, rushed dinner, father-daughter dance, 1.5 hours of dancing, get out or you’ll be charged extra. I make them sound rushed and awful, and they usually are, but they do have some strong suits. There is usually a degree of personalization in all of the details: the vows are personal, the decor is personal, the songs are personal. The briefness does allow you to get on with your life versus give up your entire weekend to someone else’s marriage. And at least in LA, you are allowed to wear black without anyone thinking it’s odd.
Imagine my surprise then when my first French wedding began at noon at the Mairie, the mayor’s office, where dozens of friends and family crammed into one tiny room for an hour-long civil ceremony. I had no idea what was going on. Sometimes this happens the day before the wedding so it can be split into two events–ideal if you always wanted to have a more casual city hall wedding look in addition to a traditional wedding dress. Next, we all walked to a spectacular chapel, probably over five hundred years old, for the full Catholic mass. I almost gell asleep from the jet lag, and the full Catholic mass in French. Were the bride and/or groom religious? It doesn’t matter, this is just what you do in France, you do a Catholic ceremony in an old church. I have a theory that no one ever thought to NOT do this, but that’s part and parcel of a much larger theory of Frenchness (maybe just a generalization) that I hope to work toward establishing in the coming months. By the way, in the wedding timeline, post-mass it will be around 5pm.
Then there is the party. We all drive to a Chateau for cocktail hour. This sounds very chic and photogenic to a 27-year-old going to a wedding in France because she’s dating a French guy, and it is. But I’ve also come to learn that Cheateax are like the wineries or country clubs of Europe–they’re where events are held because there a lof of them and they have the white chairs and tables. At the cocktail hour, no one is in a rush, which is the most startling difference from an American anything. Champagne is poured and passed, plenty of it, you don’t have to drink quickly to get your fill–there is enough and you will be cocktailing for at least two hours. As an American you feel like you’re waiting for the next thing to happen–speeches, dinner, a dance–but nothing does, and no one else seems to mind. You eat the Iberian ham because it’s there and such an unusual and exciting addition to the menu for an American, but quite common among apps for the French.
There will always be a flash mob somewhere in the cocktail hours. It will have been organized by the bride or groom’s best friends. It will be coreographed to a somewhat recent (within the last five years) pop song, but not one necessarily about love. I have born witness to a “Shake It Off” (Taylor Swift) flashmob and a “Hot N Cold” (Katy Perry) flashmob with extremely ornate choreography despite the fact that these songs are (hopefully) the antithesis of the mood of a couple who took vows three hours prior. Every last guest at the wedding will participate in the flash mob. They will have been practicing for at least two weeks. They might have practiced as a group the day before.
No earlier than 8pm you will slowly, very slowly, make your way to your seat for dinner. I sound like a person who talks in absolutes, because I am, but I don’t want to say you will with full certainty sit at circular tables. I will say I am 98% certain you will sit at circular tables and there will be a mason jar involved in some way. This is a decoration trend that hit the US with a vengeance in 2010, but relented somewhat by 2015. In France, it stuck in a way that made it very difficult for me to find non-jar vessels to hold flowers and candles for my 2018 nuptials and I’m still bitter about it. If I sounds judgy about the jars, it’s only to show you I am trying to be an unbiased observer, because as bad as the jars are is how good the food is.
If there’s anything to not like about the French wedding, the food makes up for it in every way. By 9pm you’ll begin an at least three course meal that will very likely contain great bread, cheese, a duck breast or steak, a good amount of fois gras, some type of amazingly prepared vegetable or salad, and a plated dessert instead of a dry and hastily cut piece of cake. It will be served over three hours, with plenty of time to talk with your table-mates as well as the bride and groom, who in this arrangement, actually have time to interface with their guests. Two types of wine remain on the table for you to pour yourself so you’re not at the mercy of an underpaid and bitter waiter to keep you glass filled.
Throughout the dinner there will be “animations,” or a mix of slide shows, dances, speeches, other stunts that can either strengthen the fun of the wedding or totally undermine it depending on how good the wedding party is at execution. American weddings have these, but because we are always in such a rush, they are played WHILE we eat. This is something I gravely missed at my own wedding where the dinner went past midnight because our french friends refused to play the video, sing the song, do the thing while people were eating, as it’s considered rude. They’re probably right, it is rude, but it just feels so odd when you’re used to finishing dinner in 45 minutes or less. It might just feel odd because you’re an American who does not speak French, and you have no idea what’s going on in the speeches or videos and you’re curious why there’s no open bar.
At around 11pm or midnight, dancing will begin, and this, surprisingly, is very much the same as in the US. I kept track at three weddings, and on average, there were no more than five songs played that I had never heard before. HOWEVER, there are songs that are considered to be universal “no-go’s” stateside (well at least in blue states), that for some reason are “fuck yeahs!” in France. The main culprit in this is Cotton-Eyed Joe. I heard it at a few French weddings and was shocked to see dozens of guests squeal with glee and run to the floor to begin line dancing when this ghastly “song” came on. In a moment of weakness, I did not put this song on my “no-go” list for the DJ at my wedding, as I thought that there was no way he’d ever play it once he saw that our playlist was comprised of actual good music. I thought it couldn’t happen to me. Then as I was talking to friends at 1am on the day of my own wedding, I heard it blast from the speakers and began to march over to the DJ booth to ask him A. who the hell he thought he was and B. to change the song, until I saw 50% of our guests lining up with total enthusiasm to dance to that atrocity. So instead I just apologized to all of the Americans. I think the point I’m making is that the music is the same but, like mason jars, some trends didn’t fade away in due time.
At about 2am, a table is brought out with hard alocohol, snacks, the leftover cheese, maybe sandwiches. You’d think things would be winding down, but instead it’s time to replenish yourself so you can make it to 5am. That’s right, this shit goes from the early afternoon until the next morning, every wedding, and it’s awesome. Somehow the next three hours pass in only a few minutes, because you’re just dancing and drinking and snacking and wondering why American weddings aren’t like this. With the exception of Cotton-Eyed Joe and the mason jars.
If you think it’s over at the end of the night, you’re wrong, because there is a brunch on site the next day. I still do not fully understand this tradition; sometimes the guests return to help clean up, sometimes it’s just a brunch, I’m not really sure how they know to come or not. We had no brunch but folks still showed up to help clean and my in-laws provided breakfast. I slept through this, not knowing the tradition, which turned out to be extremely poor form. Maybe this is a tradition I’ll understand better as I become more initiated.