Recently, I was presented with the opportunity to travel as a temporary local in the form of a wedding invite from France. Back in college, my husband was lucky enough to study abroad for a semester in Ireland, and while there, he struck up a friendship with a young Frenchman, Vincent, who was also studying there. Although geographic distance and time had separated them, they always managed to keep in touch and even fit in a few visits to see one another over the years. When we were married a few years ago, we were delighted to find that Vincent and his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte, accepted our invite to the states to come and celebrate with us. So, when the invite for their wedding showed up in our mailbox—complete with a church wedding in the French countryside and a reception in a chateau—we couldn’t pass up the chance to see them or an authentic French wedding (even if neither of us spoke a word of French).
The wedding ceremony took place in a church in the small village of Cerny, about an hour outside of Paris, where Vincent’s family has a country home. In France, it is not uncommon for people who live in the city for work and convenience to have a getaway in the countryside. Theirs, like many properties in France, had been in the family for generations.
The village of Cerny was beautifully picturesque, with ivy-draped walls surrounding little stone cottages and fields of hay going on for miles in the distance. The narrow lanes that wound through the village didn’t seem quite intended for cars, and as we headed down the cobbled walks on our way to the village’s old stone church, it was as if we had taken a step back into 19thcentury France. It all felt more like something out of a movie than real life.
One thing that we did not understand as we watched Vincent looking like any nervous American groom pacing at the altar before the ceremony and Charlotte carefully ensuring he didn’t see her until she was coming down the aisle, was that they were already legally married (and had been for two weeks). In France, they take separation of church and state much more literally than we do here in the United States. While we still have “In God we trust” on our money and pledge to “One nation, under God” in public schools, the French seem to separate all aspects of their lives into two very distinct compartments: “church” and “state.” So, unlike in the US where a priest can preside over both the role of church and state in one ceremony, in France, if you want the state to recognize your marriage, you have to get married in a civil ceremony at the courthouse first. The church is just a formality for those who wish to have a religious ceremony in addition to the required civil one.
The ceremony itself would have been beautiful in any language. Some parts were confusing for us to follow without understanding French, but for the most part, it followed the patter of most Christian weddings we’ve attended in the states, complete with hymns and readings. When the ceremony was over, everyone went outside and waited with little bags of rose petals for the bride and groom to come out. Like in the US, where we have a variety of objects people assault our newlyweds with (rice, birdseed, etc.), flower petals seemed to be their weapon of choice.
After the ceremony’s completion, we drove about an hour to Courances (another small country town) where they had rented out a chateau for their reception. With an overwhelming number to choose from, a chateau is the venue of choice for most weddings in France. The location was absolutely beautiful. The reception took place in a gorgeous, old castle-like home surrounded by manicured gardens complete with several goats we saw freely wandering around enjoying the setting almost as much as we were.
One major cultural difference became apparent to us as the reception got underway; while the Americans know how to party, the French take their time and really enjoy their parties. In the US, the standard wedding celebration is typically 5 hours long—a cocktail hour followed by a 4 hour reception. In that 5 hour time-span, we manage to load up on hors d’oeuvres (one of the only French words I’m familiar with), toast the happy couple, eat course after course of food, dance, cut the cake, socialize, and drink our fill at the open bar. In France, however, the cocktail “hour” alone goes on for 2-3 hours as they savor each hors d’oeuvres, and the only liquor you will find is champagne. While we Americans rush to get every last drop of fun out of our venue-imposed 5 hour time slot, dancing between courses and hurrying through our food, the French sit back and take their time.
After the cocktail hours were complete, we headed into the reception room which had a familiar setup (large tables, place cards for assigned seats, and a DJ positioned next to a dance floor). We were amused to even find that their theme was Michael Jackson (each table was named for one of his greatest hits, and they played several of his songs)—a little bit of home, even in France.
During our meal, we would learn a few valuable French lessons: 1) If you finish your bread, more will automatically appear; 2) There is no “open bar,” but the amazing French wine on the tables gets replenished as quickly as it gets depleted (so drink up!); 3) The cheese course at the end is by far the best part; and 4) It is considered rude not to finish good food, but with all of the courses they bring—soup, appetizer, fish, main course, cheeses, desserts, cake… it is nearly impossible to do so (even if dinner does last for a good 4 hours)! In France, there is no rushing good food (or wine or champagne). There is no dancing during dinner; the people simply relish their food and drink and the company surrounding them.
Finally, late into the night (after most US weddings would be over and the DJ packed up to go home), the music started up. Charlotte informed me that they had been utterly surprised by how early our reception had ended. She said that most French wedding celebrations go into the early morning hours (and then some). The older guests eventually said their goodnights, leaving the party to the younger generation. As if on cue, the DJ turned the music up.
By 5am, the reception was serving up crepes to the guests who were still going strong. We were not among them. The jetlagged Americans, unprepared for what was in store for us, were simply no match for the effects of good French food, champagne, and dancing. Curled up in our bed upstairs in this beautiful French chateau, with full bellies and sweet country air drifting in through our window, we slept well that night.