All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Monday, 14 February 2011

It's Valentine's Day .....time to get married....

Vintage French Wedding Party 1920'sImage by Vintage Lulu via Flickr
A French friend's grand daughter is getting married in May and we are invited to the wedding.

Unless some miracle happens and the house is sold tomorrow so that we could combine the wedding with the sale I doubt that we shall be going...the journey is not particularly expensive if you choose your flights carefully but it is long and tiring, especially with all the absurd, useless 'security' nonsense the modern passenger has to undergo.
Our governments have erected 'the war against terror' into a shibboleth  which enables half witted 'jobsworths'  to ransack our luggage, ask damned impertinent questions and treat us like prisoners by depriving us of our shoes and belts.
Query the justification for the shibboleth and it's off to Guantanamo Bay in an orange jumpsuit.
I find it amazing that we, ordinary people, are subjected to all this while war criminals and despots stalk the world at ease.......
Can you see a jobsworth rooting round in Robert Mugabe's suitcases....?
Or making Tony Blair take off his shoes and stand on a dirty floor in his socks?

While we're all busy keeping our fingers crossed for a democratic outcome for Egypt, perhaps we might spare the time to take a hard look at our own societies, where real freedom has become a mockery.

Still it's a pity that we shan't be going, as I like weddings in themselves, as well as for presenting the chance to meet up with a lot of friends and have been to a fair number of them in France in my time.
Sending a present just isn't the same.

When I was first in France I saw the wedding parties in my village walking from the square down to the mairie for the civil ceremony and then back up the hill to the church for the religious one.
At that time there were still a few greatgrannies in long black skirts and the characteristic 'coiffe' of that part of the world, which resembled a tall starched nurse's cap with large wings - very severe, unlike some of the other coiffes I have seen, as in Brittany with those towers of starched lace, or the coloured wings of the ladies of Alsace.
Just a few kilometres away the 'coiffe' was much prettier, resembling a ribbon trimmed mob cap with lace streamers behind, rather like an upmarket Edwardian parlourmaid's cap.
Much more flattering....
There's a link to a video here which shows the 'coiffe' of la Rosiere at la Mothe Saint Heray in the Deux Sevres, which will give you some idea of these long gone headdresses.

By the time I had progressed to being invited to weddings, the new generation of grannies were disporting themselves in heels, shiny tight skirts and a decollete that had the old boys all of a lather...change had been rapid and radical.

As is illustrated by the timing of this wedding.

Previous generations had a very limited calendar when fixing an appropriate date.
First there was the absolute ban on marrying in church during Advent or Lent.....then the practical ban on marrying during the harvest or the vendange, when it was all hands to the family pump and no time for frivolity.
And as for May! This was the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the spotless Mother of God and woe betide anyone rash enough to approach the priest with a view to arranging a marriage, with all its carnal overtones, in that virginal month of the year!
You might as well proclaim your pre-marital pregnancy to all and sundry as that could be the only reason for marrying in May!

Madeleine had told me about country weddings in her youth....we were taking a walk after Sunday lunch at my house, in order to be in condition for eating the leftovers at supper and had taken the shady walk up past the little chateau and through the woods, passing under the firework bursts of the sweet chestnut flowers to the quiet lanes beyond.
She paused as we were about to pass a house set back from the had been bought recently by English and was being done up...and took a good look.
It had, she explained, once belonged to someone in her mother's family and she hadn't seen it for years.
It had certainly gone down in the world from the time when it was the centre of a busy farm....roofs needed attention, the barn wall sported a mighty crack from top to bottom and the scaffolding was up on the front of the house to replace the cracked, leaking rendering.

A woman emerged from the house and, coming half way towards us, asked in  English
'Can I help you?'
In that particularly English way which indicates clearly that the 'help' that one has in mind is to 'help' you to go away before you 'help' yourself to something which doesn't belong to you.
I explained that Madeleine was interested to see the house again after so long and about the family connection but far from asking us in for a tea and a natter she simply said
'But it's sold now...' and turned back to her door.

As we strolled on, Madeleine described to me how she had been very friendly with the daughter of the house when they were both girls and had been invited to her wedding.
In those pre-war days, not many people had cars...Madeleine's father, who operated an oil pressing business being an when the family gathered for celebrations, it was the custom to put everyone up. However, beds and bedrooms were soon full of the grannies and the aunties and the less robust so the overflow and the young people found themselves sleeping on clean straw in the barns - the sexes strictly segregated at night and watched over by one of the dads or uncles.
Madeleine had gone over a few days previously to help out with the preparations, including the preparations of the bride herself.
Water was left out in pails in the sun to give her fair hair rinse after rinse of chamomile....and more water was heated in a galvanised bath so that she could have a proper bath the night before the wedding, a rare privilege when the usual approach to cleanliness was a sponge and bowl - bringing to mind grandmother's dictum..
'Wash up as far as possible and down as far as possible and leave poor possible alone...'

The women were busy baking and cooking....meat pates, vegetable pates, hams, cakes and tarts, mighty stews, elderly hens cooked in stock with rice, cockerels cooked down in wine....using the farm oven and the ovens of the neighbours...while the men set up the tables that had been hired from the council  and dedicated themselves to choosing the wine.
On the day of the wedding, Madeleine's father drove the bride and her parents to the mairie while the grannies, aunties and disabled were borne to the village on benches set up in the farm waggons, which in that period were drawn by oxen - horses came late to that area. The rest walked.
Civil ceremony over, the whole horde repaired to the salle des fetes for the vin d'honneur, where all and sundry were welcome to have a drink...or six...congratulate the bridegroom...and fortify themselves for the next step, the wedding in church.
Church wedding over, back to the car and the waggons, traffic now increased by the presence of the bridegroom's family and friends and once all were seated in the courtyard the celebrations really started.

But low key compared to today's weddings.
There was no one to remove the cork of a champagne bottle with a sabre....the local sparkling wine was uncorked by hand with due ceremony....
There was no croquembouche, that tower of profiteroles held together by dabs of caramel....the ovens couldn't make something so delicate....
There was no throwing of garters.....the aunties and the grannies would have been scandalised...

But there was dancing.
The old boys with fiddles could play for everything requested...
Traditional dances, to start with.....lines, chains, singing verses and responses.....
Then modern stuff...two step, walzes, and...for the really daring and possibly drunk...the tango!

The tango was still going strong in my day of attending weddings...and at every other event from the PTA couscous evening to the bacchanalia that was the Fire Brigade Ball.
It only made its appearance when everyone was well lubricated - easier on the elderly joints, I suppose - and the sight of a room full of people advancing, retreating, swooping and sliding having drink taken is one of the uncelebrated pleasures of the French rural scene.

From the days of the great grannies in coiffes to their modern counterparts, a wedding is a great excuse to get dressed up, discard the wellies for a pair of heels and go shopping for something new.....but I noticed one big difference between wedding garb in the U.K. and in rural France.
In the U.K., a wedding outfit always included a hat.....not so in rural France where, having had the hairdresser newly shingle your hair and colour it red there was no way you would want to hide the results.

As the British arrived and became part of things, you could tell their women at weddings...they wore hats. Everything from Queen Mum at Ascot via tulle covered flower pots to fascinators....

I remember one English woman who removed her fascinator during the dancing and left it on the table where it was the subject of awed interest on the part of a number of elderly gentlemen.
One finally delivered the jury's verdict.....

'You'd think you'd keep something like that to yourself, wouldn't you.....not go parading it in public!'
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  1. Lovely final comment.

    What an opportunity missed by the people in Madeleine's friend's house. Especially with a bilingual friend!

  2. Rosie, I enjoyed the comment at the time...and even more in retrospect!

    Silly woman, wasn't she?
    I used to be pleased to see anyone who had known the various houses I had over the years and you could hear the most astonishing stories too about how life used to be...
    That woman was one of the forerunners of the nastier expat circle that grew up in that area.

  3. My ex-mil said to my mother she would not be wearing a hat (to our UK wedding) because her hair was her crowning glory.

    Henna-treated grey, back-combined since adolescence, her hair resembled distressed bush rather than glory of any sort and my mother merely smiled faintly.

    Some of the other (younger) French gusts took to hat-wearing with gusto and panache.

  4. Sarah, never short of self confidence, a certain sort of Frenchwoman...
    You paint a hideous...but all too recognisable...picture.
    Sounds as if she is a twin of Mme. d'Enculade who used to infest a local could have frightened kids with her...

  5. To be honest, that anybody gets married these days, regarless of any contraints or otherwise dictated by the reiligious calendar is amazing. As for Tony Blair and Guantanamo Bay... now there's a marriage made in Heaven, surely?

  6. Steve, in France it's as well to be married, given the law on inheritance....not to speak of the law on splitting up!

    Oh yes, I'd save up and pay for Blair's private jet flight to Guantanamo Bay....

  7. Lovely post Fly. Those old weddings sound a lot like village weddings here today.

    How silly (and rude) was that Engish woman. What a missed opportunity for her to have learned more about the history of her house...I would have jumped at the chance.

  8. Ayak, well, she carried on as she started out....and turned herself into one of the 'helping hands', passing on her vast knowledge of France once her palm was crossed with the folding stuff....
    Like you, I'm always keen to know everything about where I'm living.

  9. I did not know that people still got married these days. No one I know has done so for ages ... I could even say for a dozen years. They just move in together until the first big argument when it is all over. No expensive divorce that way.

  10. Marilyn, now isn't that interesting!
    Most of my friends grandchildren are marrying or have married or intend to do so rather than just living together or even PACsing, and there's always a discussion with the notaire about which marriage regime to use, too!

  11. What a grand picture you paint, Fly. I don't know anybody that's actually married either...a few are Pacsed (is that how you spell that?) but SOMEBODY must be doing it. I live near the Marie and there seems to be a parade every Saturday and most of the woman guests seem to be wearing hats! They look like that could take off in a good wind!

  12. Delana, I'd love to know where they are buying those hats!

    Living out in the sticks all you could buy were those sort of crocheted beanie things that made you look like an escapee from the loony bin...well, more like one...

  13. It used to be necessary to wear a hat when you went to church. I had alway assumed that that was why we wear/wore hats to weddings as they always used to be held in a church. There no longer seems to be a protocol for the way things are done now.

  14. ..not go parading it about in public.'

    I've always felt like that about wedding hats - and blokes hats too now I come to think of it

  15. cheshire wife, blame St.Paul....for hats, among so much else...
    He also thought that women should stay quiet in church and ask their husbands afterwards if they had any questions...probably thus giving rise to most of the more interesting heresies.

    Mark, I like an excuse to wear a hat...provides shelter for the less than youthful countenance below...but Mr. Fly is with you all the way!

  16. Long time no comment...but this one made me sit at the keyboard! :) Shortly after we bought Le Shiteau (my moniker for our renovation nightmare!) we were going about our warm weather business when an elderly couple (so cute!) w/two boys crunched down our driveway. Politely asking if they could show their grandsons the place & apologizing profusely for disturbing us, as they wanted them to see where their mother had spent her summers & holidays growing up. Turns out the retired dental surgeon & his wife were the original renovators of the property from it's VERY provincial state back in the 60's. They walked with us touring the property & told us stories and showed us what they had done & added. Lovely, lovely people...& we learned that the owners from whom we had purchased the house (Parisians) lied through their teeth about things they 'claimed' to have done! I imagine they never thought we'd EVER meet the original owners. Some time later they again visited, and this time gave us priceless gifts we will always treasure--1) A book they had made for us of scanned old photos from the time they bought the place, through their renovations, until they left & 2) An aerial photo, blown up and mounted on a frame, of the house & yard that he had taken from a friend's plane, quite close, that every time we look at, marvel at what changes 50yrs brings! Our goal is to invite them out when the lawsuit is over & renovations re-done so they can see what we've imagined! They were so touched at how much we love the place & we in turn will always be grateful at the peek we had into their love for the place and it's history! :)

  17. lovely to hear from you again!

    Can't you just learn so much from people who have lived in or known the house before you came on the scene!

    Lawsuit sounds both ominous and horribly familiar!

  18. ow...... i like to try that........