Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 14: Personal Happiness, National Tragedy

February 19, 2015

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The wedding procession winds through the village. / Photo by Lois Raimondo

The wedding procession winds through the village. / Photo by Lois Raimondo

ONE SPRING DAY a group gathered on top of the rock, Le Rocher, for a ritual at sunset, as humans had done on this spot for a thousand years, bringing nothing with them but spirit, wanting nothing more than communion.

A gay ex-Dominican priest spoke an Apache blessing. A Parisian man and an American woman read a poem about living under one roof. A French mayor performed his first civil ceremony, with a Sorbonne doctor translating. Looking on were a Corsican, a Marseillaise, a Dutchman, a Jamaican, a Pied-Noir, a German diplomat, a baron and baroness, two Carolina hairdressers, a German hiker, all strangers to the couple, and a cat named Mina, who was a friend. When the Blue Ridge bride and Hoosier groom said oui, the Romanian accordion player struck up “Hello, Dolly!,” swallows made arabesques in the vivid sky, and it seemed a good idea to tango. For a moment, all the differences in the world made no difference at all.

Back in Washington, Kathy had kept this guy named Joe in the shadows for years. To us, her circle of good friends, he was just “a friend who works at the Post” (as the top  photo editor). He’d been married as many times as I had, and Kathy as many times as Andrew, which was none. No wonder she had played it close to the vest.

She didn’t want anything like a traditional wedding. Knowing I’d arranged my own three unorthodox weddings, she wondered if I would do one for her in France. I made a suggestion, which led to another and soon we had a very unorthodox idea. As she wrote in her story for The Washington Post:

“Get married in a country where we didn’t speak the language? Surrounded by people we didn’t know?

“Brilliant!”

She gave me a small budget and a few stipulations: no church, no family, no white shoes, no rice. There was only one mandate from Joe.

“He wants an accordion player.”

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I found the accordion player right away, sitting on a box in the street playing a lively tune. I approached him between songs, flipped some coins into the can and asked him if he did weddings. His smile was sweet. I gave him the date and got his phone number, thinking I’d keep him in my back pocket in case I couldn’t find a professional through the music school or an entertainment agent. But then I got caught up in the arrangements and forgot about it until the last minute, when I dug up the scrap of paper with his phone number and called him in a panic. He assured me he’d be there. We had not talked about a song list or a price. When he showed up on our terrace at the appointed hour, he kicked off an evening made of miracles.

Gary the Dominican ex-priest and his partner, David, were friends from Houston and had visited us in France for David’s fiftieth birthday. I floated the idea of getting him to perform the ceremony.

“Okay–if he leaves out the religious stuff,” said Kathy.  She had sidestepped the Christian soldiers sweeping the States.

Gary was not only to perform the ceremony, he would do the reception dinner. His friends, a couple of Army officers and amateur cooks, decided to use their vacation time and come with him as free kitchen help.

Jean-Claude helped me explain to the new mayor about having a procession through the village (we would not be rowdy), scattering rose petals (we would sweep them up if need be) and assembling on top of Le Rocher (safety fears could blow it—Americans were known to sue).

Was this the American way of getting married, His Honor wanted to know. Well, I wavered . . . it was not the American way, but one might have to be an American to dare such a thing in a foreign country. He made a little smile and said he’d think it over.

I had felt a certain pride in our native audacity—and that was just for inviting him to the event. I’d never dreamed he’d whip out the civil ceremony on the spot!

Michele, our friend since Corfu, brought her daughter Kristin, who made a charming  flower girl. Friends Jon and Vero came en route to their place in Cannes, and Lynne’s in-laws, Jack and Joelle, traveling for their tenth anniversary. My French girlfriend Michele came with her husband, Wolfgang, in cowboy getup from his diplomatic post in Texas. They brought huge sacks of rose petals from their gardens. Her son Philip was acting chef, and the two first-class servers she’d recommended were now handing guests their first champagne on the terrace. Jean-Claude, in a Stetson we’d given him, played host. On cue, the accordion player struck up a random tune and we formed a procession, headed by Joe’s Parisian colleague, with a banner hand-painted by Danielle, and Kristin scattering rose petals. Villagers watched from windows as we snaked and two-stepped our way through the cobbled streets, the French solemn and straight-backed, the Yanks bantering and barefoot, and climbed the crumbling stone steps to Le Rocher.

The festivities continued into the night, with a splendid buffet in four courses, a towering pièce montée, a classic sculptural dessert, made of cream puffs looped with spun sugar; toasts, dancing, singing; and ending with a drunken rendition of “La Marseillaise.”

After investing so much emotion and energy in this occasion, I drank myself into a pleasant stupor as soon as I felt relieved of duty. Some scenes remain intact. I remember looking at the vase of astonishingly perfect roses Brigitte had brought for the tables. Surveying the sea of white organdy tablecloths trimmed in satin that Cindy had made, guessing at dimensions. Vero holding hand to heart for her native anthem, Claude and Danielle dancing as one, the street musician with his accordion and his sweet smile, rejoicing in the zenith of his career.

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Kathy’s article in the Post brought us a wave of Washingtonians that summer. Bob and Janice came for a Labor Day vacation, and they were eager for us to lead them off the beaten path. They approached everything with the gusto of adventurers and asked questions like career students.

On Sunday morning I took them to the lively market that fills the streets of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and lines the banks of the river running through the antiques capital. They took photos of the moss-covered waterwheels and the astonishing blue-green water. They practiced approaching vendors with a polite bonjour and moving on with merci, au revoir. Slowly we wove our way through the crowd, browsing flea-market curiosities, antique table linens, pottery, hunting knives, olive-wood bowls, woven baskets, gemstone necklaces and earrings, old books, new CDs. By eleven-thirty, we hadn’t even gotten to the food! I’d made reservations for lunch at twelve, so I ushered them toward the stands piled high with produce and laid out with fresh and preserved delicacies. Everything was a delight to them; they wanted to draw in every sensory experience and hold it. At my favorite confiture stand, they hung around tasting artisan jams and preserves—strawberry with mint, orange with lavender, black fig with cinnamon—until I looked at my watch and hustled them toward our last stop before lunch: the olive lady.

The stand was crowded, and we squeezed in midway along the rows of vats containing herbed and flavored black and green olives in different combinations. In each vat was the scoop the vendor used to offer a goût to those who asked. It is the law that a customer be able to taste before buying such products in the market. The goût is part of the adventure of exploring the markets in Provence. But at the moment, the vendor was occupied with some friends in the shade of the umbrella on the other side of her stall and I couldn’t get her attention. These were big olive fans, and they wanted to buy a good supply. I knew the restaurant would give away our table after ten minutes, so I picked up a scoop and started offering them the goûts myself.

Ohhhhh, yum! The black olives with garlic and basil! Incredible—the sharp little bright green ones, how did they make those? And the big ones spiced with herbes de Provence! The taste sums up the experience of . . .

Terrible.

I looked up to see the vendor and her friends watching us. “Ah oui, c’est terrible!” I laughed, enjoying her joke. “We’ll take these, and these, and . . . ”

She came forward. “You LAUGH!”  Behind her, the friends murmured “terrible.” I felt a shock wave in my stomach.

“I, uh . . . ”

“Ea-ting, ea-ting, EA-TING!” She raised her voice and moved her hands in chopping motions. “I would not come to YOUR country and eat YOUR food without asking PERMISSION. Is PLEASE so difficult to say? MAY I PLEASE? IS THAT TOO DIFFICULT FOR YOU PEOPLE?”

Her eyes were glittering, her back was rigid.

I felt nausea like a blow to the belly. I looked at Bob and Janice, paling under the noon sun, shadows under their eyes. I tried to find words and hold my voice steady. “These are my clients and we wanted to buy . . . ”

“What? You want to buy WHAT!”  She jerked up a plastic bag and a scoop. Shaking, we pointed to several choices. She filled each bag and gave it a violent twist, glaring at us. She weighed the bags and shouted the total. Bob counted out some money, took the bags and he and Janice stepped away. I approached her and began to apologize in French and explain about being late for lunch.

Trop tard!” she spat, and turned her back on me, while her friends continued to glare and cluck in our direction.

We said nothing for the first fifteen minutes at the table. Then, still shaking, we went over what happened. Bob was angry, Janice was frightened, I was shamed. Even a bottle of wine didn’t make it any better. This was the end of the little miracles that had streamed from Kathy’s wedding.

I needed someone French to explain to me what had happened and where my own culpability lay.  Our guests were off on their own for the day and Andrew was painting in the atelier. I went to Aix and met Michele for lunch.

She was a bonus friend, introduced to me by Gary and David one visit, after they met at the coiffeur I’d sent them to. It happened to be her coiffeur too. She was a world of girlish energy in a tiny package. A Pied-Noir–literally “black foot” and the term given to French residents in North Africa while they were under French rule–she was born to French parents in Algeria, had married a German diplomat and had been posted in Dallas, Texas, so along with French and German she spoke rapid-fire American English.  Besides all those rose petals, she had treated Kathy and Joe to a sightseeing tour they’ll never forget.

She’d put her fine hostess skills to work with us on a group tour we organized that summer, and she’d been puzzled by the concept of marking up the price of her services. In her diplomatic life, Michele entertained “delegations”—with sightseeing tours, cruises, dinners and galas. She organized everything, and beautifully, without any thought of remuneration because that was her role as her husband’s partner.

“Isn’t this . . . this mark-up . . . illegal?” she’d asked.

“It’s how service providers get paid,” I explained. “You arrange the hotel rooms, the cruise boat, the whatever, and you add a percentage to the cost when you bill the client. It’s standard business practice.”

“I am sure we do not do this in France.”

“Of course you do.”

“You mean to tell me that, when my vendeuse at the market sells me a chicken, she adds fifteen percent to the price?”

“No, because it’s her chicken.”

“I don’t see the difference.”

Once she was convinced of its legitimacy, Michele became a huge fan of the mark-up. It  enabled her to buy a new horse.

I brought up the olive lady incident over lunch. The delicate peach and tangerine interior of the tearoom she’d chosen was comforting; the atmosphere felt gentle and ladylike.

Michele listened to the story quietly, her eyes getting big and then narrowing with the narrated action. “The vendor overreacted,” was her assessment. “It’s the end of the tourist season, she may have had some bad experience with Americans this year, who knows. Normally you ask permission to taste, but okay, she was busy. She shouldn’t have shouted at you, my dear friend. How awful for you and your guests.”

What a relief. I would be able to reassure Bob and Janice too. They were with us for several more days, and we’d been so shaken by the experience it was hard to even think about olives, let alone eat them.

“Come with me,” Michele said grabbing my hand as we left the restaurant. “I want you to see some really great underwear.” She pulled me through crowded streets to her favorite lingerie shop, where we tried on a new line of bras and panties made to look like blue jeans—“so very American!” She poked her little bottom through the dressing room curtains to show off the faux pocket on the right cheek.

Outside in the street she gave me a hug. “Oh, what a wonderful day! I am wearing my new underwear, I am with my almost-new friend, and I’m going to ride my new horse—life is good, isn’t it?”

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The village was oddly quiet when I came back from Aix, a little after three o’clock. J-C hadn’t opened the shop yet for the afternoon; there were no people walking around or lounging on the terrace.

I turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door, which gave its usual cranky groan. The hallway was empty and cool. I climbed the stairs, thinking about funny things to repeat to Andrew—the dressing-room scene and the blue-jean underwear and the mark-up horse.

“It’s me!” I called as I came in the door.

“Come here,” he said in a strange tone.

“What?”

“Come here.”

“What’s going on?” I asked, starting toward the atelier.

“I don’t even know how to tell you.” His voice was flat and falling away even as I came toward him.

He was sitting astride the big orange gymnast ball we had in the atelier, eyes fixed on the television screen. I looked past him. I saw a tower in flames against a postcard-blue sky, the silver streak of an airborne plane, falling objects, smoke, frenzy, terror.

Bob and Janice came back, took it in, then set their jaws and left to make phone calls. A silent parade of strangers—Germans, Irish, Italians, French—came in off the street looking for a television. After a few minutes of watching the images, they’d move out to make room for others. Jean-Claude, hunched and whitened, sat down with us and smoked the rest of the day’s cigarettes. For once, he had nothing to say. Nobody had anything to say.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell

 

 



One thought on “Weekend Reading, Chapter 14: Personal Happiness, National Tragedy

  1. Nancy says:

    Another wonderful chapter.

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