Charles Joseph Albert
I was living in Austin, Texas, when I got the invitation to my sister’s wedding in the southeastern part of France known as Provence. It was going to be preceded by a weeklong celebration, hosted by her future in-laws. This invitation caused a dilemma for me. For one thing, I’ve always bought into the French propaganda that they’re the most sophisticated people in the world, and that anything French is automatically glamorous. Look at their haute cuisine (French for “cooking with oats”); anyone who can turn snails into escargots à la bourguignonne has got a handle on class.
Texas, on the other hand, was never known for sophistication. I mean, you’re considered sophisticated in Texas if your pick-up has a bed guard. So for me, the big question in going to this wedding was, do I try to up my sophistication, or do I stay true to my roots and go with what I know?
On the advice of my friends and barber, I decided to wear the Texan badge proudly, as it was less likely to make me look like an ass. Besides, it would be downright unpatriotic to try to be like the French. After all, trying to look French when you’re a tourist is silly. I mean, imagine you’ve got the beret, you’ve got the baguette (“small bag” in French), you’ve got the bicycle… but you’re on the Eiffel Tower. Come on! Who do you think you’re fooling? Any Frenchman who sees you will say, “Why ees zat teepical frenshman on zee beegest tourist trap on zee planette?!”
But, and perhaps most importantly, if I went looking like a loud, irritating Texan, I would embarrass the hell out of my Francophile sister!
After all, it was hardly fair. She was marrying this good-looking French guy, a kickboxer whose parents own a vineyard. I mean, give me a break! The only way he could have been more Harlequin Romance is if he was descended from royalty.
He held me manfully in his bulging boxer arms. Caressing my thigh with a bottle of wine from his parent’s ancient vineyard, he murmured, “Alas! The Du Tucan family fortune will be lost, unless I marry an American girl, mon amour.”
“But, Raoul! I am American,” I moaned in perfect French…
I figured the least I could do to keep her grounded was show her in-laws what a tasteless family she really came from.
As it turned out, I couldn’t really bring myself to drink so much I’d embarrass my poor sister. Oh, I drank plenty. But her threshold for embarrassment was a lot higher than I counted on.
Fortunately, it wasn’t only up to me to embarrass her; the rest of our family was also there. When we get together, we’re enough to embarrass Larry Flint, let alone an already insecure américain marrying into a bunch of hoity-toity Frenchies.
But in spite of my malevolent intentions, my black Stetson and snakeskin boots were only of minor interest to them. As several wedding guests patiently explained to me, the “distinctly American” cowboy outfit is actually descended from clothes pretty common to southern France and Northern Spain, where livestock is raised.
For days before the wedding, the in-laws invited all the family and guests to a simple lunch: foie gras, truffled omlettes, and twenty-year old wines. A meal like that would cost hundreds in the US, but for them it was almost free: they made their own foie gras, grew their own truffles, and cellared their own wine. There was no pretentiousness, no attitude, just really amazing food and joie de vivre (“jaw of fever” in French).
They made up for it at night with the apéritif (“apparent tiff,” since that’s when most fights break out). That’s a lot like a cocktail party except that you can’t skip dinner and hog down on the snacks, because the snacks are wretched. There’s maybe some kind of fried critter intestine on a dry cracker, itty-bitty pickles that taste like salty vinegar, and then some other insubstantial fare like candy-covered sunflower seeds. That stuff is just not a meal substitute. Plus, instead of a nice scotch for a drink, you get either a licorice-flavored alcohol called pastis or the evil brew known as suze that they make from a bitter weed unknown to you Americans, and don’t look to me to ruin a good thing and tell you, it tastes like expired aspirin.
These unpleasant alcohols had the one advantage that they were 90-proof, so after a few slugs (coincidentally, also an appetizer) you really don’t care what the alcohol’s flavor is. I went to bed drunk and hungry.
At last, the day of the wedding came. Nowadays, the French hold the church ceremony after the required civil ceremony. So the entire wedding party paraded first into the cramped little office of the Mayor of Cucuron, who signed the official documents. To an American, it seems strange to visit the local bureaucracy as part of the festivities, but I was told that this part of the ceremony was required by the mayor. After all, it insured he got invited to the reception.
We guests then wound our way through the picturesque narrow streets until we made it to the humble little Catholic church on the other end of town. I was at first impressed that they didn’t do a motorcade, the way Texan weddings do (preferably in Cadillac convertibles), until I realized that anything wider than a Smart car would have gotten jammed in those narrow winding streets. Also, the other end of town was only about fifteen houses away.
It was a nice walk and a good chance for me to converse with some of the local townspeople. With my masterful command of the French, I was able to suavely ask a beautiful local girl, “Voulez-vous cochon avec moi ce soir?” (Do you want pig with me tonight?), which didn’t get me very far, either with the girl or with any upgrade to my cocktail snacks.
The church itself dated from the fourteenth century, with an impressive medieval stone façade, complete with saints and gargoyles. The interior was breathtaking in its “guiltwork” (not a misspelling; remember, it’s a Catholic church) and faux marble, stunningly illuminated by hundreds of cameras held by relatives. If that church were in the U.S., it would be about the most famous landmark on the continent. But tucked away in that little village, it’s just another old church.
After both the civil and church ceremonies, the entire party left of one stomach for the reception. I myself was salivating the whole way back to the feast. The previous night had left me rather peckish, and I’d heard about the lavishness of French banquets.
The Main Hall of Cucuron is really the only large public space in the town; both wedding receptions per year take place there, and a springtime tractor auction, too, I think. It was new, expensive, and pretty large for a town of five hundred people. I was told that it was built by some socialist up for re-election in a little political tradition of enticements called “le porc-baril” (sorry, I don’t know the translation).
When we got to the hall, we mingled around for a while, drinking licorice wine or weed gin. As I did not find any other French women to ask to have pig with, I was seated at one of the big long tables without incident.
And was this a banquet! Man, what a meal. I love the way the French bring it out, one dish at a time. Unlike here in the U.S., where we cram everything onto one plate so that you have to scrape salad dressing off of your pie. The French bring in course after course, and it’s not just for show; it’s based on medical research. It turns out that getting food served in separate dishes makes it easier for the health-conscious diner to get a new wine with each course.
First, we had a nice light red wine and some appetizers; duck liver pâté, I think. I didn’t dare ask what part of the duck they make the pâté out of. Next, they brought out some crudités (“uncouth vegetables”) with a crisp white, followed by a sautéed scallop appetizer. Then came the main course, which was mutton with a lovely rich red wine to go with it. I believe it was a Côtes du Rhône, but the bottle count was already getting high, so I can’t substantiate that. The photographic record I have of the evening was taken much later and shows me sitting in a slightly tilted position with three empty bottles on the table in front of me.
I do remember that they brought out the salad next, after the main course, which is how they do it in France, and it makes sense because you don’t have to worry about the salad cooling off while you eat everything else first.
Last, of course, came the deserts. I had heard that there was to be some fancy pastry for the meal, and I do have an evil sweet tooth, especially for chocolate. But I almost cried out in dismay when the waitperson brought only one tiny plate to the table. Okay, they looked exquisite—but they were so damn small! Was this, I wondered, why French people were all so thin? To make matters worse, there was only one chocolate item on the whole plate.
Sweat trickling down my brow, fingers tightening around the handle of my fork, I racked my brains for a polite way to warn my neighbors that I was going after the chocolate one, in case they valued their fingers.
Then, a miracle happened. The Miracle of Angie’s Wedding. Aleluias and angels wafted down from the sky.
The waiter put an identical plate in front of the person next to me, and then another in front of the next person. Yes, that first platter of tiny desserts in front of me was just for me.
Tears of joy rolling down my cheek, I watched the waiter deliver his platters to the rest of the table. I was going to be able to savor every one of those beautiful little desserts myself. Once again, I had a raison d’être (“raisin debt”).
This curious experience of homicidal greed, and subsequent rush of guilty joy, stuck in my mind, and I talked to my brothers about it afterward. It turned out that they had exactly the same thoughts as I, even down to securing a knife as an arguing point for the éclair.
I’m not sure, but I think the moral here is that Americans are overexposed to violence.
Anyway, the burden of ingesting all that sugar sobered me up enough to observe the serving of the champagne, which was pretty cool, because they poured it down a pyramid of glasses, the flow filling each glass in the stack in sequence. This mirrored the serving of the traditional French wedding croque-en-bouche (French for “frog in a bush”), which is a huge pile of puff pastry stuck together in a pyramid with hardened syrup. It’s what the French serve instead of a wedding cake.
We spent a while thinking up lame drunken toasts, which we found uproariously funny since we were, after all, drunk. Then came the dancing.
The French are funny about their dancing. They don’t just go out dancing for a few hours. If you’re going to go, you go all night. Also, they don’t have any good music of their own, so they use old American disco music.
So we danced cheesy disco dances and drank until we were falling down. Then at around 5 a.m., two of the groom’s so-called friends came and got my younger brother and me and we went off to short sheet the matrimonial bed and other kinds of charming jokes, before going back and collapsing in our own beds.
The next afternoon, we managed to crawl out of bed and re-congregate at the same hall for lunch. We each looked like hundred-pound grape barrels had landed on our heads, which is actually not far from what really happened.
I learned a charming new expression for people who let their future brothers-in-law get them drunk: gueule de bois (“gullible”).
As we straggled in to finish off the leftovers, the new in-laws told corny jokes and sang silly songs. We hung out all afternoon, eating leftovers at the community center, sipping the local wine, looking out on the ancient stone architecture of the village with its beautiful broad-leafed plane trees reaching over the village square, and as I looked at the friendly, ruddy faces around the room, I began to understand for the first time that my sister wasn’t going to come home. Why should she? How could her quality of life possibly be better anywhere but here? And I realized that for all our sibling rivalries and antagonism, I was going to miss her terribly.
I set down my wine glass and tried to hide the terrific whirlpool of self-pity I was sinking into. I think I succeeded, because no one burst into “Milord,” that campy Edith Piaf song where she cheers up a jilted Englishman. The mere thought of it eventually made me smile through my tears. And then and there I vowed to come back every year to see her and her husband. In fact, I am writing this from their guest bedroom now. It’s a hardship, I admit, but no sacrifice is too great for my sister’s sake.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear the dinner bell…
About the Author
Charles Joseph Albert works in a metallurgy shop in San Jose, California, where he lives with his wife and three boys. He has been interested in writing ever since the third grade when he had to learn Frost’s “Runaway.” His poems and fiction have appeared recently in The Literary Nest, Quarterday, Chicago Literati, 300 Days of Sun, Abstract Jam, The Literary Hatchet, and Here Comes Everyone.