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French Disconnection

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

 

When my husband and I moved to France, there were certain cultural norms for which we were prepared: a lavish devotion to the very long lunch, a blatant disregard for all common sense regarding cigarettes and creamy cheese, a suspicion of the overeager American smile. We also

promotion

knew that to be French is, to some degree, to be over it — not over being French, but over so many other things. It’s a nation wary of excessive enthusiasm. "C’est oveur," the young French like to say, francofying the English word, usually while taking a drag on a cigarette. Cinema verité? Oveur. (Their verdict: boring, of course). Round, rather than pointy, shoes? Oveur. Marriage? Definitely oveur.
   For my husband and me, this last one continuously took us by surprise. When we moved there, we’d been engaged for about four months, a funny limbo state that Americans love to celebrate and congratulate. Get engaged in the U.S., and you’ll spend a year of your life being toasted, feted, gifted. My husband and I considered the celebration one long distraction, a phenomenon we called "look at the monkey." Sacrificing your youthful sense of endless possibility while simultaneously confronting your own mortality and a life of monogamous sex? Over here, look at the monkey! Shiny baubles! Highly engineered cooking equipment! Have another glass of champagne! Running through it all is a strong sense of societal affirmation — what healthy, reasonable, well-adjusted young people we were, and how lucky, and how happy we must be.
   We first had a sense that things might be different in France not long after we met Rose and Pierre, Parisians who, like us, were living in a small town in southern Burgundy. We were housesitting for an

"Why marry?" they wanted to know. To them, it was an outdated remnant from a fifties-style universe.

American artist for half a year; they had basically retired there, although Pierre still taught graphic design in Dijon a few times a week. Pierre was short and bearded, smoked incessantly, and spoke fluent if dated English (he threw "man" around a lot, the way only a jazz-loving Frenchman could). Rose, like Pierre, was fairly short, and had a maternal way, long gray hair in a bun, strong opinions about which butcher we should use (never mind that it was a thirty-minute drive away), and a cozy kitchen full of antique tins. The first night they had us over for dinner, we mentioned that we were engaged.
    "You mean you’re going to have a wedding?" Rose asked, half-joking — we could tell it didn’t occur to her the answer might be yes. "And you’re going to wear a big princess dress in white?" There was an uncomfortable moment. I wouldn’t exactly say princess, I said. "But with the big poofy skirt?" Rose persisted. I had to acknowledge that although I had not yet landed on a dress, the possibility of a big poofy skirt was quite real. Rose burst out laughing.
   It was clear that Rose didn’t object to the fashion itself, but rather that the style spoke to something about marriage that she and her husband, themselves married, now found antiquated. "Why marry?" they wanted to know. To them, it was an outdated remnant from a fifties-style universe, where women fancied themselves delicate princesses for one day before heading into a life of servile drudgery.
   When Christmas came, we met Pierre and Rose’s two sons, their sons’ female partners, and their collective children, all of whom had come up from Paris. The little ones spoke better French than we did, perfect in fact (never mind that it was their native tongue, it rankled nonetheless to be outclassed by toddlers). Their parents were all chic, although in the serious artist, rather than serious couture, kind of way. They, too, were surprised we were getting married. "Why would you ever want the state to get involved in your love life?" they asked after one round of stiff, but polite, congratulations and several rounds of drinks. And if they found the state’s involvement intrusive, the notion of mixing religion into it was even more absurd. The only thing less appealing than having your sex life regulated by a government fonctionnaire — a French civil servant, widely loathed for lavish perks and lazy hours — would be having your sex life regulated by some musty, underemployed priest. (Church life may be on the rise in this country, but in France, the vast majority of churches just get emptier and emptier.) Far from enhancing the union, if anything, the validation of clergy would tar it, confirm its empty, slavish commitment to an outdated set of beliefs.
   It wasn’t just that Pierre and Rose had bred a brood of non-marrying radicals. Our friend, Hervé (my mother called him OyVey), also from Paris, let out a hostile laugh every time we talked about our wedding, then folded his arms uncomfortably. "I hate weddings," he told us. "I just can’t go to them." It was obvious what he hated about them: the silly ceremony, the indulgence of an egotistical self-delusion that this marriage would work, despite all statistics to the

Theirs was a kind of unfettered monogamy based on daily choice and reason, not ritual.

contrary. Like Rose and Pierre’s kids, Hervé assured us that although he had friends in committed relationships, none of them had bothered with the pomp and circumstance, even those who had children.
   I saw the same phenomenon in Milan, where I socialized one weekend with an ex-boyfriend’s large circle of cosmopolitan, professional thirty-something friends. At an all-day brunch, friends came and went, many of them with babies, not one of them married. By now, there was no querying the phenomenon — it was clear that the couples were committed, yet there was something kind of relaxed about their unions. You could see it in the way they handled their kids: I remember one slender woman passing off a baby to a friend, then basically not worrying where the kid was for the next four hours. Her boyfriend/partner occasionally checked in with whomever was chucking the kid’s chin, but for the most part, they were comfortable relying on a kind of blind faith — an overall trust that the future would take care of itself. I also appreciated that they were spending that Sunday at the home of a friend who was single, in a mix of couples, single people, and a few other parents. Unlike so many of their American counterparts, they didn’t seem enslaved to the family ideal that demands every weekend be an endless round of playground visits, birthday party celebrations, and toy store stop-ins. Yes, they were a family. But they were also just two young people in love who happened to shack up and have a child together. Theirs was a kind of unfettered monogamy based on daily choice and reason, not ritual, and that was undeniably sexy.

Is the wedding waltz nothing more than ceremonial whistling in the dark?


   While living in the countryside, Alan and I started going for long walks to try to come up with a response we could proudly offer the next time someone quizzed us about why we felt the need to make our union official in the eyes of the law. Part of it, we realized, had something to do with the opt-in/opt-out divide between America and Europe, a simple difference in convention. When no one else is marrying, as in Europe, you have to come up with a good reason to do it, to defend the need to render official a commitment that everyone else would happily take on faith. But when almost everyone around you, as in America, seems to consider marriage the natural next step for a committed couple in love, you have to come up with a good reason not to do it, and we didn’t have one of those. We may not have a romantic attachment or mechanical loyalty to the state — but nor do we have the European-style suspicion of state power, bred of 20th century history. Given how many people ultimately divorce, is the wedding waltz nothing more than ceremonial whistling in the dark? Perhaps, but I’m a fan of whistling in the dark. Sometimes it actually works.
   My commitment to the poofy white skirt aside, I think Alan was even more committed to a formal wedding and marriage than I was. There’s something goal-oriented about marriage that I believe appeals to the comparatively type-A American male — or, at least, to Alan. "Why would you want to wonder if you can do something, then in your old age, take quiet note of the fact that you’ve achieved it?" Alan explained to me, on one of our many walks past silent cows, crumbling stone houses, and small, empty churches. "Who knows if you’ll even live that long? Why not announce the goal with a wedding, and then celebrate your achievement of it with every passing day?" Alan also feels that in making our marriage public, we weren’t relying on the government or some religious institution to make our union work — we were calling out to our friends and family, to ask them not just to witness the event, but to support it, and support us, in an ongoing way. I came to see the wedding as a celebration of the present, as much as a promise for the future. The photos, the totemic dress, the souvenir placesetting card I have on my nightstand — they’re not just souvenirs, they’re tangible memories, proof that such a moment of happiness existed in the past for us, and could therefore possibly exist in the future, regardless of where we might be at any given time.
   It may well be that the European model of marriage — voluntary, committed monogamy — is the future of marriage. It certainly has science on its side, a cool-eyed appreciation of one’s inability to predict the future. It also has history on its side, insomuch as history is all about rituals that outlive their use and are cast aside.
   Having had a wedding and entered into marriage, I can’t help but think that it would be too bad if weddings went the same way as, say, ritual animal sacrifice. Perhaps marriage is nothing more than a state of foolish optimism, but that’s a luxury American history still grants us. Foolish enthusiasm may well be the opposite of that quintessentially French quality, ennui. And while ennui may be cool, it’s also counterproductive.
   We were pretty sure our French friends wouldn’t come to the wedding, and of course, they didn’t, but we went ahead and invited them anyway. Call us optimists. Hokey, cliché and oveur as what I’m about to say may be, it also happens to be true: With or without them, it was the happiest day of my life.  

 

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©2004 Susan Dominus and Nerve.com