‘In France, we forgive many sins committed for love.’
Last night’s dinner companion
The speaker was a mayor of a smallish town nearby. The subject was France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.
‘He was just 16 when he fell in love with his future wife. She was his high school teacher. She was 40 years old and already had three children.
‘His family tried to keep him away from her. But it didn’t work…they got together anyway. And now she is what you would call the “first lady” of France.
Our companion gave what could be called a ‘gallic shrug’, and made a slow arc with his right hand, as if tracing out the rise and fall of all things human.
It’s past the Assumption. That is on 15 August, the day remembered by Catholics as the day the Virgin was ‘assumed’ into heaven. How exactly that happened, we don’t know. But there’s so much we don’t know; we hardly know where to start.
Should Brigitte Macron be punished for her liaison with a student?
Was Mary really a ‘virgin’…how did they know? Did she really ascend to Heaven, bodily…and die there, rather than on Earth, like everyone else?
Is the world really heating up? Can we do anything about it? Will future generations be better off if, with carrots and sticks, we drive people to ‘green’ energy?
Should the Fed aim for 2% inflation rather than 3%? Can 12 government hacks, working for a private bank, actually guide — and improve! — a US$24 trillion economy?
Are the Russians really bad guys? Who are the good guys?
The great unknown
There are people who think they know the answers. Your humble editor confesses ignorance. Not only as to those questions, but to millions more. Are we exceptionally modest…or exceptionally dumb; we don’t know that answer either!
So, today, let’s stick to our story…for no other reason than almost all the French are on vacation; we might as well join them.
Assumption Day is the day that Richard Nixon turned the dollar into a trash currency. But its primary importance, in these parts, is that it marks a change of season. Nothing lasts forever. Even fine red wine rarely gets better after 10 years; there’s no point in keeping it longer. Here in Poitou, after 15 August, the heat disperses…replaced by a gracious, late-summer warmth. Like wine and women, the summer reaches its peak just as the first hints of decay appear. The leaves begin to turn…and the nights turn cool.
This year was especially dry in Europe. So, some leaves hit the ground early; our linden tree, for example, had already laid down a carpet of brown leaves by mid-August.
We live in a part of France that is forgotten and neglected. There are no tourists. No factories. A highway and a high-speed train track cut through the region, taking busy travellers from Paris to Bordeaux, few stop along the way. Except for Futuroscope, near Poitiers, there is no reason to stop.
We arrived here 26 years ago and bought a large, broken-down house — a chateau — for our large family. We have been here ever since.
The French know better than to buy such a place. None did. So it was up to us. And then, the local people wondered: were we some kind of cult? Or were we just naive?
These old houses are uncomfortable, drafty, and difficult to maintain. The French accept them when they’re inherited, but with mixed feelings; like being given a pony, they know there will be some clean up involved.
Having bought the chateau, your editor entered lustily into fixing it up…turning his young work crew — aged 3–13 — out of their beds in the morning so they could help him. His wife, meanwhile, entered smoothly into the local ‘bourgeoisie rurale’ of families similarly burdened by piles of old stones. This allowed us both to move among them, to learn their language and study their ways.
The migratory pattern of these people follows the church calendar. Many of them made their careers in Paris or Bordeaux, but they hold onto the old houses, whence their grandparents and great grandparents came.
Here comes the bride
The houses are buttoned up after Toussaint (Halloween) and left shuttered all winter. Then, with the arrival of Paques (Easter), the shutters are thrown open…the windows and curtains pulled back…the Sun comes in and dull roots all over the area are stirred by warm, spring rain.
A few months later, comes the glorious summer, when the countryside bursts alive with flowers, blossoms, bees, string beans, tractors, flies, and outdoor dinners. And then, after the Assumption, come two weeks of intense socialising, with family reunions, parties, concerts, and marriages, before the ‘rentree’ (return to work and to school) begins after the first of September.
The weddings are the worst. We went to one two weeks ago and another this past weekend; we’ll go to another next weekend. We’ve been to so many, over the last quarter of a century — watching carefully, like an anthropologist observing a tribe of naked savages — we feel qualified to comment. This is, after all, among the few things we know anything about.
French weddings, at least among this class, are an endurance contest. It’s unnatural and stressful to maintain a jolly demeanour for more than an hour or two — especially for your editor. Doing so for 12 hours straight invites depression. The weddings begin at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, with the church ceremony. They do not end until after midnight. By then, the usual subjects of polite conversation — where do you live, what do you do, why are you here — are exhausted, the band is packing up, and it is time to leave the party to younger people, who will keep at it until daybreak.
At our most recent event, there were about 300 people gathered in an ancient stone church with a rare ‘cylinder organ’. We were not able to ascertain what it was about the organ that was special, but we were assured by a brochure that it was. As if to prove itself, the organ gave out such a sound as to shake the foundations…but that was to come a little later.
As we noticed a year or two ago, hats are going out of style. But there were a few holdouts in the crowd…women who enjoyed the chutzpah of a fabulous confection on their heads. One, for example, had a flat black hat, roughly the size and shape of the Oval Office. Another cut a striking figure with what looked like the wedding cake itself perched on her head.
Bonner event management
The mistake most wedding planners make, at this stage of the festivities, is that they search for originality. Most likely, they’re just bending to the music director, but it is always an error to choose pieces of music that are unfamiliar to the crowd. They don’t know what to do; they are supposed to sing, but they don’t know the tune. They hum…and stumble over the notes…as best they can. The effect is one of communal embarrassment, as if the governor of Maryland suddenly began to praise Benito Mussolini. Better to stick with music that people know.
Also, as a general rule, celebrations need focal points. They should not be just a series of events. Like theatrical performances, they need a build-up, a climax…and all the elements that make for a satisfying show.
In a wedding, the first important scene is the arrival of the bride. It should be accompanied by appropriate fanfare. By then, the guests have been seated to the music of Pachelbel or Bach. But if you want to do it right, when the bride appears in the back of the church, have the music switch to Richard Wagner’s Bridal Chorus. Then, everyone knows what to do; they stand up, and turn around to watch her coming down the aisle. Her hand on her father’s arm…veiled and elegant…she walks slowly, realising that this is probably the most important moment of her life.
‘I prefer funerals’, says our brother-in-law, a Baptist minister in Virginia.
‘A lot of things can go wrong in a wedding. People are all nervous and on edge. And you often hear, a few years later, that the couple has split up. You feel like it was all a waste of time.
‘But a funeral is final. You don’t get any complaints.’
For The Daily Reckoning Australia