It has been a week since I attended a traditional French wedding, but somehow it felt like ages ago. Everything went by in a flash. I still remember anticipating this huge event since my exchange year began, when Papa first sent me an email telling me that my eldest host sister was engaged and set to be married in April.
Up till around a month before the big day I was just the foreigner lucky enough to be able to experience another side of the French culture. Then a request from the bride-to-be called for me to take the occupation of the pianist, to which I happily obliged without a second thought. Soon I received the piano sheets and began to practice almost everyday, and because they were church/Mass music, my religious host parents sang along whenever they could and gave me a great head-start to what the big picture would be. My second eldest host sister Pauline was the chief singer, but unfortunately we couldn’t find a time when we were both at home to rehearse together, so that only happened two days before the wedding.
Traditional French weddings are usually held on Saturdays, beginning with the civil marriage (official) at the City Hall in the morning, followed by a church marriage which begins around noon. Both marriages require “witnesses”, usually siblings and close friends of the bride and groom, who sign on the documents. A grand feast tops off the party. However, my host sister Marion and her fiancé Mayeul decided to do things a bit differently. Their official marriage was actualized in the late Friday afternoon, and their religious marriage began at 10:30 on Saturday morning, which left almost the entire day to celebrate. (which also meant that they had to prepare two meals for their guests)
My host parents and I were one of the earliest to arrive at the family house of the groom, where we composedly settled into our rooms and got to know the close relatives and friends. Throughout Thursday and Friday more and more people arrived, and while most of them chatted over glasses of wine, I hid away in a corner right beside the staircase to practice the piano pieces. Marion had brought her electronic piano and I needed to get used to it in a short amount of time since it was the same one I’d be playing on during the Mass.
Saturday morning I woke up early to prepare myself while Cassandre did my hair. We drove to the church more than an hour before the wedding began so I can get more familiar with the surroundings and run a last rehearsal with Pauline. The church was small yet beautifully designed, especially the simple yet elegant ceiling details and the altar, which was perfect for a wedding. Guests began to arrive, so did the priests and choir boys dressed in religious attire. Soon the pews were full and Pauline took her place in front of the microphone stand.
After a quick announcement encouraging guests to put their electronic devices away as there was a professional photographer, Pauline signaled for me to play the procession accompaniment music. Everything went naturally from that point on. I didn’t dare raise my eyes from the piano sheets to watch as my host sister walked down the aisle in her white dress for I was afraid to make any mistakes. But I’m sure she was dazzling.
To be honest I was really stressed throughout the entire ceremony because I was the only musician and the whole melodic atmosphere depended on my piano tunes. I stumbled a few times but everyone said that they did not remark anything. The Mass was quite long and I took rests between songs as various individuals spoke, some long speeches and some just a few phrases. During those times, I muted the piano and continued to review for the upcoming piece. Pauline and her boyfriend David helped me a lot, letting me know when to get ready for the next song and how many times I should replay it. Finally, it was my favorite and most nerve-wracking part – the married couple and witnesses had to sign a register. There was no singing included but some music was necessary to add to the ambiance, so I played “River Flows in You” by South Korean pianist Yiruma. I personally enjoy this piece a lot because of it’s fluency and the gracefulness that it gives off.
The Mass ended with a joyous melody and the guests slowly exited the church while singing at the same time. I played the piano non-stop until most people were outside, then Pauline and I followed the crowd to cheer on the newly-weds, who stepped through the church doors last. They were then driven back to the family house in a well-polished Delahaye dark metallic blue vintage car.
A festive luncheon was served in the huge tent that had previously been set up in the spacious front yard (we could almost call it a park). Numerous games were installed in different corners of the park, some including cork-tossing, rubber duck fishing, sock pairing (and clipping then onto a laundry line), stilt competitions, football… The guests were well-occupied for the entire afternoon. Marion and Mayeul made their way through the park to greet each guest and take photos.
We had barbecue for dinner, which was completed by several speeches and videos prepared by family members and friends. As savage siblings displayed “black history” photos and clips and everyone burst into laughter, we all glanced once in a while at the bride and groom watching their embarrassing moments unfold. They both cringed a little but then looked at each other with pure love and adoration.
A highlight of the evening was the sky-lantern releasing. I was surprised at such an activity because sky lanterns are traditional Taiwanese objects, which we light up at the bottom so that the interior gathers heat to enable the lantern to fly, like a hot air balloon. Taiwanese people usually write messages and wishes on the lanterns and release them as prayers. Here, we didn’t write anything, but there were so many lanterns in the sky and it was one of the most beautiful moments of the day. It reminded me of a scene from the Disney movie “Tangled”, where Rapunzel and Flynn sit in a boat and are surrounded by millions of sky lanterns. It was a love scene, perfect to relate to at a wedding!
By the time all lanterns had gradually floated away, it was already past midnight. Yet the party was far from over. Though a number of guests had already returned home to rest, the remaining ones headed back towards the tent and moved the tables and chairs so that we had a dance floor. Marion and Mayeul began with a beautiful waltz, her dress swishing as her husband twirled her around. Then those who were up to it took over the floor jamming along to 80’s music. I didn’t know any songs but I danced along anyway. In a few minutes I learned the Madison line dance. We also danced the Macarena. Everyone had a great time.
And voilà, my first French wedding.
I’d say it was an unforgettable experience, both wonderful and sad. I’m extremely happy for my host sister, without doubt. Yet for myself, I got to know so much more people in such a short time, but it was the only time I meet them. New friends that I have to say goodbye to way too soon, family members that I know I might never see again… But that’s part of being an exchange student – we meet tons of people, but there’s never enough time with them. The least we can do is present the best version of ourselves, and watch them silently from time to time, to etch their faces into our memories; chat with them often, to remember their laughs and smiles.