Saturday, August 08, 2009

Back from Paris

Okay, I'm back! Had a great time in France.

The first three nights I was staying at that Chateau outside of Paris, sharing a room with the groom. Nice place, and it was great to be in the green countryside under comfortable temperatures. I was told when I returned to Qatar that there had been a major dust storm for 2-3 days so it was ironic that I was enjoying the clean air of the French countryside while all my friends and colleagues had to stay indoors because of the dust.

Now in France couples have to get married in a civil ceremony at the town hall. They are allowed to have a religious ceremony afterward but cannot have the religious ceremony until they had done the civil one (the priest needs to see proof that the civil ceremony was done). So the civil ceremony was on Friday and the wedding on Saturday. I did not attend the civil ceremony instead I took the train into Paris and wandered around the neighbourhoods south of the Seine, since I was going to be meeting the now civil-married couple and a large number of their friends for dinner that evening at a restaurant in Saint-Michael. Roamed through the graveyard near Montparnasse, finding graves of famous French people such as Jean-Paul Sartre, then had a snack in the Jardin de Luxembourg before walking on to the Notre Dame Cathedral to join the throng of tourists in the square in front of it. I didn't go in though, the lineups were way too long, so I went to the park behind the cathedral and chilled out for a while watching the people go by, munching on a baguette that I purchased at a boulangerie. (I know it seems like a stereotype to us North Americans but the French really do buy those long baguettes. Every morning I would see people with them).

Paris is such a great city to just wander around, the neighbourhoods look exactly like what Paris looks like in the movies. The city is fairly protectionist when it comes to big chain stores so while you do see the occasional McDonald's etc they are uncommon which allows independently-owned stores to set up. As a result everywhere you go there are interesting shops and cafes. I found a bookstore are dedicated to books about theatre and dance, tiny art galleries exhibiting various abstract works, a shop dedicated to Jules Verne and other authors from the period, and so forth.

After dinner we went back to the Chateau for a good nights sleep since tomorrow was the big religious ceremony. Amusingly the groom and I still shared the room which led me to bug him that while I was flattered I thought it was very weird that his first night of marriage would be spent sharing a room with me!

Well the groom was racked with nerves and apparently didn't sleep much that night (I didn't notice because I slept like a rock). Got him down to breakfast and made him eat something before he was off to get ready as he had to drive into the city. For the rest of us staying at the Chateau a bus was coming by later to take us directly to the Cathedral.

The Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky is located about a five-minute walk north of the Arc de Triomphe in what appeared to be a small Russian neighbourhood since the two nearby restaurants were both Russian. We all waited around for about 20 minutes for the groom, bride, and the priests to show up, and then we all went inside.

Now a Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony is very different from a Catholic or Anglican one. Firstly, the Cathedral had no pews so everyone stands for the whole ceremony, though there were a few chairs along the side in case people needed to sit down. The couple enters the church together and are met at the door by two priests who after a couple of recitations places the rings on their fingers, so the couple get their rings at the beginning of the ceremony, not near the end like you would in a Catholic/Anglican wedding.

One of the priests was an older man and from the look of things was the head priest of the Cathedral while the other was a younger man in his 30s. Most of the recitations were sung and the younger priest had this amazing baritone voice almost like an opera singer, with accompaniment by a four-person choir near the altar. All of us attending the ceremony later remarked about it and it made me wonder if Orthodox priests are trained in singing.

The couple and the priests then walk further into the church where after a few more speeches (all of which were in a language I did not recognize, it certainly wasn't French, I was told later it was some form of ancient Slavic language) two crowns are presented and the best man and maid-of-honour hold the crowns over the couple's heads and have to do so for the remainder of the ceremony, including when the priest leads the couple around the altar three times.

[Needless to say in an Orthodox wedding brides shouldn't wear long trains since it would be nearly impossible for the maid of honour to hold the crown over the bride's head without stepping on her dress, something Katerina (the bride) clearly knew since her dress was ankle-length.]

There were more speeches and songs by the priests and a couple of times crown-holding duty was passed to other people attending the wedding to give the best man and maid of honour a break. Then the couple were led through a doorway to the nave of the church where the main altar is. I couldn't really see in the room (guests couldn't follow) so I'm not entirely sure what happened but they were back out in a couple of minutes. The crowns were returned and the couple left the church, followed by best man & maid of honour, then the groom's parents. The rest of us stood there waiting for the bride's parents to leave, figuring that was the proper etiquette, so we all stood there for about a minute until the best man came back to tell us that the ceremony is finished and we can go meet the couple now. oops.

Then we boarded the bus to take us back to the Chateau to get changed for the reception, which was in the Chateau de Breuil, about a 10 minute drive away from the Chateau we were staying at.

There were around 50 to 60 guests and for the first couple of hours we were all outside on a patio sipping champagne and eating amuse bouchées, including pan-seared foie gras. The bride threw her bouquet and since the bride did not have a garter a teddy bear was thrown instead for the men. Strange, but then again, that bear has done some crazy things. I did not manage to catch the bear. We then went inside to the dining hall for dinner. It was a lavish hall that one would expect from an 18th-century period drama -- 40 foot ceilings, paintings and frescoes adorning the walls etc. Really spectacular. There was great food served, lots of wine, and a few games. Apparently in French wedding receptions it is common to play games rather than have a lot of speeches (though the groom and the best man did give speeches, no one else did). The game I remember best was when they stood the bride and groom back-to-back and gave them each a placard with one side indicating the bride and another indicating the groom. They were then asked a series of questions (Who drinks more? Who will change the diapers when you have children?) and they had to flip their placards and we got to see if they agreed with one another, not unlike that old North American TV show "The Newlywed Game". To their credit all of their answers to important questions matched, including a diaper changing one (Him!!), which amused everyone greatly. I also recall that the ladies in charge of the games had also set a rope across the doorway from which hung a number of French postcards**. Guests were asked to pick a card, then on the back was a date sometime between now and the next year. Guests were asked to send the postcard back to the bride and groom on the date indicated so that the couple would have constant reminders over the next year of their wonderful wedding and the guests who attended it. I thought it was a great idea and took a postcard. It is with me at home and I will send it when it is time. For dessert there was a cutting of the cake. The cake was not a white tiered wedding cake commonly seen in North American weddings, it was a French one made up of a number of pastries stacked in a pyramid held together with I'm getting some sort of sugar-syrup. There were also a number of other cakes and desserts available, and a French Ska-Jazz band for the evening's dancing. I think I managed to get back to my room at the Chateau sometime after 3am. Not surprisingly, this time I had the room to myself.

I stumbled out of bed shortly after nine so that I would have time for breakfast before checking out of the Chateau. The groom still had a lot of stuff in the room so I made sure that his brother was aware of it so that they could move the stuff to another room just in case the groom was not available to pick it up before checkout time. I then shared a taxi with two other guests to the train station to grab the train to Paris, where I had booked two nights at a hotel near the Opera recommended to me by a French colleague. The room was not very big but I have been in smaller, and it was clean, on a quiet street, and the AC worked. For 95 Euro a night you couldn't ask for much better in central Paris.

I spent the next two days just wandering around. I do not go into any of the main tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower because I had already done that two summers ago. I just liked wandering around, eating in cafes, and going to places like the steps of Sacre Coeur Cathedral to see the views of the city, sit on the bank of the Seine and watch the boats go by, walk down the Champ de Elyeses, or people-watch at the fountain at Jardin de Tuilleres. A lot of the restaurants recommended by my French colleague were closed because it was August the main holiday time for the French, so I had to settle for the tourist cafes. Food was still good though. All in all a relaxing couple of days.

** -- postcards of France, not postcards with "R-rated" themes (well, most of them weren't anyway)

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