a modest proposal

French Grey Photography by Brian Wright 004
Photo by French Grey Photography

When I told people I was getting married, the first question was usually the same. After squeals of delight or a delay of stunned silence (the most common reactions), friends asked, so how did he propose?!, setting me up to recount a juicy story.

But I didn’t have one. Victor hadn’t proposed, not officially. The reality of living thousands of miles apart from May to September meant that many important conversations had been conducted through screens, hindered by poor Wifi signals. “Will you marry me” was to be postponed for a time we could make actual eye contact, seal the deal with a ring.

Though there was nothing official about our engagement, I did possess a physical symbol of my commitment: the new wedding dress hanging from my closet door. Mom and I had found a boutique in Kansas City–her idea–and rushed out to see what we could find. I was grateful for the enthusiasm and support. I thought the news might be greeted with some hesitation, but as far as I could tell, Mom was nothing but thrilled.

“I’m so grateful you’re supportive,” I told her. “Some people would say it’s too soon; I didn’t know how you would feel.”

Mom said it kind of made sense. My relationship, though quick if judged by the calendar, lacked nothing in depth. It consisted of a lot of travel and a lot of long-distance communication, both highly-effective ways to get to know someone quickly.

“Anyway,” said Mom, “you met in, November, was it? That’s not unheard of.”

“Uh. April, actually. Mid-April.”

“Oh my… For some reason I had it in my head as the fall. Wow, that is quick.”

“Mom!” I laughed, hoping it was too late for her to change her mind.

She’s right, of course. About 7 months past the day we met, Victor and I will be standing at the city hall of his hometown (a village of about 4,000 outside Paris) proclaiming our commitment.

I can say that because we actually have a date! This wasn’t the case at the bridal boutique, where I sheepishly tossed out some idea of a wedding date and startled when the lovely owner referred to Victor as my fiancé. I have a fiancé? I felt like I was acting, like Mom and I were doing undercover research for an exposé on the bridal industry. We weren’t going to actually leave with one of these brilliant gowns…

And then I was zipped into some of the most beautiful creations I’ve ever seen, confections of silk and lace in every subtle shade between eggshell and cream. After just a few try-ons, I wiggled into the dress of my dreams, modern and sophisticated and undeniably romantic. Just like that, I was holding a glass of champagne and smiling for pictures.

I was the bride.

As the weeks passed, my dress hid in my closet like a secret, shrouded in its white zip-up bag. I let my family and friends in on the news slowly, one at a time. I still didn’t have anything resembling details.

I’m engaged, I’m not kidding, I’m returning to France, and this will happen…soon.

For such a big life change, it had really come out of the blue. It wasn’t until later that I remembered how this whole discussion of marriage had come about in the first place.

A job application.

Yep, a job application. Sent by my fiancé–an engineer who makes his living hiring other  engineers for an electronic systems company–to me.

I’d been floundering in the job search. Never my idea of a good time on the best of days, my current task was even more challenging than usual: find a good job in the South of France from my parents’ living room in Clinton, Missouri. What’s more, I needed to find a business willing to undergo the complicated and taxing process of hiring an étrangère. 

Yeah right.

As I’m not an in-demand tech guru or a genius engineer, my options were limited. I was cold-emailing schools before they let out for the summer. I even considered au-pairing, unsure if it would be a good way to find my way or a step backwards.

One afternoon–frustrated, tired, scheming–I opened my messages to discover there was a man in the South of France in want of a wife. Curiously, the right candidate needed to possess an amalgam of qualities that seemed to refer specifically to my personality, appearance, and experiences. Suspicious.

The job search continued (and was successful!). But the threat that I’d be compromising our young relationship if I couldn’t soon find something on the same continent did not.

 

I’m getting married!!!

“make no little plans”: in chicago, the road trip begins

When Victor came to visit for two weeks in July, our travel plans were quite literally a rough sketch. The napkin on which I had scribbled ideas during a phone call became the backbone of our road trip.

As the day of Victor’s flight approached, we had little more than city names, a few reserved AirBnbs, and a lot of anticipation.

Trepidation, too. Victor, aviation enthusiast, happens to hate flying. Cold sweat, shaking hands, “I need a cigarette” kind of fear. This Boeing 747-8 would be the biggest plane he’d ever taken. It would be his longest flight to date and his first time in the United States.

I was anxious too–seeking job opportunities with no answers; hoping with all I had that our young relationship would translate from Facetime back into real time after a month apart.

We met in Chicago at the airport. I called him: I’m in your terminal, next to the McDonald’s. Welcome to the USA.

Despite his rumpled, post-flight appearance–expression equal parts fatigue and joy–Victor had that shimmering quality to be found in loved ones you haven’t seen for awhile. Be it friendship or romance, you can’t stop staring. A state of happy shock: it’s the one you love, no longer tinny-voiced, pixelated, stuffed into a screen. The heart rejoices, always with some degree of relief. They’re real. I knew it. The anxiety of absence dissipates instantly like they never left, or you never did.

We proceeded to the rental agency to pick up our noble white steed for the duration of the trip: a little Mustang convertible. Despite having just staggered off the plane, Victor drove us into the city. It was too hot to have the top down, but we did anyway, shouting over wind and music. Semi trucks and billboards didn’t make for the prettiest tableau, but something about it felt exotic to Victor. I just can’t believe I’m here, he kept saying. J’arrive pas à le croire. It’s just like a movie.

When the smoky skyline popped into view, I took a picture for him, which I would do for much of the trip as co-pilot. The green-and-white signs announcing nearby cities, signs warning to watch for Amish horse-and-buggies, a fleet of police officers on Harley Davidsons…all of it was fair game.

In Chicago I pointed out the Midwestern friendliness I find striking for such a big city. We were unabashed tourists–posing with the Bean, taking the riverboat architectural tour to learn what percentage of Chicago burned to the ground in 1871, riding a wheezing double-decker bus in a lurching path around the city.

We ate hotdogs with mustard and drank huge lemonades from the stands by the lake. In an attempt to show Victor American breakfast culture, I took him to a donut place where we ordered chocolate pastries the size of our heads. He gawked at the deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.

It felt appropriate to introduce Victor to my country with such a city. A big one. With tall buildings and endless pizza and a lake you could mistake for a sea.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

-architect Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)