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!!!

bowling with the homies

My first week in Montluçon, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of a Club Anglais. An English club in Montluçon! Surely I’d meet some friends there, young worldly types who had spent time in England or the States…

The letter explained that the club meets the first and third Friday of every month. We showed up early, me and a few of the other English teachers, and had a drink outside of the aptly-chosen London Bar.

We didn’t know quite who we were looking for, and a bit later, a lady with an English accent came out from the bar. “Excuse me,” she said, “sorry to bother you, but are you perhaps here for the Club Anglais?”

We followed her inside. The bar was dark and cozy with people packed in around little wooden tables, drinking tea or beer as they saw fit. English greetings and French cheek kisses existed in cheerful symbiosis.

It was a high-spirited, lively group…and everybody in the room was over fifty. Oh.

We were warmly welcomed and offered drinks. I didn’t know which language to use. Some in the room spoke only French, like the lady who sat across from me–but I was misled by her cup of tea and P.D. James novel. Others were French but proficient in English, and still others were English but have lived in France for decades. I didn’t want to assume, which is how I found myself overly-enunciating: “yes, I am American. I am from the state of Missouri,” to Roger, who was actually English (and probably wondered if I was indeed speaking my first language).

Everyone was friendly and kind. At first I had trouble thinking of conversation topics, but my new Anglophone friends were eager to ask about my teaching job. And then I realized that this was exactly the place to ask some of the questions I’d had, like where was the best place to buy produce. You can bet they had opinions.

One man took a liking to Mary (well, so did the whole table) and made her plans for the next Saturday, non-negotiable in his view: she was to go to the St. Pierre market, early, and watch the vendors set up their wares. This, while enjoying a glass of white wine and a plate of oysters. At ten in the morning.

I believe he was explaining to her the history of Montluçon over the last two-hundred years when I dragged her away so we could go to dinner.

We’ve since joined the French septuagenarians several times. My expectations for nightlife contained a lot more electronic dance music and a lot less English breakfast tea, but this will almost certainly lead to better stories.

Friday night we joined the club for a soirée : bowling and dinner. Over thirty members showed up for a bit of friendly competition.

We saw transformations worthy of a good sports movie. Jean-Luc, one of the older members, who shuffled laboriously to take his turns and always lofted the bowling ball, had a sympathetic competitor take pity and help him adjust his technique. He then went, in a thrilling upset, from constant gutter balls to a series of strikes. The crowd went wild.

I talked with the president of the club, an English guy who told me Club Anglais has been a thriving social club for 45 years. Some of the members are even traveling to Greece together this year.

The afore mentioned Roger and his French wife Françoise drove us to dinner, where everyone regrouped in the back room. As I looked for a place to put my coat, a jolly Englishman who reminded me of Scrooge’s boss, Fezziwig, from A Christmas Carol, told me: “I always try to leave with a better coat then the one I came with! That’s the secret.” It was this man, later in the evening, who I saw engage in a sort of subtle food fight, flinging pieces of bread across the room with a spoon as a catapult. Though it seemed he was aiming for one particular woman, whole rows of people had to duck to avoid getting beaned in the head with a bit of baguette. In fairness I think his friend started the battle.

Dinner was over three hours long, and frankly, unimpressive. Still, it was fun to talk to the people around me, in particular to a Finnish woman who speaks something like five languages. 10:30 pm came and went, the room alive with noise (and breadcrumbs), and we had just finished our main course. I started to feel a bit feverish, overtired, and am still wondering if some of it really happened.

think a drunk guy from the local gendarmerie school ran in the room and sang a song to one of the women at my table. I think everyone around Mary and I started comparing tattoos, and we were the only two without any. The English man sitting across from me explained the subtle tattoo on his wrist. Interested, the French man next to him asked if he had any more, and, probably relieved to contribute to the conversation since most of the party was speaking French at that point, he pulled the hem of his shirt up to his neck, exposing a huge tattoo that covered his chest and stomach. Definitely not something I ever expected to see while eating crème brûlée.

Then again, I also didn’t expect to be the new youngest member of a cross-cultural social club in rural France.