We park in a sparsely occupied lot in a small French village called Fameck. It's a Sunday, just before noon. C's mom, Marcelline, is in the back seat of our rental car; she wears her usual black dress with crimson lipstick; but this morning she has swapped her black wedges for some impressively high-heeled, chic black jeweled strappy sandals.
The air outside is thick with humidity, a haze interplayed with the occasional faint wisp of cigarette smoke. We round the corner, and at first see the tall steeple of the town's Catholic Church rising before us; below, there are two distinct throngs of people in business casual attire. I recognize none of their faces.
A voice calls to us from far to our left in an adjacent lot; it is C's aunt; the rest of the family is in tow. All of them have gathered here today to witness the christening of C’s and my niece, Léna.
Immediately emerging from the crowd are C's cousin Tristan and his partner Claire, our wedding witnesses and loyal cohorts at all French family gatherings. They greet me in English, knowing I have a big French day ahead.
I wear a thin, denim-colored cotton dress with ruffled sleeves for the occasion, a conscious choice of mine to dress well in the moments when I do emerge from my 6th-floor home office/sunless bunker. With the nearing release my new FM single, I've been scouring the web for contacts and articles, referencing how to promote self-released music in the modern age. Blinds down at high noon; eyes tiring from straining at screens; the hours have been ticking away. I have been looking forward to this weekend for many reasons, and one of which was to have an excuse to wear a pretty dress with tassels and untanned leather Nisolo slippers with no reason why not to.
I had also wanted to curl my hair. Earlier this morning, at around 9, I had asked Marcelline if I may borrow her straightener, a word I thought was universal until it was translated for me by C at the table. That was the name of the game this weekend: I would say something nearly correct, while C would act as my sentient pocket translator. C's mom immediately retrieved her straightener, or lisser, from the cupboard underneath the sink; I changed my clothes while the ironing tongs heated.
Rather than just straightening, I decided to curl the ends of my now past-shoulder length hair. I readied my first strand, tying back the other layers. Preparing to wrap my hair around the barrel, then carefully bringing it down as if curling a ribbon with the bladed edge of a pair of scissors, I clamped the strand down near to my scalp. I then pulled down, and beads of hardened plastic left a crispy trail across the top layer of hair; I gasped aloud. C rushed in, his shirt halfway on. Marcelline had stepped outside to grab something from her car, thereby missing the incident.
"WHAT IS THIS?!" I said to the general room, as C continued to watch in silence, unblinking. To my horror, I brought the paddles down and looked at one of the hot metal surfaces; with the plastic protective sheet, now having halfway been removed and hot glued onto my hair, still partially attached to the brand new straightener.
Working quickly, I set the straightener down, unplugging it, and set to running my fingers through my hair, praying to the lisser gods that my strands had not been unsalvageably singed. Beads cracked and fell off into the sink, and thankfully no hairs fell with them. But as the plastic was drying, I became more anxious. From behind me, C reached for a fine toothed comb and then shoved it into my hand. In one final stroke the coating released and relented with the comb. I hugged C with my dented hair. After removing the rest of the coating from the straightener carefully with tweezers, from there I worked as efficiently as possible, finally finishing my curls just before it was time for us to leave.
The heavy wooden doors of the centuries-old, off-white and windswept chapel are opened, and each of the three families with each of their three infants to be christened file in, organically finding their own sections in which to all sit together. At first, I take a seat next to Tristan with the main family, but am quickly relocated to the front to sit next to C, who is Léna's godfather. Léna is at the edge of the row on her mother Elodie's lap; she wears a headband of synthetic white flowers and a white tulle dress. Her tight blonde ringlets are padded down to the back of her head as she squirms impatiently. I look over and catch C's uncle snapping pictures of our small group at the front; I give a wide, cartoonish grin which makes him look down at his camera screen and chuckle.
I realize that the service is now 20 minutes late. In that moment, a slender man with shoulder-length, frizzed brown hair, a sleeveless denim shirt, worn blue jeans, and a bright red bandana tied around his neck hurriedly strides down the center aisle of the sanctuary, sidestepping the altar, and continues on into a back annex. He looks tough and weather-worn, having obviously just rode in on a motorcycle. I take him to be the janitor, or the church’s handyman. But not one minute later, the same man emerges, now wearing white robes with the emblem of a torch sewn onto the vestments in red and orange thread. His matching red and white trainers poke out from the bottom of his snowy white floor-length hemline. My eyebrows raise involuntarily.
The man addresses the congregation in a hurried slew of slung-together French in a blender. He explains that because they (he) are (is) beginning late, things will have to be slightly rushed along. With his mic, he then walks around the room to various previously selected members of the parties' family and friends; who then read short passages of what I can only assume are Bible verses. The whole thing seems unapologetically slapdashery, and it makes me uncomfortable. I don't enjoy chaos. C keeps leaning over to tell me, "he's actually pretty nice; he’s an easy-going guy," regarding the priest. I have no doubt in this. What bothers me is the lack of clear direction; the occasional wails of children (Léna now has her sandaled toddler feet pointed towards the moon and is refusing to lower them; her diaper is in full view of the motorcycle priest, who refuses to acknowledge it), and the obvious concessions said priest is making--and justifying in real time--to make up for the tight window that he has left to get these babies into Heaven.
"He's saying that they traditionally do this, but they're having to skip over it," C translates, to our mutual amusement. By the end, Léna is sprinkled with a bit of holy water from a shiny golden dish, and pictures are taken at the altar as C signs a paper on the table inside his designated square. We stand for the final benediction, and the crowd launches into a French translation of the Lord's prayer. To me it is like singing the melody to a song that you know by heart, but yet have forgotten each and every word to the tune. I try my best to limp along. The church bells clang as our party exits, congregating just outside the entrance for group photos. Léna dances around on the craggy pavement, having cast aside her flowery headpiece just as soon as she was given the freedom to roam.
We arrive at the christening party, located at a little French/Italian restaurant called Le Montebello, at about 1pm. The tables have already been prepared with pink tablecloths, white flowers, and photos of Léna in frames. I spy name cards on each decorated place setting, and breathe a sigh of relief, believing the chaos of the ceremony to be behind me. Seated next to Claire and across from mine and her respective husbands, the lunch progresses smoothly. At times, I am approached by extended family members while C is away for one reason or another, and left to fend for myself. I find that most are congratulating us on our marriage, which I effusively thank them for, and then the conversation is closed without incident. Either they realize I don't have much more to add to our conversation; or they resemble a family member at any social gathering anywhere in the world: they are just wanting to pass the time until the cake finally arrives.
And when the cake, or I should say cakes, do arrive, the volume of the room drops significantly as we all watch one being carried in by three aproned men, while the other, a more spherical construction made from profiteroles encased in hardened spun sugar, is precariously balanced on an ornate glass platter and carefully brought up to the table by one single man with fear in his eyes. As soon as they are set down, the oohs and the aahs begin in earnest. Apparently, one of Elodie’s boyfriend’s aunts is friends with a premier pastry chef in France, who was kind enough to agree to make two edible works of art for a child's christening party. To the left of the choux pastry sphere is the one carried in by the three chefs, which is a sheet cake of sorts: a four-layer concoction with two soft, impossibly light, even layers of sponge cake alternated between two layers of a light creme custard with fresh mixed blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries; lastly, on top, is a thin layer of a substance that I'm unsure of, either modeling chocolate or the tastiest pink fondant ever, spray painted with golden, orange and pink shimmer and molded to look like a luxurious throw pillow on a princess’s daybed. Exclamations of "magnifique!" are heard throughout the room. When it finally comes to tasting it, I have no comparison to it as of yet. It is the first fancy French cake I have had the pleasure of trying. But it tastes like a cake made by someone who was aware of each and every minute detail; and most importantly, the butter.
After the party, C, C's mother, and I hop back into the rental car for one more swing around the block: a small dinner at C's aunt and uncle's apartment just a few streets away. As we park, we see his uncle already outside on the balcony, waving us in with his cigarette, hurling jokes down at C from his perch.
Their apartment building was renovated somewhere in the 80's, with glass tiled walls and futuristic faux marbled stairs, the essence of opulence to the quintessential material girl. But the apartment itself feels like a moment in time. Not overly populated but for a few large black sofas in the sitting room, and two common rooms with two decently-sized dining tables in each. It's a place for people in transit to meet, share a glass of wine (this evening it was a French viognier), and nibble on some cheeses, meats, and crudites. And that's exactly what we do. Seated at the table, the conversation turns to family, then to cars, and then...now concentrated by the smaller group size, after 5 minutes or so I am hopelessly lost. I feel a tap on my shoulder, and look down to see Claire next to me on one knee, watching the conversation closely until I turn around to notice her.
"Are you having trouble understanding? I'm happy to translate," she whispers. I could hug her. I say yes, and she fills me in on the last five minutes, as if I had never been absent from the festivities. I do hug her.
On the balcony for another of uncle's smoke breaks, I stand next to him as others file out to feel the late afternoon breeze. In French, I work up the courage to ask uncle why he has no plants on his balcony, while Tristan and I both have fledgling apartment gardens of our own. Uncle pauses for a drag to consider, and then directs his answer to Tristan, knowing his choice of words may be lost on me.
"He doesn't know another way to say," Tristan replies, "but he doesn't—how you say, have the 'green hand'."
"Oh! Green thumb? That's a saying in America."
"Yes! Green thumb. But in France, what we say roughly means "'green hand.'"
Just then, Léna appears in the doorway and grabs my finger with her small hand. Her miniaturized sandals clop-clopping along the wood-slatted floor, she leads me to the back master bedroom, where she flops face-first onto the bed. She is halfway between desperately wanting to play with someone and giving herself permission to take a nap. To go along, I improvise a game called "Bonne nuit/Bonjour" where I pretend to fall asleep with her, only to pop up 5 seconds later exclaiming "bonjour!" loudly, making her giggle maniacally.
Fascinated with the velcro on her shoes, she points at them and motions for me to show her how to take them off and put them back on. I take them off, with a scrrritch; and then she stands, holding one foot out while balancing herself on the bed, watching me ease her tiny baby toes through, avoiding the small spaces between the braided leather. We did this a few more times. It isn’t much time before she can't hold her eyes open any longer. She starts to cry because of it, and she and her parents leave soon after.
The end of the evening is me, C, Tristan and Claire sitting on the black sofas in the living room, playing a game equivalent to "Cards Against Humanity" in France, where every dark card has an unfinished sentence, and it's up to all players to submit their own light-colored cards to finish the phrase, normally in a deranged or tasteless way. The one reading the dark card for the round chooses his or her favorite. I feverishly type each new light card I receive into Google Translate, keeping pace with the other native speakers. In the end, we have a few great laughs and a dozen small ones; I have as many dark cards as C. I chock it all up as a win, and feel the weekend was a step in a less hopeless direction, one towards the bizarre reality I now find myself in: that it’s normal to hear my voice speaking French. So much so, that people around me now resemble just people, not French people.
I stand on the balcony with C's mom, looking out over the town, and the sparse farmland in the distance, in silence. All day, people have been jokingly calling me "Madame (C)" as I am now the third Madame (C) in the family, other than C’s grandmother, and his mother. I look over to Marcelline, who has just made a comment to me about C, saying that he has a good heart.
"Il est le mieux homme pour moi."
He is the best man for me.
"Je le connais. Je le connais."
I know that. I know that.
In French, there are two words for 'to know'. One, savoir, means ‘to know’ an equation, or a random fact, or the phone number of the pizza place on the corner. Connais is different. To use connais, it means more than just ‘to know’ something. It's used for the times when you can recall a past place and time, like the beach on the French Riviera in the 70s, or the apartment of a dear old friend. To connais something, it means you've experienced it firsthand.