I just got back from what was an absolutely magical vacation in France.
I have to slow down and start with a bit of background...
When I was a senior in high school
, I lived in France with the Rallu family, which includes three daughters: Anne-Lise (my baby sister), Lucille (my (three-month-older) twin), and Séverine (my older sister). I love all my sisters dearly and miss them desperately during the years I don't get to see them. So, naturally, when I heard that Severine was getting married, I had
to be there.
I got to Brittany a few days before the wedding to find the family amazingly calm, given the circumstances. I was probably the least collected of the Rallu household. I mean, there was the culture shock of not having been off the continent of Africa for 14 months, plus the realization that I would have to use more complicated verb structures than the staples (present, past, and future) that get me by in Togo. You know, at some point in the study of language, I seemed to have passed from that point where everybody encourages you by saying that you are speaking well to the point where people just don't understand why you don't get it sometimes. Luckily, those people who just don't understand why the French "r" is nearly impossible to say are eleven years old and will swear that you speak wonderful French if you dunk them in the pool a few times.
One of the hardest things about living with the Rallus is feeling utterly talentless. To begin with, all three daughters sing beautifully. Anne-Lise and Lucille were playing a piece from Amélie on the piano. Lucille also plays the flute, and Anne-Lise composed a song for her sister's wedding. As if there weren't enough talent in the house already, the Rallu cousins from Switzerland stayed at the house the week I was there. Etienne didn't bring his viola, and Violaine was shy about playing her clarinet, but Julien was almost always practicing his flute. He played a beautiful Bach piece during the wedding. I discovered Love Story in one of the girls' piano books and asked him to play it. He started out, then realized he was playing the clarinet part that precedes the piano part, so he started over, whistling the clarinet part while playing on the piano.
My parents always told me I'd regret it if I stopped taking piano and flute lessons. I didn't really believe them until I lived with the Rallus. Now the only arts by which I express myself are martial, which makes me worry about the me I am trying to express!
But anyway, enough self-deprecating...
The day of the wedding, I went with Lucille, Anne-Lise, and Nicole to get my hair done. This was kind of a new experience for me. My mother is a cosmetologist, so I can count on two fingers the times I've had my hair cut or styled by someone else, and both those times we've been on separate continents. Before I went, I had to look up some key words to describe the hairstyle I wanted--"part," "curls," etc. My new brother-in-law was kind enough to teach me the word for "mohawk" (une crête) too, just in case. (Thanks, Ced!)
I did my best to explain what I wanted when I got there, using photos in style mags, and then my Togolese laissez-faire-ness took over. I decided to grant my stylist a little artistic license, and the best descriptor for the resulting hairstyle would have to be the word "laquered." There were curls pinned to my head; there were shoots spraying off in every direction; and it was all encircled by a thick strand of rope made out of none other than my own hair. It was nuts, and I absolutely loved it. I usually turn down crazy costumes or hairstyles as requiring a bit more personality than I have, but I figured that with all the other surreal elements of the week--my French sister getting married (for Heaven's sakes), my finding myself suddenly not in Africa, but in the heart of places of Good Manners (France)--I could only show up with a hairstyle straight from Mars. How better demonstrate my love for Séverine than to show up with a gagillion metal pins holding together a bouquet of twine and rolling hills made out of my very own hair?
Enough about me. I have to brag for a moment about Séverine, whose hair was even more amazing than mine. For the record, her hair was even more amazing than anyone else's at the event, but that's normal, since she was the bride. Her dress was lovely, too. It was fitted with one shoulder bare, and had slender feathers draping off it. Cédric's vest was maroon, which matched the ribbons we used to tie roses to the church pews and the curtain of the choir. I am not great at describing such things, so you'll have to wait for the photos.
This was the first French marriage I had seen, so the procedure was new to me. Everyone started off at the Mayor's office, where the civil marriage took place. The mayor asked them whether they really, really, really knew what they were getting into for the rest of their lives; they said yes; then their friends signed official papers saying that they had witnessed Séverine and Cédric, of mostly sane and stable minds, saying yes. That was a lot more exciting than I had expected it to be. The mayor then read them the "Act of Marriage." I couldn't understand what that was all about, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe it was a little too late to bother reading it to them. I mean, they had already nodded their heads and signed--if the "Act of Marriage" suddenly turned into something that didn't fit their style, it was a little too late. But, no matter, she read it anyway, and I kept my mouth shut because it didn't seem to bother anyone who understood French better than I do.
After the civil marriage, we all walked two blocks down the street to the church of La Chapelle des Fougeretz (Séverine's hometown). The ceremony was beautiful, and it was accompanied by a beautiful choir made up of Séverine and Cédric's relatives. Everyone seemed impressed with the homily, but I honestly didn't understand it. It wasn't just the difficulty of understanding French. I was struggling to pay attention while my concentration was banked on the guy who was going to nod when Kate and I were supposed to take up the offering. I was nervous about messing up my only job in the wedding, but when no one else seemed to be able to answer my questions (Does the priest bless the baskets first? Where do we pick up the baskets? Where do we put the baskets at the end?), I figured it wouldn't be terribly noticible if we did mess up. That was a relief. And Séverine and Cédric insisted that we didn't have to punish people for not contributing. Also a relief.
After the wedding, everyone piled into cars and drove to a manor house that Séverine and Cédric had rented for the weekend. It was this lovely old mansion overlooking large, tree-lined grounds. That's where the next event--the cocktail--took place. It was fun to catch up with all the Rallu cousins, aged by 7 years. It was everything I could do not to declare old-lady things like, "oh, yes, I remember you; I was at your First Communion!"
|Séverine sings "La Vie en Rose"
Next was the dinner, an amazing production of pâté, meats, cheeses, vegetables, salads, and three kinds of cake. You name it; we ate it! Plus, I haven't even mentioned the 40 bottles of champagne and cases of red and white wine I'd helped Jean-Claude and the couple stock in the fridge the night before. Between each amazing course was a round of singing, facilitated by the songbooks on each table. As I mentioned, the Rallus are a very musical family, but they tell me that this often happens in French weddings. Besides the group events, there were a few personal performances. Séverine's grandfather Rallu sang a couple of songs in their honor. Cédric read a hysterically funny poem about how he and Séverine had gotten together. Séverine sang "La Vie en Rose" to him, and later performed "L'amour bohème" from Carmen with her little cousins as the choir. I thought momentarily about singing something, but then decided that half a glass of wine had been just too much for me, and I needed to slow down.
Séverine trusted me to sit at the table with the adult cousins. It was probably a mistake on her part, but I had a blast. I got to sit between Kate and Tancred, one of Cédric's three cousins whose mother is French, father is Texan, and also happens to speak fluent German since they were raised in Germany. He became my Prime Translator, which I greatly appreciated, especially after another half-glass of wine impaired my French skills even more.
The dinner lasted a few hours, and afterwards, we danced. Jean-Claude and Séverine walzed to a piece from the movie Amélie. From where I was standing, the whole dance was as if it were in a movie--I saw them turn around the room a few times and then suddenly, Jean-Claude had magically changed into Cédric. I have no idea when they switched off! Séverine also got to dance with her grandfather, who was quite a good dancer.
Corrine (the SYA student who had lived at the Rallu house two years before me), her husband Marcus, Kate and I made a pact that we needed at all times to represent the American community on the dance floor. We were determined to shut the place down, and, as Kate and I didn't have to drive anywhere afterwards, we managed to. The last song was around 4 :30AM, and it took Kate, Lucille, and me another 2 hours or so to take all the beer mugs to the kitchen, fish all the pins out of my hair, and dress for bed. We were turning in just as the sun was coming up.
Noon came very early that next day. We got dressed and went downstairs for the Rallu-d'Ouince Recovery Brunch--cold cut sandwiches, chips, and coffee. Several of the Rallu uncles were trying to push some champagne on me, but I assured them that, of all the things I did not need, alcohol was one of them.
The whole party broke up in the afternoon, and I said a tearful goodbye to Séverine before we realized that we would see each other just two days later. That was funny.
I returned to the Rallu house, where we all (the parents, Anne-Lise and Lucille, and Jean-Claude's brother's family) rested for several days. Unfortunately, Lucille had to work, but I got to spend some quality time with Anne-Lise (who exceedingly impressed me with her growth and maturity) and her three cousins. We went to the pool one day, the beach at St. Malo one day, and (my favorite place on the planet) Mont St. Michel one day. I couldn't have chosen a better way to spend my time.
Later in the week, I took trains and a bus to Le Blanc, where Cédric's parents had trustingly left their home in the hands of their children. I had a day to relax in the pool, Séverine reading from a book on the scandals of the Loire castles and Cédric organizing photos from the wedding. It was then that Cédric officially adopted me as his little sister. Verifying that I have no brothers (although my cousins Walter, Zach, and Jacob have done a magnificent job looking after me all these years), Ced decided to step in. His first piece of advice was that (I kid you not) "men are like meat." I was laughing so hard I failed to grasp his point exactly, but I think it had something to do with seeking that which is tender. As I understand it, my next goal should be to get a tenderizing mallot and beat any man not to my liking. Perhaps I should ask him to clarify before I go about enacting his brotherly commands.
I took to having an older brother like a fish to water (incidentally, just as I had taken to having a twin sister and an older sister 7 years ago when I got adopted by Lucille and Séverine). I performed all the little-sisterly duties: being bratty (I requested that Séverine streamline her Loire castle readings to those chapters involving murders and mistresses--you know, the juicy stuff) and begging to drive his car (it cranks with a CARD instead of a key!). Unfortunately, he has a younger brother and sister, new all the tricks, and flatly refused to let me drive his car. Oh well. At least I got the meat-tenderizer advice out of him.
The next day, a group of cousins and siblings showed up. In all, we were ten mid-twenty and early-thirty-year-olds. I couldn't imagine having more fun. As it turns out, dunking each other in the pool does not go out of fashion after high school. We played volleyball, sunbathed, stargazed, and dunked each other some more. Great fun.
I borrowed Cédric's brother's bike for a tour each morning. He took me out on a trail at one point, which is when I busted. It was an extremely graceful manoeuvre that I don't suggest anyone try at home (I consider myself a bit of an expert in such areas, having taken a few spills here in Togo). I'll admit that I lost technical points for failing to have Guillaume clarify what he meant when he said "watch out for the ornières" (should you happen to run across this phrase, don't look for exotic birds or flowers, but rather pay attention to the RUTS in the road.), but I still give myself a 9.8 since I yelled deafeningly before the tumble, then slid at least a yard on my shoulder and hip. The diagnosis: barely even a bruise. Not too bad, but I was definitely nervous for the rest of the outing and gave up completely on trying to keep up with my guide.
This personal tour was not the only kindness I received from the cousins and brothers of Cédric. He had promised me that they were princes, and, besides the fact that they all took a turn throwing me in the pool, they were. A couple taught me how do a dance called the Rock. I will have to check the "what thou shalt not do while on vacation" section of the Peace Corps Regulations Handbook to know whether one of them gave me a ride on his motorcycle. One of Cédric's cousins was a massage therapist, so she led an informative session on giving back massages, so I managed to score a great back massage from my Prime Translator. Fantastic.
It was really hard to say goodbye to the vacation crew, but poor Séverine and Cédric had to return to work. I rode back to Paris with them and stayed in their apartment for a couple of nights. I picked up Mark at the airport the next morning, then we met Kate for lunch in a creperie near Notre Dame (oh yeah, I ran out of Euros and charged that to my parents--Thanks, Mom and Dad!). Mark and I did some last-minute grocery shopping (you know: chocolate, good-smelling soap, bad-smelling cheese, and more chocolate) and had dinner chez Séverine and Cédric. (Incidentally, I showed this website to Cédric, whose only comment was "It's a lot of blah-blah-blah with not a lot of photos!") The next morning, Mark and I went to the airport as Cédric went to work. It was hard for me to say goodbye to Séverine and Cédric, and hard to say goodbye to France and the Western world in general. I don't know how I would have managed to board the plane to Togo had I not been looking forward to Mark's visit.
As wonderful as this vacation was, there were some good reasons to return to Togo. For one, the good (meaning "hot") weather in France and the States was only going to hold out for a little while longer. Also, I spent the entire vacation without even speaking to a child under the age of eleven (not necessarily a bad thing in France, mind you, because there is nothing more annoying than a three-year-old who has mastered the subjunctive.), and I desperately missed the kids in my village (who are every bit as confused by the subjunctive as I am). Most importantly, my work here is not done. More accurately, I feel that it has barely started. I have one year left to do something that makes me feel like I have given Togo something as valuable as what Togo has given me. Volunteers will tell you that is an unattainable goal, but I've gotta try!