Dec 7 2010

Our Gang

The ceremony was short and sweet. French civil weddings have little to do with romance and everything to do with the legal, functionary details, though the Mairie IIIeme de Paris has a certain flair and managed to make this usually-dry ceremony at least a little theatrical. Outside we congregated in front of the ornate doors waiting for the bride and groom. They presented themselves in wedding-cake-ornament style, emerging to applause and showers of rose petals. “Suivez-nous!” They called us to follow them down the street. We fell in step behind them, small clusters of friends and family strolling down rue des Archives, not quite in a line, not quite together – more like a casual, clumpy parade.

They led us to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, a grand hotel particulier. It is a museum (of hunting and nature) but it is also rentable, with the right connections, for special occasions. We were directed through its magnificent rooms, replete with stuffed, mounted heads of hunted game and several wild animals revived by taxidermy – even a tiger and a giant polar bear donning elements of the bride’s veil for decorative effect – and ushered out the back doors into the garden where the black-and-white clad waiters held out trays filled with tall flutes of champagne.

It was all perfect. Perfect because the bride was stunning and the groom had style. Perfect because of the setting, the elegant backdrop of a manoir and its manicured, labyrinthed garden, the cloudless summer evening sky and the approaching sunset. Perfect because of the eclectic mix of French and English conversations. Perfect because I looked around at the friends of the bride and groom who’d assembled to celebrate, and I thought to myself, what a lovely collection of people. How lucky we are to know them.

When you live as an expatriate in a transient city like Paris, you make friends in cycles. There’s the first set, made up of anybody who’ll have you, basically, because you’re new in town. This evolves into a more deliberate circle of friends with bonds that form because of common interests. Just when those friendships seem to be cemented, someone moves away. Another friend, who was perhaps on the periphery before, steps into the place made empty by the departure and brings along other friends and the circle grows. Then people move away and it shrinks again. That couple that became your best friends, they get transferred to Cambodia or they move to Boston or return to New Zealand or god forbid they break up and the circle of friends has to adjust to accommodate the change.

This happens everywhere, to some degree. But in a foreign capital that attracts voyagers and wanderlusters, the landscape of friends shifts more often than usual. It’s like living on a fault line, with tectonic plates of friends and acquaintances in constant motion.

We do have some very affable French friends whom have warmly welcomed us to their land and their habits of wine and cheese and all-of-August-off. We are part of a cool and creative association of fine colleagues who are also good friends. But the community we most easily identify with is expatriate. We are not French, we are other, or at least in-between.

When I first used to take the girls to school, I was just a drop-off-and-go-mom: I’d cheerfully greet any familiar parents encountered but otherwise I’d hop on that velib’ and get back home. Those uninterrupted hours while they are at school seemed too scarce a commodity not to be maximized to their fullest. But De-facto, he’d hang around, waiting to watch the girls as their teachers escort them from the courtyard to the school building, waving at them as they pass two-by-two like animals marching to an ark. In the meantime, he met more parents. He chatted and went for a café. He became a regular in several overlapping coffee klatches. He made friends.

And then it happened. A group email included our addresses and we were invited to join a dinner and dancing get-together at a club. A few weeks later we got an invite to a birthday party. Next we were invited to the wedding. We’d been absorbed.

I love this community of bilingual parents. It’s not a clique of expats who cloister themselves and lament about how things are better at home. This tribe is made of couples where he’s French and she’s English, or she’s French and he’s American, or they’re both Brits but weaving their lives into the fabric of Parisian life. What binds us is just what differentiates us in our home countries: having chosen consciously to live outside the borders of our own culture and to (sometimes) struggle through this one. We worry about our kids and how they’ll survive the French school, we compare notes and help each other and laugh at ourselves as we cope. We’re also just the right amount of wild and ready for a good time. For instance, last Saturday night this very gang congregated at a small club not too far from the Bastille. Some of us were twice as old as the younger patrons but we were the ones who moved the furniture so we could dance, and we were the ones who kept shouting for more volume on the music.

To be invited to the wedding of our new friends (and incidentally, both bride and groom are French) felt like a great privilege. I looked around and thought, damn, these are fantastic people. They are like me, but they are different, and in the most interesting ways. They hold the codes of their own cultures and ways of speaking English (sometimes unintelligible though it’s the same mother tongue), but they have chosen to live this adventure in France despite the fact that it is not always easy and it puts them far away from family and childhood friends.

The cocktail hour lasted for hours. We were hungry but we started not to care. People moved around and mingled; the clusters of friends and family formed and reformed into new conversations. The waiters kept pouring champagne. The laughter of the guests grew louder, wilder. The sun lowered its head on the horizon and the indigo sky uncovered the first summer evening stars. Dinner and dancing still to come, the night was young and we were among friends.