The French have always brought out a certain competitiveness in me. Maybe it’s because I know they view us Americans as crass and cultureless. It was therefore with some pleasure that I read about the discomfort they felt when we elected Barack Obama to office; they realized that, unlike us, they were not yet ready to elect a member of a minority to head their country. I also take some satisfaction in the fact that gay marriage is not yet legal in France. It’s another example of how we have pulled ahead of them, in six states at least.
But it is hard not to admire the French when you are in France. This time we are in Missillac and Sarzeau, on the Atlantic coast in Brittany, a 5-hour drive from Paris and far from the regions of the country I traveled as a younger man: Strasbourg along the German border, Annecy and Volonne near Switzerland, and Lyon, Marseilles and the cities of the French Riviera.
There is an ease to the life here, a quiet graciousness to the people, and you can’t beat the language for consonance and simplicity. You drive from one little village to the next, the roads winding past cathedrals and castles, and freshly mown fields. The air is warm and dry, and the ground is heavy with the weight of centuries.
Last night I sat with my wife across from Daniel and Vincent at the rehearsal dinner, with Vincent’s eight-year-old nephew nestled in between them, mugging for the camera. There are many cultural issues that could have kept the two men apart. Daniel is American; Vincent French. Daniel is Jewish and Vincent is Christian. But it is the trait that they share – their sexual orientation — that seems to be on everyone’s minds as the dinner plates are removed, the wine glasses refilled, and the toasts begin.
Vincent has been concerned about how his family would react to the toasts, with one American guest after another pushing back from the table to celebrate the upcoming union and some of the guests surprising us with their French. We don’t toast in France, Vincent says. And we never tell each other how we feel.
But when Daniel and Vincent have each finished their toasts, Daniel translating Vincent’s toast into English and Vincent translating Daniel’s toast into French, it is Vincent’s sister and then his cousin who stand for the final toasts, and the two women speak with a warmth and an ease that would have you believe they have been toasting every day of their lives.
You might think that my wife and I, having been to many rehearsal dinners and weddings over the years, would bring a certain guardedness to the occasion. After all, we have seen so many of these unions – so happily announced – fall apart under the pressures of day-to-day life, the unmet expectations and the so many ways to fail. But if, according to the quote my wife will use in the wedding ceremony tomorrow, marriage is like falling in love again and again, always with the same person, it seems only fair that two men who love each other the way Daniel and Vincent clearly do — or two women — should have the opportunity to give it a go themselves. As the Massachusetts Supreme Court put it so well in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the desire of so many gay men and women to join their lives together is an affirmation and strengthening of the institution of marriage, not a weakening.
Someone has pointed out that the couple in Goodridge got divorced after a couple of years but this seems to miss the point. In reflecting on the challenges of marriage, I can’t help thinking of a poem my father once wrote about croquet. Old malice may have chipped the wood, he wrote, and colors fade. Balls may roll too far on a lawn that did not turn out exactly as we planned. We alibi our shots and our temper, and, when the game is over, we leave the wickets out to stand or fall as they may.