Monday, February 12, 2007

Amour actually

Put the word “French” before a perfectly innocent noun, like lessons or maid, and suddenly we’re all nudging and winking, know what I mean? Although the French didn’t invent love, they could be said to have invented romance. In the 13th century, romanz was the word for vernacular French (as opposed to the more literary Latin) and a romance was a work composed in the vernacular tongue. These romances were the poems of the Troubadours, the poet-musicians of France, who wrote essentially about the ideal of fin’amours which we now think of as “courtly love”. In theory, this “pure” love was a noble and aesthetic affair, requiring the suitor to revere his adored lady – ideally cruel and aloof - from afar. In practice, it was simply a bit of extramarital hanky-panky, usually with an aristocratic woman whose husband had gone away on the Crusades once too often.

The origins of Saint Valentine’s Day are more obscure. The ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, dedicated to the god Lupercus, had long been celebrated here on the 15th of February. At Lupercalia, a young man would draw the name of a young woman in a lottery and would then keep the woman as a sexual companion for the year – a sort of Ancient Roman Postman’s Knock, only ruder. In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius the First decided to put a stop to this immoral behaviour and he changed the lottery. Henceforth, both men and women would draw the names of saints whom they were expected to emulate for the rest of the year. And what a barrel of laughs that must have been.

Instead of Lupercus, the patron of the feast became Valentine, after the saint – or saints – whose feast day was celebrated on the 14th of February. Again, no-one is sure which saint is concerned: at least three martyrs with that name are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of the 14th of February and all of them lost their head - a fitting end for a patron saint of lovers. As for the tradition of sending cards, the very romantic Charles, Duke of Orleans, could be said to have sent the first one. Imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415, after the Battle of Agincourt, he wrote and sent love poems to his wife in France - although he probably would have been better off asking her for a file-in-a-cake or a cunning disguise.

Saint Valentin is the name of a small village in the centre of France. It normally has a population of two-hundred and eighty-five but at this time of year it is overrun with hordes of soppy couples strolling hand in hand through the “Lovers’ Garden”, visiting the “House of Loving Sentiments and Marriage”, having their names engraved on a brass, heart-shaped leaf attached to a ‘tree’, or renewing their wedding vows. The Post Office does a roaring trade too, as people from all over France come to post their love-letters or wedding invitations from the village: the postmark and stamp are appropriately sentimental and the letterbox is heart-shaped.

Getting married in France is not as romantic as it sounds, unless you’re marrying a rich aristocrat with a Château in the Dordogne, in which case it probably is. As usual, the French want you to fill in numerous forms and provide documents proving that you’re not a serial bigamist (four different certificates needed), that you are who you say you are, that you have no nasty diseases and that you are not an illegal immigrant. When you have managed to gather all this information, you have to get it translated into French, just in case you were thinking of fobbing them off with your Go For It Guides certificate or the instruction leaflet for the camcorder. Then you have to wait ten days while the banns are published and finally – if you’re still in the mood – you can get married.

Only civil weddings are recognised in France, so the first stop is the Town Hall where the Mayor pronounces you man and wife in front of witnesses (so you can’t try to deny it at a later date...) and then hustles you out because there are other brave couples waiting outside for their turn. Wedding photos are usually taken in a park, which is more romantic than having them taken on the Town Hall steps and there’s no danger of getting the bridal parties mixed up. Some couples go to church first, for the optional religious ceremony, where they sit on velvet-covered chairs beneath a silk canopy, called a carré, and exchange rings, if they haven’t already done so. Then everybody drives to the reception in a convoy, making as much noise as possible by sounding their horns all the way there.

The traditional wedding cake, called a pièce montée, is a pyramid of cream-filled chocolate profiteroles, often shaped like the Eiffel Tower or some other monument. It is easy to cut, when the time comes, but not so handy for putting in those little boxes to send to friends. Finally, after an evening of champagne and disco-dancing, the jeunes mariés drive off for their lune de miel and hope that nobody has put fireworks in the exhaust pipe. As the poet Alfred de Musset put it, On ne badine pas avec l’amour: you don’t mess around with love…


angela said...

That's so funny....Trust the Pope to put an end to the fun.
We don't really "do" St Valentine in our house but I'll use it as an excuse to buy a giant bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk they've started selling in our local Champion.

Gigi said...

Cadbury's Dairy Milk? Really? Somebody told me of a Super U in a village near here that sold Ribena...maybe I'll drive over there and see what else they've got on offer.


Sarah @ Baby Bilingual said...

Salut Gigi! Thanks for visiting my blog. I love the detailed posts about food on yours. Would you consider letting me profile your daughters on my blog? I could send you a questionnaire or you could write up a narrative about how they're growing up with more than one language. You can email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com. A bientot, j'espere!

Tinsie said...

The pièce montée, is it the same as a croquebouche?

Gigi said...

Yes Tinsie - a croquembouche is also a pyramid of cream puffs. Sometimes though, for weddings, they make special shapes like teddies or ships or whatever.

Sarah...I'll send you a mail!