French Dressing and Horseplay...
By Peter Clayton
As the ferry set sail from Portsmouth on that autumn morning, south coast Britain was bathed in warm sunshine. The torrential rain and chilling mist that we encountered shortly after leaving territorial waters meant that we couldn’t actually see Cherbourg until the boat bounced off the harbour wall. Were we downhearted? Well, to be perfectly honest, yes we were! But having been regular visitors to that part of France for many years, we had long since learned that its weather was, to say the least, unpredictable and it was quite likely that within an hour or so, the sun could be out cracking the pavements. This, perhaps, is the optimism of a true Francophile!
We had four hours to drive the forty miles or so to the house we had rented for the week in the middle of the peninsula near to the splendid city of Coutances. We therefore decided to make our way sedately via Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a small town near the east coast D-Day Beaches which we had sped through so many times on the way back to the ferry and had promised ourselves a leisurely visit as soon as the opportunity arose. Apart from being charming, sleepy and typical of Normandy, Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the first town to be liberated during the D-Day Invasion when US paratroopers dropped in, as glorified in the film epic “The Longest Day”.
By the time we arrived, the rain had subsided into mere penetrating drizzle, but the wind was unrelenting. We parked in the town’s main market square, next to the 14th century church, where a model parachutist hangs from the spire in honour of John Steele whose parachute became entangled on the night of the invasion.
The famous rain-soaked parachute flapped in the wind against the gloomy grey sky and the dangling, uniformed mannequin looked decidedly battered and bruised having endured some 50-odd years of aimless hanging around.
Within a few minutes of leaving the warmth of the car, we were cold and wet and desperately in need of shelter from the miserable conditions. From the church we could hear the amplified monotone chant of a priest and as we entered the building through a side door, we realised that we had gatecrashed a wedding. A very strange affair it was too. Although the priest was in full flow, oblivious to everything around him, the bride and groom and their handful of guests were chatting and walking around the church as if they were in a motorway services cafeteria.
The congregation was made up of two distinct factions - local elderly French folk who, by all accounts, had proudly swapped their farm overalls for their Sunday best outfits which last had an airing at about the same time as the parachutist landed on the roof, and a handful of gum-chewing American uniformed service personnel.
The bride, obviously of local peasant stock, was stunning in her disgracefully low-cut, off-the-shoulder white frock which, because of her pleasing shape, had no chance of slipping down further. For no particular logical reason, I decided that she would have suited the name Mimi. The groom was in his drab military dress uniform, identifying him as a low-rank Yank. My own opinion was that he had made a far better catch than his glamorous bride. He was likely to be a Wayne who had impressed Mimi with his dollars rather than his sense.
The rather bizarre and unstructured ceremony seemed to fizzle out through lack of interest. And at a pre-determined point in the proceedings, the organist struck up with a medley of the traditional wedding march, the Marseillaise and the Star Spangled Banner. A rather peculiar mixture in such ancient and hallowed surroundings. I half expected to hear a random selection from Gigi and Oklahoma, just to reinforce the Franco-Yanko flavour of the occasion.
Once the couple had started their walk along the aisle towards the main door of the church, we nipped out of the side entrance, back into the wind and rain, in order to watch the happy couple emerge and go under the rather pathetic guard-of-honour archway of military swords - all four of them!
On the steps of the church, the couple then consummated their marriage in what is obviously an age-old French tradition. They kissed and whilst doing so transferred a piece of pre-masticated chewing gum from mouth to mouth. The American audience gave a loud cheer. The French looked totally bemused. And the several British spectators vomited.
Whilst the French contingent wrestled with their Box Brownies to record the happy event, the Dirty Dozen unloaded enough video and lighting equipment from a US Army Jeep for a re-make of The Battle Of The Bulge. However, if I had known at that point exactly what was going to happen during the next 20 minutes, then I might have considered hiring in a film-crew myself!
After the traditional and obligatory group wedding photographs - Mama et Papa avec Wayne and Dwight; the vertically-challenged priest between the bride and groom, with his holy nose less than half an inch from Mimi’s glorious cleavage - a horse-box drew up in front of the church. The driver lowered the tail-gate and led out a huge white, pre-saddled thoroughbred.
The apprehensive creature was led reluctantly to the church steps where another bout of camera flashes and video lights added to his unease and confusion. Speculation grew. Were the bride and groom going to mount the horse (so to speak) and ride off triumphantly into the metaphoric sunset, in true John Wayne style?
The weather, meanwhile, was showing no deference to the occasion. By now, it was not only the gawping multitudes who were cold, wet and windswept; the bride herself was beginning to lose her virginal bloom. And the horse was thoroughly hacked off with the whole affair.
With a leg up from her new husband, Mimi then attempted to mount her steed. But the steed made it pretty obvious that he was having none of it. On the sixth attempt, with half the American army grabbing on to the poor creature so it could not move in any direction, Mimi finally made it and was applauded by the dripping crowd - more, I think, for the glimpse of her stocking tops rather than her equine achievement.
The back of her dress was carefully draped over the horse’s rear end in elegant dressage style, and with Wayne standing to attention next to the steed’s head, cameras again started clicking and flashes flashing. This was the final straw for the distraught creature which, to register its contempt, suddenly bucked and, in a determined effort to unseat his rider, bolted.
For Mimi, this was probably the most exacting test of her horsemanship skills she had ever experienced. Whilst the spectators sped the scene in fear of being kicked or charged, the frantic girl clung on to the horse’s neck with all her might. Undoubtedly, any lesser a rider would have been thrown and, most likely, severely injured.
The rain was still lashing down and the wind still blowing. And as Mimi lay almost flat whilst clinging on to the animal, a sudden gust caught her dress which blew over both her head and the horse’s head.
Unfortunately that morning - obviously due to last-minute nerves and a million and one other things to think about - poor Mimi had totally forgotten to put on any knickers. For a full three minutes and three thousand camera flashes, Mimi - with bare bum higher than her head - was unwillingly carried around the market square by her uncaring mount until, eventually, the full regiment captured the frightened creature and pinned it down long enough for the blushing bride to dismount and reprivatise her assets.
The proud mother of the bride, decked out in all her finery, soon had her daughter looking respectable again, with Mimi’s frock discreetly covering up the parts of her which were really intended for the groom’s eyes only.
After everyone had composed themselves in the wake if this unexpected and spectacular culmination to the nuptials, the groom joined Mimi in the back of an open-top Jeep which took them off to the reception. The horse was led off, probably to join distant relatives in the window of the local boucherie.
We knew that Sainte-Mere-Eglise would prove to be cultural.
Pictures courtesy of http://allthecreatures.org