Many hitches can occur during a wedding ceremony, the bespectacled official explains. He also elaborates: There have been cases in which the bride or groom forgot their ID card; cases in which the witnesses did not show up; even cases in which the couple arrived after the time appointed for the ceremony. The bespectacled official asks us to ensure that none of the above will happen at our ceremony, set for Monday.
We nod in enthusiastic assent. To be late for your own wedding ceremony – well, really. Besides, Israelis are never late. The bespectacled official nods enthusiastically.
The city hall of the 20th arrondissement has been at its present location, Plaza Gambetta, since 1877. The previous city hall, in Plaza Jourdain, off Rue de Palestine, had been a love nest for the archbishop, and the fathers of the young republic decided that it was not a suitable venue for wedding ceremonies. By the same token, they also decided that the marriage hall in the new premises would be the largest and finest in Paris: 400 square meters in area, with 11 panoramic windows to overlook the city from the east.
The elected official who conducts the ceremony stands on a raised platform below a hanging sculpture of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic. That’s not the only oddity in the place. A mural that runs around the hall, by the artist Leon Glaize (1842-1932), depicts Republican figures welcoming the couple in a joyous, anachronistic display: Victor Hugo, the Marquis de Lafayette, Joan of Arc, Mirabeau and a panoply of Greek gods waving their hands avidly.
Many famous people tied the knot here. The first was Prime Minister Leon Blum, in 1896, who in 1932 married here a second time, this time to the woman who had been his mistress for 20 years. The writer Georges Perec, who was married here in 1960, was half an hour late for the ceremony and found himself facing the former partner of his bride, Paulette Petras. The ex demanded that the ceremony be canceled on the baseless grounds that she had not broken off with him. The singer Charles Aznavour was so fond of the hall that he was married in it three times.
The public official who is going to marry us is the deputy mayor, Weiming Shi, 33. He immigrated from China at the age of 16 and launched his political activities by organizing demonstrations in support of the Chinese merchants in Belleville. Within two months, he had 20,000 demonstrators marching behind him – an achievement that did not escape the notice of the city’s Socialist Party. He is polite and pleasant, and thrilled to be marrying Israelis for the first time. As the clerks tell us in advance, another of the deputy mayor’s qualities is that his Chinese accent is so pronounced that we don’t have a hope of understanding the clauses of the law he will read out delineating the commitments of the newlyweds.
The filmmaker Ludi Boeken is used to working under pressure. He’s produced films about Robert Altman and Sam Shepard, directed Britney Spears and fought zombies alongside Brad Pitt in the megalomaniacal film “World War Z.” His wife, Annette Levy-Willard, a stalwart of the newspaper Liberation, covered the Lebanon War and managed the French Institute in Tel Aviv. But now, the two of them are standing in front of the 20th arrondissement city hall and trying to calm down two clerks who are on the verge of hysteria, and asking, “But where are the bride and groom?”
Ludi and Annette are our witnesses, and we, as could be guessed from the outset, are a little late for our wedding ceremony. Officially, the role of the witnesses in a civil marriage is to confirm the couple’s identity; in practice, their job is to reassure the presiding officials who worry there will be a problem that will keep them on duty for too long.
The witnesses at the wedding of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, in 1951, were supposed to be Jacques Prevert and Pablo Picasso. Picasso was a no-show and the officials were lenient and agreed to replace him in the marriage registration records with a new witness, the proprietor of the café around the corner, the Golden Dove. Picasso apologized the next day and rushed to give the couple a wedding present – two plates on which he drew a pair of doves – “the only gift that miser ever gave us,” Signoret observes in her autobiography.
Ten years later, in one of her many quarrels with Montand during their life together in Paris, Signoret, in a fit of uncontrolled rage, threw every kitchen object within reach at her wayward husband, from cups to frying pans, and also smashed the Picasso originals over his head. All of which goes to show that it’s better to have witnesses who will show up on time than witnesses who know how to draw.
We are late, because, having bought a fine suit for the occasion at Agnes B., I then forgot to have them shorten the trousers. One of the changes introduced by deputy mayor Weiming Shi for his voters is a ceiling on the number of working hours permitted at Chinese-owned stores in the city, with the result that all the Chinese tailors are closed on Mondays. I finally find a Palestinian seamstress who instantly identifies the origin of the groom who has rushed into her store. “Congratulations, cousin,” she says and hands me back the shortened trousers after four minutes.
The three-story staircase leading to the wedding hall of the Htel de Ville is covered by one of the longest red carpets in Paris, and on every floor the couple is greeted by a different modern sculpture on the theme of “The Kiss.” Hidden loudspeakers play Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” as we make our way up the dozens of stairs as slowly as possible, obeying the instructions of our friend Gali Eytan, the photographer, who blocks bodily every attempt by the representatives of the Republic to speed up our ascent. I climb, still panting, Lital is as radiant as a bride under the canopy.
It was a lovely ceremony. It really was impossible to understand what the deputy mayor was saying, apart from the moment when he asked us whether we agreed to join our lives together. We nodded in enthusiastic assent.