Carnet de Voyage: Wedding in Navarenx

Carnet de Voyage: Wedding in Navarenx

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

I couldn’t lie awake any longer. It was just before 7am on my wedding day, and despite having been asleep for a matter of hours, I was impatient to begin the day. During the past two weeks, the last of August, there had been heat-wave conditions in Navarrenx, our home in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, so we were all secretly relieved by the overcast conditions. 

Despite ticking jobs off our to-do list, today was nervously relying on the one or two conversations we’d had with the restaurant providing our canapés and food, and the deputy mayor, standing in for his very first marriage ceremony. 

Arriving at the mairie in my father’s old Land Rover, I see many villagers had come to take pictures of this British spectacle. A few seemed more interested by the car than anything else, but I suddenly felt aware that the whole town felt just as involved in our wedding as we did. A feeling we had come to love; being welcomed and included with open arms into a new community. 

I think our French friends are just as curious about us, a couple who work in boarding schools, moving to France for work and adventure, as we are about them. Neil’s fluency in French, and my own unique style which manages to be both idiomatic and soutenu, have endeared us to our local community. We came here to speak a language we are passionate about. 

Our ceremony commences in French, with the deputy mayor clad in a patriotic tricolour sash. We say our vows in front of an old fireplace with Navarrenx’s motto “si you ti bau” engraved above the crest of arms. The English translation of the Béarnais dialect means “If I go”.  

© Brigid Eades

Here we go. Married officially in France. With Neil’s best man Pierre (fortunately half-French) providing not so much of an accurate translation from the deputy mayor, but more a running commentary, as if at the horse races. The deputy mayor plunged into a prolonged speech in which the silent room could feel the weight of French history, its revolutions and empires, which have shaped the laws of today. He declared the Napoleonic conventions of marriage, during which we were all warned seriously “not to interrupt”. Pierre summarised succinctly saying, “He said, basically, just be nice to each other and you’ll be fine”. 

The ceremony wasn’t intended to be humorous but ended up being a case of no one really knowing what was happening next until finally, the deputy mayor, without a word of English himself, heroically got us married after a rather bizarre struggle through the contact details of our witnesses. He even read aloud their postcodes. 

Neil, a lifelong Arsenal Football Club fan, had the moment of his life declaring at the end, “We are off to the Arsenal!”. All the bewildered guests moved to la cour de l’Arsenal, one of the central squares in Navarrenx which used to contain over 30,000 cannonballs and hundreds of cannons. 

The Arsenal also acted as military quarters for soldiers kept in the bastide ready to fight against the latest threat, whether that be the Basques, French, Spanish or even Wellington’s English. Navarrenx held a strategic position on the banks of the torrential river descending from the Pyrenees, a gave, as it is known in local dialect. The river separated the historic region of Béarn – at the time enjoying quasi-autonomous status within the wider kingdom of Gascony – from the Spanish kingdom of Navarre. Hence its name meaning “on the edge of Navarre”.  

© Brigid Eades

After canapés and congratulations, we went to the local restaurant where the team had put together a beautiful meal, far exceeding our expectations considering we had one conversation loosely based on what might be served on the day. They carried on serving as if during a normal service, mystified by our formalities of speeches and wedding traditions going on around them. 

We held a party in our back garden, put together in professional event management style by our family helpers, complete with fairy lights twinkling in our palm trees, the garden wall softly lit and a fire pit blazing. Everyone shared their best moves on our improvised dance floor/lawn in the last of the summer air. 

We did it our own way. And we did it in the Navarrais way. From the mairie to the ramparts, to the Arsenal, restaurant, and back garden, we were so happy and proud to merge our wedding day with the richly historic and culturally distinct ambiance that Navarrenx offers. It felt both familiar and strange, as our personal story begins overlap with centuries of what makes Béarn and Navarrenx a unique culture to be a part of.  A very special pays in France that we now call home.

Brigid Eades currently works as a teacher and sports coach in a British boarding school in the Gers department. Her husband Neil is the deputy headmaster and French teacher. In 2021, they bought a house within the ramparts of the historic village of Navarrenx, Pyrénées Atlantiques. Whilst they both currently teach in the Gers, they are most enchanted by their home in Navarrenx and Béarn, and spend as much time as possible throwing themselves into learning about the history and cultural intricacies of this interesting region of France. Brigid plans to offer guided history tours of the Béarn very soon and you can find more information on her blog

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here.

© Brigid Eades

Lead photo credit : © Brigid Eades

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  • Michael Harrelson
    2024-05-22 07:00:24
    Michael Harrelson
    What a beautiful - and beautifully written - tale of love among the French. Bravo! I envy your chosen lifestyle. Ahh, if I was only 40 years younger. Joyeux mariage.