My Big, Fat French Wedding In The Tiny Village of Ermenonville

Meeta and Thibault tie the knot

Meeta Sethna and Thibault Gournay, both professionals from New York, were in love. Considering they had been in that state of bliss for a few years already, the idea of tying the knot seemed like a good one. What they wanted, however, was that mythical event — a fairy-tale wedding. They wanted blue skies and green meadows, champagne and a sit-down dinner. And yes, raas garba in a French chateau.

Neither of them were pop stars, nor was Hollywood aware of their existence. And yet, with a little help from family and friends, they got what they wished for — a picture-postcard wedding.

On August 23, 2008, Meeta and Thibault were married at the Chateau d’Ermenonville, France. Gazing into each others’ eyes, they read out vows while being serenaded by classical musicians. Above them were blue skies; behind, a medieval chateau. And surrounding them, dressed in their Sunday best, were the people they loved. And while a hundred cameras flashed, with people going ‘Oooh!’ and ‘Aaaah!’ in accents both Indian and French, there must have been one thought uppermost in the minds of the bride and groom: ‘How did we pull this off?’

The moat around the Chateau d’Ermenonville

To call it tricky would be an understatement. Meeta’s family lived in New York; Thibault’s, in France. Somewhere in between lay a chateau — 40 kilometres from Paris — that needed a little sprucing up, Indian style. Things most couples took for granted were, understandably, off-limits here. For one, how would French chefs create a four-course meal for guests who ate only Indian vegetarian fare? Where could one find a DJ comfortable with switching from Bollywood blockbusters to traditional garba? Then there was the question of transportation, as guests were to arrive from India, America and France.

So, for six straight months, the families Sethna and Gournay worked their telephone lines. They fired up laptops on two continents, drawing up Excel sheets. The food was taken care of by a chef from Pondicherry now living in Paris, although he spoke only French or Tamil, which presented another set of challenges. The DJ was found in London — if you can’t find an Indian in England, where can you? — and asked to come over by Eurorail. Relatives were assigned the task of bringing in snacks and decorative knick-knacks, while the good people at Chateau d’Ermenonville were given time to prepare for their first big, fat Indian wedding.

Dinner on the Chateau grounds

They needed all the preparation they could get. After all, the town of Ermenonville was home to just a few thousand souls (the 1999 census listed 838), none of whom were aware of the flurry of salwars, saris and sherwanis heading their way. What guaranteed a fairy-tale setting, however, was the chateau itself. It was built in the year 987, early enough to see Joan of Arc pass by in 1429 and greet Louis XI in 1474. Henri IV visited in 1590, queen Marie-Antoinette in 1783. Others who had decided to stop by included King of Sweden Gustave III, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The chateau’s fortunes had changed radically over the centuries. First, it was sold to a Prince Constantin Radziwill in 1874, who was mysteriously assassinated in Monte Carlo a few decades later. During World War II, enemy troops occupied the royal rooms. In 1945, Italian automobile manufacturer Ettore Bugatti settled in, then promptly mortgaged the property to finance his research. By 1991, the Particuliers Hotels group had become the owner, transforming Chateau d’Ermenonville into a luxury hotel of 49 rooms. Now here it was in 2008, host to the Sethna-Gournay nuptials.

A perfect setting for cocktails

Right outside the chateau, spread across 16 hectares, was the Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau, regarded as the first landscape garden in France and named after the writer who was buried there. Rousseau had spent his last days at the chateau. He was buried on an isle of poplars, in an artificial lake at the park, until his remains were moved to the Pantheon in Paris. On the afternoon before the wedding, I walked through the garden. I came across a bench made for Marie-Antoinette, who had sat there to receive girls from the village on her visit a few centuries ago. There was also an unfinished building called the Temple of Philosophy, left in that state on purpose to symbolise the incompleteness of human knowledge.

And then it was time for the big event. In the meadow at the back of the chateau, seated by the side of a lake, we watched as Meeta Sethna and Thibault Gournay spoke of their love for each other. Behind them stood their groomsmen, in formal coats and tails. There were hats and dupattas, staid blue suits and fiery red saris flashing in the breeze.

Breakfast with the ducks

Later, as we sipped pre-dinner cocktails and watched fireworks light up the sky above the lake, I thought about the argument for simple weddings. A court marriage and informal party was all very well, of course, but could it really beat a wedding at a chateau?

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