Two Weddings and Two Funerals
One Great Stock
Today we begin with a simple quiz.
What's the largest country in Europe?
Note: It's sort of a trick question, and you'll find the answer below.
But it's relevant to today's column, because I recently returned from a two-week vacation in Europe, where I enjoyed--among many other things--two weddings and two funerals.
The first wedding was the one watched by gazillions of people, in which Prince William married Catherine Middleton, making her the Duchess of Cambridge.
No, I wasn't there. My wife and I watched it from the comfort of a hotel room in Wernberg-Koeblitz, Germany--a city somewhat north of Munich--and we enjoyed it thoroughly. The exception was the ridiculous hat worn by Princess Beatrice, which attracted so much attention that it is being auctioned off on eBay for charity. (The bid is currently more than $26,000.) Good move.
The first funeral, such as it was, was Osama bin Laden's burial at sea three days later. I didn't get to watch (obviously), but I enjoyed it. And I appreciate the foresight demonstrated by the quick and respectful disposal of the body in a method that places it beyond the reach of temptation.
The second funeral came two days after that, after we'd enjoyed time in Prague and Salzburg, and were driving back toward Munich. A roadside sign promising a Mammoth Museum coincided with our need for lunch, and we soon found ourselves in Siegsdorf, Germany, a tidy town of 8,000 residents.
We did find and visit the Museum Naturkunde u. Mammut, but we were underwhelmed.
Yet Siegsdorf did provide two rewards.
The first was a pleasant lunch in the sunshine by a lively fountain. I had a salad topped with chicken breast, washed down by a radler, the German term for shandy, which is beer and lemonade.
The second came as we strolled into town to visit the church, a favorite pastime in our travels. We were happy to see the door open, but then--in less time than it takes to tell it--surprised to be holding cards for the funeral service of Johann Gschwendtner, who had passed away after 86 years.
Luckily, we were early. There were only three people in the church.
So we sat in a pew, appreciating the splendor of the church, as well as the harmonies of local folk melodies sung by three unseen women in the choir loft above us, accompanied by what sounded like a hammer dulcimer. It was a beautiful moment.
But when the priest hustled in, zipped up his robe and began closing doors, we beat a hasty retreat to the graveyard outside.
Sometimes, the unplanned pleasures are the best.
The second wedding, and the main feature of this column, was on the following Sunday, in Buchach, Ukraine.
Yes, Ukraine is the largest contiguous country in Europe, with 233,000 square miles of territory. Spectacularly scenic and blessed with especially fertile soil, the country's vast fields of wheat have earned it the nickname of "The Breadbasket of Europe."
(France has more than 247,000 square miles, but 34,284 of them are in overseas departments like French Guiana and Guadeloupe, which are not in Europe. The European part of France has some 212,900 square miles.)
Anyway, the wedding was for Andriy and Halyna, whom I last mentioned here in February 2007. Briefly, Halyna had been a guest in our house in 2003 as a young high school student. Since then, with occasional support from us, she's graduated from an American college, become an American citizen, and landed a full-time job. Andriy is also an American citizen, and has been in the country even longer.
They were married last year in a civil ceremony in the U.S.
But they hadn't been home in over three years, so the wedding was a chance to do right by their parents, their hometown of Buchach, their church and their culture in general.
And it was the best wedding I've ever attended! Ukrainians are reputed to be a warm and friendly people who are proud of their long history; the wedding proved this reputation to be true.
It began at noon on Sunday in the groom's house, with the blessing of the bread.
In this ceremony, witnessed by family (including my wife and me as special guests) the groom knelt before his parents, kisses were exchanged, and the parents, each wielding an elaborate loaf of bread known as the korovai and "bonking" the groom about the head and shoulders, blessed the upcoming union. This was done three times.
Then we tromped out to the driveway, where a symbolic plate was broken. The groom stepped on it to crush it further.
Then we caravanned, with much honking of horns, to the bride's house, where the bargaining for the bride took place.
An arch of greenery had been built the day before at the entrance to her driveway, and under it was a table, holding food and drink.
The representatives (starosty) from the families, each an older male relative, then approached the table from each side and began bargaining for the bride, with various family members joining in and neighbors drawing near to hear as well. Food was shared, vodka was drunk, and people laughed. I didn't understand a word, though we did have an interpreter on hand providing a rough synopsis.
Eventually a price was agreed upon, which included not only Hryvnias (the currency of Ukraine) but also numerous bottles of vodka, which were promptly handed over.
The bride was summoned, and she emerged in a flowing white gown with veil.
But it wasn't the real bride at all--it was an aunt who was chosen because she was NOT young, slim and beautiful.
The crowd laughed uproariously.
The fake bride demanded a payoff before she would leave. More negotiations. More laughter. Eventually, a price was agreed on. And away she went, to be replaced by the real bride, looking every bit as beautiful as that girl in London the week before.
The families then entered the bride's house, where more wedding breads awaited, to be used by the bride's parents and grandmother as they blessed both the bride and groom ... three times.
Then back out to the driveway, where another plate was broken. In this case, I saw the mother of the bride smash it. Also, water and salt were tossed around the wedding party.
And then it was off to the church (Orthodox).
At precisely 2 p.m., the bride and groom entered together; they had already been joined together at her house.
All guests followed, as did the breads, which were placed by the altar. My wife and I were given a good viewing spot on the side. All guests stood for the entire ceremony, as they always do in church; seats are provided for only the elderly and pregnant.
And the priest chanted the entire service, with the 22-person choir responding, in a long call-and-response process.
During the service, the bride and groom stood on an embroidered cloth. They held lighted candles for a long time. For a similar long time, a groomsman and bridesmaid stood behind them holding golden crowns over--but not touching--their heads. At one point two drops of wax fell on the bride's dress, and she turned around to get a cloth from a bridesmaid behind her. Eventually, the candles were given to the parents. Rings were slid onto fingers. And the priest used another embroidered cloth to bind the hands of the bride and groom together.
There was no kissing in the church ... save the kissing of the image of the Virgin Mary by the bride.
And after the entire party had exited the church, the bride and groom were handed white doves, which they released into the air. (The doves then flew home.)
At this point, the bride and groom went off with the photographer to be photographed at various locations around town. My wife and I retired to the groom's house for lunch and a little rest.
But 4:45 p.m. found us with the groom's mother and other family members, entering the restaurant where the big reception was held.
It wasn't particularly big in number; there were about 100 guests.
But it was big in scope!
As we entered, the band, consisting of saxophone/clarinet, accordion, keyboard and substantial electronic support, was tuning up.
The infamous breads reappeared.
And somewhat after 5 p.m., the reception line began, during which guests congratulated the newlyweds while dropping off envelopes and money and red roses. As it progressed, the emcee conducted a running commentary, mentioning the arrival of important guests and family members. Again, I understood not a word. But as my wife approached the bride and groom, we recognized our names, and the word "America."
Our evening interpreter, previously the high school English teacher and now the principal, later explained that the emcee had promised the guests they'd hear more about us later on.
But then it was off to the food tables, located upstairs, around an open center that looked down on the dance floor. Ascending the stairs, we passed under couples holding more embroidered cloths, and we kissed as we passed under each one.
And the tables!
They were laden with traditional Ukrainian cold appetizers, from sliced meats and cheese to dried fruits to vegetable salads to fruit salads to fish to bread with toppings to chicken in aspic (the one dish no one at our table touched). There was enough food for twice as many people ... and that was the idea, to show bounty.
All this food was on every table, so there was no need to get up; we simply passed and ate, passed and ate.
Also on every table were two convenient groupings of bottles, containing water, juice, champagne, wine and vodka.
And as time went by, servers would emerge from the kitchen bearing new dishes, like borscht, cabbage rolls and potato pancakes, and find ways to shoehorn them onto the table as well.
Through it all, the emcee was working, coordinating the toasts to the bride and groom by family members. The band had come upstairs, sans amplifiers, to support his act. From time to time, chants of "Gorko, gorko, gorko!" would induce the bride and groom to kiss.
Several times, the emcee also induced the groomsmen to kiss the bridesmaids, with increasing degrees of intensity.
There was no clanking of knives on glasses.
But each of us had a water glass and a vodka glass, and those glasses were well used, as frequent toasts induced us to toast, or toast "to the bottom." (Note: There were no servers pouring, only table members, so the amount of vodka in the glass was usually up to the guest.)
The vodka was Nemiroff Light, and it was good.
At some point, the emcee called on our interpreter, the high school principal, to explain the role of "the Americans" in the union, which he did, at length, in Ukrainian.
And then he asked us to speak.
Now, thanks to our interpreter, I was well aware that many of the previous speeches had not only wished the couple well but also wished that they remain true to their homeland. The simple truth is that Ukraine's population has been declining since 1991, as births are dwarfed by deaths. Immigration barely exceeds emigration. And, of course, it's the best and brightest that emigrate. So, respectful of preceding speakers who had urged the couple not to forget their roots--even to the extent of suggesting they bear children there--I played it safe, saying something like, "I'm very happy to be here in Buchach. I've enjoyed my few days with the people of Ukraine very much. And I wish Andriy and Halyna a wonderful life together."
My wife says her speech was even shorter than mine, but both seemed well received, because soon it was time for dancing, and we were not ignored.
The first dance was for the bride and groom, inside a large heart made of roses and candles arranged on the floor. As it ended, balloons rained down and the groom swept the bride off her feet.
After that it was a free-for-all, and there's no doubt a good time was had by all.
I remember being snapped up for the first dance by Irina, a friend of the groom's mother whom I'd met earlier.
And I remember the first of many line and circle dances, with hands up in the air, in which footwork was less important than the ability to simply hang on and keep up.
After that, much of the night is a big blur of dancing and resting, interspersed with activities directed by the emcee.
There was the artist game, in which teams of four people armed with a felt-tip marker raced to draw portraits of the bride and groom, which were then auctioned off.
There was the balloon game, in which two prominent men of the town sat in chairs and teams of young women took turns using a stick to propel a balloon around the men before picking up the balloon, placing it in the man's lap and then bouncing on it until it broke. (We later learned that one of the teams quickly found a pin to expedite matters.)
There was the handkerchief dance, in which a man waves a handkerchief in front of a woman, drawing them into the center of a circle dance where they dance together. Eventually, the man places the handkerchief on the floor, she kneels on it, and he bends down and kisses her. This dance is also done with the roles reversed.
There was the umbrella and string dance, where the bride and groom danced under an umbrella, while guests took turns throwing a ball of string over the umbrella, gradually encasing the couple in a net, that was eventually cut apart by the groom's mother with scissors.
And there was some very fast spinning dancing that our interpreter explained was a traditional Carpathian style.
For relief, there was a table with an espresso machine, bottles of water, beer and containers of homemade vodka, as well as the open door to the moonlit night where the air was cooler.
Now, before this shindig began, my wife and I had assumed that we'd be done with it by midnight.
But we weren't.
And sometime after midnight, it was time for "Table 2."
Which meant, that after excusing our fatigued interpreter, who noted that we were doing just fine, we tromped back up the stairs to eat some more ... although this time we sat with English-speaking friends of the couple who now live in Lakeland, Colorado.
More toasts followed, as well as numerous singings of Mnohaya Lita, the traditional song of good wishes whose title means "Many Happy Years." By the end of the night, I thought I was getting the hang of it. But that might have been the vodka.
Sometime later, it was back down to the dance floor.
And sometime after that came the fireworks, outside by the parking lot, which succeeded not only in wowing the guests but also in setting off three car alarms.
Back on the traditional side, there was the ritual removal of the bride's veil, and its replacement by a headscarf.
That was followed by a dance in which the bride blindfolded the groom.
And eventually, there came the tossing of both the garter and the bride's bouquet ... though a substitute was used; she took the original home.
Finally, the band packed up, the hall emptied out, and at 4:40 a.m., a cab took us away, bearing memories of the best wedding I've ever attended.
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