My Big Fat Ukrainian Wedding

My Big Fat Ukrainian Wedding

Today is a big day for me. Why, you ask? Because ten years ago today, I woke up excited and a little nervous, put on a white dress, and headed to the church. Well, not actually a church, but a beautiful building nonetheless.

In 2005, I was living in Ukraine where I had been teaching English as a foreign language for the last year. At the language school I worked at, I met a man named Sasha (the short version of Aleksandr) and after five months of dating (that’s another story), we got married. Timing-wise, we did it for the visa, though we would have eventually married regardless. I wanted him to come back to the states to meet my family and he couldn’t come without a green card. (If you’ve read my second book, you’ll recognize where I got the idea for that one.)wedding 4

Anyhow, after speaking with the consulate, we had all our papers in order and planned to get hitched three weeks later because my allowed-to-marry-outside-my-country paper only lasted so long. (It’s really given me perspective and sympathy for all the heroines that get married after a three week engagement.) In Ukraine, you have to marry in the district you are registered to vote in if you want it all to be legal. Sasha and I were living in a big city in eastern Ukraine, but he was originally from the south and still registered there.

We went there for the weekend and set everything up as far as the legalities went, but the reception and everything that went with it had to be planned long distance. I cut out pictures of things I wanted and sent them to my future mother-in-law and she took them to the various bakers and florists and ordered everything for the big day.

I went dress shopping in my city and had absolutely zero luck. Everything I came across was incredibly vulgar or just plain ugly – to me, anyway. I’m sure plenty thought they were beautiful. A shocking number of dresses had a mesh panel through the abdomen, making the dress practically transparent, and everything was boned and covered in lace, lots of it in odd colors. I understand daring fashion choices and am all about playing around with your wardrobe, but a wedding day is not one I would trust to current trends. It’s time for classic and timeless because these pictures will haunt you for the rest of your life. Just saying.

wedding 3 (2)
I loved that veil. It had tiny little pearls throughout that you can’t see in this picture, but trust me, it was lovely.

One day I went to the central market around the corner from my apartment and was walking through the indoor section. It was an enormous domed building that felt like a cross between a dairy barn and a high school gymnasium. The bottom floor was filled with every kind of raw meat imaginable and expensive spices sold by the gram in tiny little plastic bags. I always felt like I was doing something illegal when I bought anything there and stuffed the tiny, powder-filled bag in my satchel.

After buying the meat I had come for, I went upstairs where the eggs were sold. There were quail eggs, turkey eggs, even occasionally ostrich eggs. The balcony wrapped around the perimeter of the building and overlooked the main floor. As I looked across the open space, I saw a huge collection of dresses where the chickens were usually displayed. Apparently, there was a temporary dress market for the spring season.

I looked around and found a pink dress that reminded me of icing on a cupcake. I asked if it was available in white, and the next thing I knew I had been measured and had an order placed for a dress. Technically, it was a sort of prom dress and not nearly fancy enough for a wedding, but I favored simple to overworked and happily agreed to pick the dress up in four days. For years, I jokingly called it the chicken dress, since I technically bought it in a chicken market with a pound of bacon in my hand.

The tackiness didn’t end there. My manicurist kept trying to glue rhinestones to my nails, to make it special because it was a wedding. Couldn’t I understand that weddings should be special? She was very frustrated with me and my American dullness.

Finally, we went south for the wedding. Everything seemed to go wrong. We hadn’t found a photographer yet, so we asked around and hired a guy the morning of the big day. Talk about last minute! The people who were doing our hair could only do one face and we needed two (me and my bridesmaid). The photographer recommended a make-up artist, so my mother-in-law called the hairstylist that morning and cancelled the make-up she’d scheduled there. There was a misunderstanding and they thought she was cancelling everything, so we lost our hair appointments and had to get squeezed in last minute.

Wedding 2
His run to the florist is why there are several pictures of me on my own – and without my bouquet – but none of him alone. Don’t worry – a few years later in a family shoot, I got several of the man. 🙂

We were going to get dressed and ready at my in-laws’ apartment, but the people across the hall had had a death in the family and were having a wake, complete with mourners and wailers and everything, so it was not the best pre-wedding atmosphere. We packed up all our stuff and went to Sasha’s uncle’s place, a bachelor pad downtown. It was a nice apartment, but typical of a single man. I’ll let your imagination do the rest.

When we got to the photographer’s (pictures were before the ceremony), we realized we’d ordered the flowers but no one had arranged to pick them up. While everyone else was squabbling about who was at fault, my sweet husband slipped out and ran all the way there, got the box of bouquets and boutonnieres, and ran all the way back in his suit. Luckily, he was (and still is) in great shape, so he wasn’t a sweaty mess. I was very touched by the gesture, though.

We finally made it to ZAGS, an acronym for the Ukrainian version of city hall and where all official ceremonies take place. The building was gorgeous and the ceremony was performed by a tall, regal-looking woman wearing an elaborate choir robe.

There was one tiny hitch. I didn’t speak Ukrainian (and still don’t). I speak Russian and that is the language used on the street and by most people on a daily basis, at least in the part of the country where I was living. However, all official documents and ceremonies, like weddings, are done in Ukrainian. I needed a translator for the ceremony. My bridesmaid was actually Russian, so she didn’t speak Ukrainian either and was only slight less confused than I was. In the end, my husband’s lifelong friend and high school sweetheart preformed the job. She was a petite woman and stood behind me the entire ceremony, whispering translations in my ear. In the video of the wedding, she’s so short (or I’m so tall) that you can’t see her behind me and I look like I am leaning back and nodding my head for absolutely no reason.Wedding 1

For the ceremony, all the guests stood behind us – there were no chairs. We stood a good 20 feet away from the officiant and the cavernous room echoed with organ music. I was nervous and more than a little confused about the proceedings, but Sasha had told me to just listen for my name. When I heard my name, there would be a pause and I would say “tak”, Ukrainian for yes, the “I do” portion of the ceremony. He would guide me through the rest.

I have never listened so hard in my life. I heard every word she said, but I swear, my name never came out of her mouth. Finally, there was a pause and the entire room got quiet. Sasha eventually squeezed my hand and I whispered, “Da?” He nodded and I called out, “Da”, the Russian word for yes. The woman performing the ceremony looked at me oddly, but apparently Russian was an acceptable substitute for Ukrainian and I was given a pass.

A & A Labor Day 2014
Me and the man, 3 kids, 2 continents, and 10 years later.

All craziness aside, it was a really fun day and even though I was the only American at my wedding, I think it all worked out exactly as it should have. And ten years down the line, thinking about that day still makes me smile.

How did your wedding go? Did everything run smoothly? Was it one disaster after another? Anyone get married in a foreign country? I’d love to hear your stories!

37 Responses to My Big Fat Ukrainian Wedding

  1. What a fabulous story! My wedding day went well, but my grandparents were late. My parents refused to come….they disliked my choice of husband and said my marriage wouldn’t last. They now like him and this year will be year 28 of our marriage. So my uncle gave me away, my aunt was my honorary mother and my grandmother paid for my wedding. My photographer ( my Hubby’s nephew is older than I am) took so many pictures we got none of the horsdourves we chose but they must’ve been good, they were all gone. My mother in law got upset with me, she kept saying don’t laugh…..well, that’s the sure way to get me to laugh…..we became the best of friends. As you said, it worked out the way it should have.

    • My family refused to come, too! I had warned them all in December that we would likely get married and specifically pulled my mother aside and told her to get her passport renewed. In the end, they wanted to meet him first and since he was an unknown “communist”, no one in my enormous family was willing to come. I had 5 brothers and 2 fathers to choose from and in the end, I gave away myself. I’ve always thought there was something a little symbolic in that.

  2. What a fabulous story! I am a mega-sucker for romance, and the tale of you and Sasha falling in love, and your wedding, is wonderfully romantic! How cool that you two could have fun with the craziness. Most brides would be frantic, but what would that accomplish? Laughing off the hitches adds to the specialness of the memories.

    You are a beautiful lady, Elizabeth, and Sasha a handsome man. A fine couple! From the photos I never would guess the wedding wasn’t planned months in advance and easy-breezy. Your joy shines through!

    Thanks, truly, for sharing your special day with us. And happy anniversary! 10 years and many, many more ahead. Amen!

    • Thank you, Sharon! It was very romantic in a just-roll-with-it sort of way. The craziness of it all actually helped me to relax, I think. There was nothing I could do about it, so why fret?

      Oh, and Sasha is way cuter in person. 😉

  3. I’m late but happy anniversary! I actually don’t remember very much about my wedding, just over ten years ago, now. I know it was too long! I did all the decorations myself. My mom did most of the food. We’re big DIYers. 🙂 Oh! My gown was just an A-line with a very light layer of netting underneath. Somebody from my church heard about that and insisted I wear her crinoline and it just turned out easier to agree. Except none of us thought about the fact that the final hemming hadn’t been done while I wore it. In the video my gown is above my ankles and I just wore very cheap Wal-Mart ballet flats. It may have worked better if I had at least worn fun shoes. All in all, far more boring than yours, which sounds pretty hilarious (to me). Loved the pics too!

    • Thanks, Rose! Mine was hemmed without me in it, too and it was too short. I thought I’d wear flats and changed to heels, and well, there you go! It was a totally hilarious day – laugh all you want!

  4. Omigosh, what a story! You have dozens of little plot bunnies here. XD Sounds like you stayed amazingly calm despite everything.

  5. You two do make a beautiful couple. Glad it all worked out. I won’t go into my story. But we will be married 47 years in August.

  6. What a fantastic wedding story you have! Mine went pretty smoothly, except that my fiancee left the ring in his car and didn’t realize it until about 30 seconds before we were supposed to start when someone jokingly asked him, “Do you have the ring?” I think they meant to relax him, since showing up with the ring was his only job, Your story does shed light on the inspiration for “Green Card”, which I really enjoyed!

  7. My wedding day was soooo run of the mill compared to all yours! We had no disasters, no rushes and nothing last minute. Everything went just as planned. But although unlike you I didn’t have anything unusual to contend with so probably had a less stressful time, if I wrote a blog post about it the post would be pretty dull, whereas your post was very interesting! Happy Anniversary and best wishes for many more 🙂

  8. How sweet! I went to the Ukraine during high school. I loved the people there. I can imagine all the beautiful buildings you describe as well as the market. You and your husband make such an attractive couple.

  9. Elizabeth, your romance and wedding are storybook to say the least. Thanks for sharing your tale with us and now I do see the connection to Green Card. Beautiful pics. After first DH passed on I met Indiana Greg on line. A fun moment would be when we got engaged at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Greg had made a big cloth sign, “Jen Will You Marry Me?” which he slipped to some kids a few rows in front of us. Then after the 5th inning they held up the sign and I felt like I was the star in a Julia Roberts chick flick. Everyone clapped an cheered and I even got a heart ring from the dollar store. Crazy lives we all live. Jen Red

    • Awww! I LOVE that story! How sweet! You completely have me in the engagement story arena. Mine just repeatedly told me we would get married, even before we were dating, until I finally caved, LOL. Yours is a much better way to start out. And I have a soft spot for the name Greg. That was my favorite uncle’s name growing up, and incidentally, my husband’s favorite uncle’s name, too, he of the bachelor pad downtown. Never met a Greg I didn’t like. 🙂

      • Well, my Greg is loads of fun. I even wrote a song about how we met and put it on YouTube with pics and all. It’s called, what else? Indiana Greg. I surprised him and sang it at our wedding along with All I ask of you from Phantom. Crazy Me! Jen

  10. Love the story and the pictures! I understand the desire for simplicity! I got married in the suites at the football stadium (really long story but the bottom line is it was free to us), my makeup artist thought I was going dancing later apparently, the fellow that did the music put in a rock cd instead of the one I had given him at the crucial moment and my dad blacked out whilst performing the ceremony. It is all very funny now but at the time I just wondered why we didn’t go with plan A and elope. LOL Ours was NO WHERE near the drama and foreign language barriers of yours. I can’t even imagine, but you made it through! Congrats on ten years!!!

  11. What a lovely story! Thanks for sharing your big day with us. It just goes to show that when the right couple marries, it works. Wishing you many more wonderful years.

  12. Elizabeth, Thank you! This is the sweetest story. So darling. You make the cutest couple. I loved reading this. Thank you for sharing. What a delight!

    • Thank you, Barbara! It’s a miracle we haven’t killed each other yet! He’s Ukrainian and I’m Irish – let’s just say the conversations can get spirited… 😉

  13. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story here, Elizabeth. You and your husband make a perfect couple. I wish you will have a long and lasting marriage until you both grow old together. No wedding stories to share in return since I’m not married yet.

  14. First off, you look gorgeous!!! And what a fun story to share with the world. Happy Anniversary!! And yeah, I think there’s always drama when it involves a wedding. I just got married for the second time in November. I have 7 kids, he has 3… So it was rather exciting. But mostly, it was crazy stressful getting everyone ready, and my basement flooded the day of, so I had no water, and we lost our bishop who was going to marry us on Thanksgiving Day, so instead had to find a judge in a courthouse with 24hrs notice the day before. There is much more to the story, but the important part is that we did it. And I can’t believe how much every day since brings me even more and more happiness. May you continue to thrive in your marriage too! 🙂

    • Wow! That sounds stressful! Congratulations on your recent marriage!
      Family blending is always fun, too. 😉 I was 14 when my mother remarried a man with 2 kids. She had 6. There were 8 of us between 8 and 18. I felt like some sort of sitcom and sometimes would look around for the hidden cameras, LOL!

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