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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!