During the two years we spent in Nairobi we rarely saw our Kenyan colleagues socially. Friends serving at other posts recounted how they were invited to every birthday and wedding, even when the inviter was barely related to the people whose marriage was being celebrated. We had friendly relationships with many of our colleagues in Nairobi, but they tended to stop at the edge of the Embassy compound. That’s why we were very excited to be invited to a wedding soon after our arrival in Moldova. One learns a lot about a culture from its celebrations, and weddings in Moldova are very important.
Despite the prevalence of American TV shows dedicated to the excesses of the wedding industry, the average American wedding cannot hold a candle to a typical Moldovan one in terms of ostentation. There is an entire industry built on the rental of luxury automobiles and gaudy stretch limos for wedding parties. Chisinau is small and usually fairly easy to navigate, but during the summer months the downtown area frequently succumbs to intractable gridlock as wedding caravans drive slowly around the city, blocking intersections and honking their horns incessantly.
There is a small bridge right outside the Embassy that is popular with newlyweds, who ignore the Embassy’s “no photography” sign in order to memorialize their love in identical poses. Each time we go to play ultimate frisbee in the city’s main park, we pass a dozen wedding parties, all taking the same photos in the park’s rose garden. And the pictures really are the same — the wedding photographers carefully arrange each shot, telling the couples where to stand, how to hold each other, how to make out for the camera, and what to do with their hands while they hold their exaggeratedly passionate kisses.
By Moldovan standards, D’s colleague had an understated wedding. She only invited fifty people and promised that the festivities would end before midnight. We arrived a few minutes before the announced 4pm start time and were hustled indoors, the ceremony starting as soon as the door swung closed behind us. The bride and groom walked in to music and took their place beneath a canopy of flowers to receive their guests. One by one, the attendees filed down a flowery walkway to congratulate the couple and be photographed with them. A lot of the guests were late so the DJ queued up the same song over and over while an emcee announced the name and relation of each arriving guest. Once everyone had gathered, a registrar administered the vows. The ceremony was in Romanian, but even though we understood little of what she said it was clear that her words were well received.
The official ceremony complete, the real celebration began. We filed into an adjoining room and, after dancing a quick hora, ascended a small staircase to the dining area, where four large tables were laden with what was clearly way too much food. There was so much food, in fact, that when we finally finished eating many hours later it looked like we had barely touched any of it. There were many toasts and, just like at Russian weddings, guests would periodically start chanting, “Amar, amar!” — which means ‘bitter’ in Romanian and is a prompt for the newlyweds to start making out wildly in order to make their marriage sweet.
There was a troupe of dancers who donned traditional Moldovan clothing and performed during dinner. At one point, the wedding party took a break from eating and hit the dance floor, the bride and groom lip-synching “You’re The One That I Want” to each other while executing an entertaining choreographed routine. Not long thereafter, the professional dancers swapped their traditional garb for gypsy costumes, and one of them spent a good, long while gyrating in front of the groom, as if to remind him of all he was giving up by getting married.
There were a few Moldovan traditions missing from this wedding, chief among them the custom of kidnapping the bride. Oftentimes, the revelers pretend to steal the bride, and her newly betrothed husband must pay a ransom — no pretending here; he has to fork over a nice wad of cash — in order to buy her back. This bride would not stand for being kidnapped, but she did follow other traditions. Towards the end of the meal, the dancers presented the newlyweds with a circular loaf of bread that had been covered with flowers. They grabbed the bread and pulled with all their might. The relative size of the piece left in each spouse’s hand when the loaf breaks is meant to indicate who will wear the pants in their relationship.
The one tradition about which everyone told us beforehand is the money envelopes. People brought gifts to the wedding, but in addition to physical presents all guests are expected to give money to the newlyweds, and there were special envelopes with each guest’s name that were used in lieu of place cards at the dinner table. The closer one is to the couple, the more generous the gift should be, and at some weddings guests actually announce how much they are giving, starting bidding wars among the attendees. Fortunately, there was no one-upmanship at this wedding. One person at each table collected all the envelopes and, after giving a toast, placed them in a wooden box that was held aloft by one of the dancers, who yodeled loudly every time she received an envelope.
The festivities drawing to a close, everyone headed outside to light heart-shaped Chinese lanterns. Some were caught by the wind and floated away into the night. Others got entangled in the branches of nearby trees, which might have posed a fire hazard if it hadn’t been raining all weekend. The party might have raged all night, but one of the perils of inviting one’s colleagues to a Sunday wedding is that they all know they have to work together the next morning. We ate some cake, said our goodbyes, and headed home before the clock struck twelve.