Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Russian Wedding

Two months ago my Russian friends Sasha and Gal were married, and with all good intentions I forgot to tell you about this wedding.

Months before the wedding Gal asked me if I wanted her to invite an English-speaking friend because nobody at the wedding aside from her and the groom can speak English. As they would be busy with getting married and all, I said "Sure! Please!" Gal invited Ms. Australia and I.

The day of the wedding started in Shyolkova, where Gal was hidden away in her sister's (also my fiance) bedroom. Sasha and the best man (who is also called Sasha) arrived lugging a hockey bag filled with alcohol between them.

They were stopped outside the apartment building by the bridal party, who then proceeded to torment the groom and best man in a Russian tradition called vykup. Bascially the groom, aided by his trusted best man, must prove his love for his bride by going through several humiliating challenges.Katya and the bridal party had spent weeks coming up with the vykup and started to recite a poem they had written which was riddled with clues for Sasha to solve.

The first involved finding two horses behind a tree. There were indeed two horses behind a tree; broom sticks with cardboard horse heads were waiting. Sasha and Sasha straddled their broomsticks and were then made to wear silly hats and gallop around like drunken cossacks while making horse sounds.

After this first challenge they had to pull out a few bottles of wine and cognac and give them to the girls.Next there were six balloons weighted down with rocks and inside each balloon was another clue. Sasha, clutching a tinfoil sword, had to pop each balloon and piece together the clues. The end-result was not good for either Sasha; the clues told them they had to wear belly-dancer costumes and perform a belly dance in front of the bridal party.

With red faces and extremely-displeased looks on their faces, the two young men did as instructed while the girls shrieked with laughter and took photos. I was also about to snap off a photo but then felt a surge of pity for them and abstained. Again they had to pay off the women with alcohol.

The vykup went on like this, each challenge bringing him closer to his bride, each one costing him alcohol; first outside, then in the doorway, then in the hallway, then outside the bedroom door and, finally, in the bedroom while Gal watched and laughed at the last humiliation (I very strongly told Katya that our wedding was to be a simple exchange of vows, signing of a form and a couple of drinks).

Next everyone, including family (who had been showing up in greater numbers during the vykup), piled into cars and we all drove to Mytischi and to ZAGS, the government office that registers weddings.

I have seen wedding factories before, in South Korea, and seen a line of brides in beautiful white gowns with their hair done up in expensive fashions, waiting for their turn to be wed, so I wasn't too shocked to see the same thing in Russia. There were no less than 7 wedding parties standing around in the parking lot while one after the other brides and grooms walked out of ZAGS to shouts of "Kiss her! Kiss her!" while people threw coins on their heads. The difference between Russian wedding factories and Korean wedding factories is that the Koreans have a much higher rate of matrimonial production efficiency.

Inside ZAGS Sasha and Gal listened to a woman ramble on about some things I couldn't understand very well, but was pretty much a speech about commitment and sickness and health and all that stuff. Then the wedding, swollen to over 60 people, proceeded to walk around Mytischi to visit important cultural and historical landmarks.

This walk felt like being on a golf course, as wedding parties in front and behind had to move along at a specific speed in order to ensure that only one wedding party was at one monument at one time. I nearly yelled "Play through!" to a party behind us when our party took too long in front of an old Viking boat.

I'm not big on ceremony. Perhaps it's because of my own past, or because I'm selfish, or because I'm not mature enough to appreciate it, but the wedding ceremony for me is like an advance payment one must suffer through before the real wedding can begin: the reception!

Sasha and Gal held their reception at a beautiful restaurant in Mytischi, called Starry Gorod (Old City). This white-stone and dark-oak building is surrounded by willow trees and blooming flowers and includes a huge outdoor covered patio with a self-contained bar. The interior of the restaurant is medieval-chic, with big stone walls supported by giant wooden beams lit by actual flaming torches! It was awesome!For some reason Sasha (and if you know Sasha you understand why) chose the "Imperial March" theme from Star Wars as the music while the guests were seated.

This reception wasn't just an open bar. Each table itself was a bar, groaning under the weight of bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label, red and white wine, cognac, vodka (the good stuff) and bottles of beer chilling in buckets of ice. Candles and floral arrangements highlighted the banquet of booze laid out on each white tablecloth. I was literally in heaven.

Katya, Ms. Australia and I were seated at a table with five other of Katya's relatives who she had never met, but who had flown in from the south of Russia for the free booze...I mean, wedding. Surprisingly it was Katya, not a big drinker herself, who cracked the first bottle of vodka the moment she had sat down and poured everyone a shot. Ms. Australia and I looked at each other and gave each other a solemn "Well, this is it. See you in a day or two!"

Once everyone was seated Sasha's sister, who was MC for this occasion, started the first round of toasts. I understood only a few words. "To....and...and...Sasha and Gal....with...and...that's all!" The dining room erupted into a flurry of clinking glasses and 60+ people downed their shots of vodka.

Then came another toast. "My brother....with...Russia....and...who...and...to your health!". Clink clink drink drink. The vodka made my face screw up and my body shiver yet was pleasingly comforting. More toasts ensued, and between each toast I drank from a bottle of beer or a glass of Red Label whiskey or red wine, all three of which I had strategically placed in front of me to chase the vodka.

Toast #3 followed soon after. "Family....happy...thank you everyone....why....who...and...to Russia!" Same process.

Toast #4: "It is...opinion...normal...from this restaurant....and...urrah!"

Toast #9: "What....last year....Mytischi...goddamn!"

Toast #12: "I can't say how much I love these two, because words can't describe it, but from the bottom of my heart and without irony I can honestly say that I am so happy that they met and were married. To the bride and groom!"

Sometime between toast #12 and toast #21 I not only became fluent in Russian, but dinner was also served. I think I had pork cutlets. Or was it the salmon? I don't remember. I do know that at one point Ms. Australia had to be taken home and so I helped her into a car (whose car? A taxi? Why don't I know?) Somehow I got her home and somehow Gem had come to Mytischi from Moscow, and somehow I convinced her to take Ms. Australia's place at the wedding, and somehow Gem and I made it back to the wedding.

All hell was breaking loose, although I only remember it in snatches. I remember a belly dancer, who was actually a woman and not Sasha or Sasha. I remember dancing myself, or at least stumbling around and crashing into other dancers and a wooden beam. I remember talking to a Russian girl who spoke excellent English. I remember Katya fuming. I remember not seeing Katya or Gem or Sasha or Gal for a long time, but smoking a cigar with Sasha's father. I remember talking to another Russian beauty who spoke English. I remember Gal, the bride, calling me a "Fucking idiot!" in Russian and me understanding. Then I woke up in my bed the next morning.
Thankfully I was alone, and somehow my dress shirt was off but my suit jacket and my tie were still on. So were my trousers and one shoe. Katya wouldn't speak to me when I called her. In fact, it took two days for her to explain to me that I had embarrassed her with my drunkeness, ignored her, chatted up hot Russian women in front of her, and smoked a bowl of weed with some Russian guys nobody knew but who had come to crash the wedding. I had no answers or excuses for any of this, because I didn't remember most of it, although Gem and Sasha's father both confirmed what Katya accused me of.

I'm going to make a great husband. That's why we're not having a wedding reception.


  1. Hi Canadian,

    Weddings may be ceremonial but they are a great time to let loose... and if you offended some people that isn't so bad compared to some of our weddings in the States that include knifings and shootings.

    You are too young to be a raconteur but you are getting there.

    That vodka must be some fire water to need a whiskey chaser!

    Rob in SPb

  2. Everyone has their drunken stupors. It sounded like you got full worth out of yours.