It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.
When I got back from my trip home in July, it was Camp HEAL planning in full swing. Some volunteers came in early to help out, and it’s a good thing they did. There was a problem with our grant and the money wasn’t deposited in my account when they said it would be. The day before the camp started, we managed to scrape together 17,000 greeven (a lot of money) in order to pay for the first three days. The money was supposed to be in my account by the next day (Friday) or at the latest on Monday. I was scared to death. What would be do if the money wasn’t there in time? Send everyone home? Beg the camp not to kick us out?
55 Ukrainian students and 20 PCVs arrived and camp began. The money was deposited in my account late Friday afternoon and I barely made it to the bank in time to withdrawal the money. Amazingly I did, and I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. We spend the next 6 days learning about human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, leadership, peer pressure, and healthy lifestyles. We taught the students in English, but translated when absolutely necessary. We had s’mores and campfire, contests, a talent show, and a lot of really great moments when I felt like I could’ve hugged each and every one of them. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, never been so stressed out, but never been so proud of all the people I was working with. It was an amazing experience. I think we were nuts for working with 16-22 year olds, as I never slept at night worrying whether or not they were in their own beds, but in the end no one died (as my dad so reassuringly put it).
Camp ended and then I spent a few days in Kiev, completing my mid-service medical (which involved having my teeth sandblasted and spitting blood for several hours) then teaching at the PEPFAR seminar. By the time I got home on Friday morning, it was time to help decorate the reception hall for Irina’s wedding.
A few months back, Irina, my counterpart, had asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. I know that Ukrainian wedding parties are traditionally small, so I knew what an honor it would was that she was asking me to be a part of it. She thought I would enjoy learning a bit more about Ukrainian traditions.
The following in an abridged version journal entry about the experience, and although still lengthy, it is the only way to really explain the whole process!
–At 9:00 on the dot the next morning, Irina’s brother called to let me know he was down stairs. I wasn’t quite ready so I ran around brushing my teeth, closing windows, and hoping he wasn’t actually here yet, but instead on his way. I was wrong. When I walked out the door downstairs he was on the phone with Irina, wondering if maybe he was at the wrong building. As soon as I appeared, he hung up, and off we went to Irina’s parent’s house. The hairdresser immediately got to work and I sat on the couch and watched. Killing some time and trying to not sweat my make-up off, I took a few notes about how I was feeling:
Her big day- I’m scared to mess it up, so I’m sitting quietly waiting to be needed, trying to be noticed only enough not to be forgotten. I’ve brought food to eat and water to drink, so I shouldn’t need to ask for anything but a toilet. I saw the traditional Ukrainian towel Irina had been cross-stitching, and had been worried about not finishing in time. I complimented her on finishing it, only to be told that she had to use a different one. She hadn’t finished sewing hers. Oops.
As I’m sitting her watching Irina have her hair done, I’m increasingly aware of the faint wrinkles on my dress that I missed yesterday when I pulled it out of the closet. Red toenail polish stains the edges of my toes, even though I’d picked and scrubbed to get it out. I’m not wearing a necklace, even though I’d meant to buy one. But I suppose, in the end it’s better to be understated so that the focus will be on her. This is not about me, but it’s the parts of me that become about her that make me nervous.
And then things started to get busy. We decorated the front steps, set up the contests for the groom and best man, decorated the cars, and helped Irina put on her dress and jewelry. Before we knew it, it was 1:00 and Losha had arrived. I stayed in the bedroom with Irina while Losha and Yuroslav (his best man) went through the tests the sisters presented him. By the time they got to me, I told her that yes, he had found her, but that I still had her shoe! And if he wanted it, they would have to pay. The sisters had told me he would offer money and that I should turn in down a few times as not enough, just to tease him. They threw me though, by offering me alcohol instead. The started with vodka, which I truly don’t like, so I turned it down. Then they said sweet wine, which I also don’t like, so I said no. Then they offered juice, which sounded good at that point, so I consented. They handed over two juice boxes and I handed over her shoe. Losha put it on her and then the kissed as he presented her with her bouquet. I told everyone congratulations and that it was time to go together to the signing ceremony.
I helped pin on Yuroslav’s sash and flower, we took a few pictures, then loaded into the decorated cars. We had some time to kill, so we went to the center square to take pictures. Most close friends and family were there. It was extremely hot, so I was happy to get back into the air conditioned car. Then we arrived at the place where the civil ceremony takes place. Two other wedding parties were there, so we waited a moment for the guests to leave before entering. Losha and Irina showed their passports and signed the guest book. The photographer/wedding coordinator barked instructions. I held flowers, dabbed sweat, and got out of the way as necessary. When all the guests had filed into the room, Irina and Losha stood arm and arm, with Yuroslav and I close behind. The piano player began and we filed in. I carried the rushnik on my arm, and I had been instructed to lay in before them when told. I don’t remember much of the ceremony, I was so scared to mess up. Yuroslav and I stood to the side and once the couple had signed the marriage license, he brought them glasses of champagne and I brought a box of chocolates melting in the heat. The wedding coordinator/photographer glared at me for something, then shoved me over to the side. Everything seemed to go smoothly, until the guests started greeting Irina and Losha with flowers. When her hands got full, I took them from her, and after a few pictures, I stood next to her for a few more. Unfortunately I stood too closely and the netting from one of the bouquets got caught in her veil. Losha tried frantically to release her, and my hands were too full of flowers to help. After what seemed like an eternity, he freed her and we exited the room. We took a group photo on the steps of the building before loading back into the (thankfully air-conditioned) cars.
From there we went to the park/resort part of town where the photographer (not the same lady from the civil ceremony) took pictures of them amongst the flowers and trees. The wedding party, close friends and family who had tagged along, opened bottles of wine and vodka, toasting the couple in the shade of a few trees. I followed Losha and Irina, not interested in drinking vodka, worried she might need something.
By the time we got back into the cars and went to the reception hall, many of the guests were already there waiting for us. The formed two lines to the entrance and threw rose petals as the newlyweds walked through. Then we waited for about 15 minutes for someone to bring champagne (this tradition was lost on me, as we finally gave up waiting and walked up the stairs without it) before greeting the guests on the second floor. The hall was beautifully, although modestly decorated and the tables set for about 50 people. There were four places set at the head table, which was covered with plates of food. There was chicken and fish, vegetable plates, salads and so much more. I hadn’t eaten more than a bag of peanuts since ten in the morning, and seeing as it was already five, I could barely contain myself.
There were toasts to the new couple and we hadn’t been seated more than five minutes before the master of ceremonies (a woman who appeared to be in her early forties) passed the microphone from person to person for personal toasts. I’d been warned about this part, where people tell the new couple what kind of gift they would be given and then read from a card or just say a toast. When the microphone finally made it to me, I opened the card where I’d written my prepared toast, but tried not to read from it. I was frustrated that most people weren’t listening, as I’d worked so hard at learning it, but Irina and Losha were listening and I suppose that’s all that mattered.
When they’d finally made it around the room, the eating continued. The guests randomly called out “gorka” (kiss) now and then, I assume much like forks on the glasses as we do at home. Then they would start counting slowly to see how long the couple would kiss. One time they made it to 19. Then the MC started conducting contests. We had to pass plastic balls without using our hands, pass playing cards from mouth to mouth, and dance in costumes. In some ways it reminded me of a teenage party. It was so hot in the hall, that people kept leaving to go outside, so I heard later that the MC didn’t do half the contests she’d wanted to.
There was dancing and more eating. More drinking and more toasting. Then, when we were sitting outside trying to dry some of the sweat from out clothing, one of the guests “stole” the bride. I’d been told this would happen and I was supposed to stay close to her. They carried her off and locked her in the bathroom. A few moments later we were back in the reception hall, as the abductors decided what it was the best man and I would have to do to win her back. The best man had to do a strip tease, while I offered the only strange talent I had, which is to whistle on my hands. Then I had to eat pieces of bread off the best man with a blind fold on. It was all in good fun and everyone kept asking me if I was okay, or if I was offended by what I’d been asked to do. I waved them off, assuring them I was fine.
Then there was a dance between Irina and her father, more toasting, and more contests. Every guest was handed a balloon with a slip of paper inside. Once we blew them up, Irina and Losha alternated popping them with a dart. Inside was a chore or a privilege, such as doing dishes or driving the car. Whoever chose a particular balloon was destined to be responsible for doing it in the marriage. It was cute and it turned out pretty balanced. There was a bouquet and a garter toss, and more eating and toasting. Irina’s sister Yulia, who is ready to get married but just needs to find a groom, announced just before that bouquet toss that if there was any pulling of hair or ripping of clothing, it wasn’t anything personal. I had to laugh. She was the one who ended up catching it, but without much fight from the rest of us.
They cut the cake and I helped pass it out, then they served coffee and tea. That is a Ukrainian tradition that I really enjoy. An evening is simply not complete until everyone drinks tea together. It’s something I look forward to now.
By the end of the evening, around 11:00, the family started packing up leftover food, of which there was a lot! I wished that had brought a container or plastic bag, because most of the vegetable platters were thrown out. I despise wasting food, so it broke my heart, but all I had was the plastic bag I’d carried my shoes in, and I could exactly put sliced tomatoes in that.
By the time we’d undecorated the hall and taken everything outside it was nearly midnight. The best man called a cab for me and then helped me into it, after I’d hugged Irina goodnight and she told me to be ready for day two at ten the next morning. When I climbed into the front seat of the cab, I immediately and subconsciously buckled the seatbelt around my lap. The driver, appalled, asked me what I was doing and unbuckled it. No one uses that, he informed me, and I would get my dress all dirty. I’ve been in cabs before where the driver seems perturbed by me using a seatbelt. But I have never had a driver actually unbuckle the belt. He told me he would drive carefully, and that I shouldn’t worry. It’s a habit, I told him unapologetically, but I didn’t try to re-buckle the bet. I never in my life see people use that, he told me, and then kept quiet. We were almost to my apartment when he told me I wasn’t from Ukraine. I told him no, and when he asked where, I told him America. My accent must have been somewhat good because he asked me if I was Ukrainian, but considered myself from America, or if I was actually from America. I told him the latter, after which he seemed somewhat embarrassed about unbuckling my seatbelt. People just don’t use it here, he told me again.
Feeling somewhat annoyed with that excuse I told him, quiet plainly, that perhaps people in Ukraine don’t use seatbelts, but that ever since I was little, I’ve been taught to use one. It’s my face, I said, that goes through the glass. You may be a good driver, I told him, but it’s the other guy, who may be a terrible driver, that I worry about. He was quiet for a moment.
Then he went on to ask more questions about why I was in Ukraine. I told him and then when he asked if I liked it, I said yes. He told me that was rare and he was glad that I liked it there. Your life is better, at home, isn’t it? Better because it is my home, I replied as if reading from a script, but I love Ukraine. I told him that I was just a bridesmaid in a wedding. He thought that was hilarious, then gave me his phone number and insisted I call him if I ever needed a taxi. I should have told him only if he lets me wear my seatbelt. But I didn’t. Instead I thanked him and headed up to my apartment.
I slept until 9:50 the next morning, half expecting Irina to call before then. She didn’t. I got ready, ate some breakfast, read for a while and finally decided to send her a text message at 10:45. Maybe she’d only wanted her family there for the second day. I was perfectly content with staying home and recuperating. She called me right back, saying they’d overslept, and that she would call back in twenty minutes with instructions. Forty minutes later, she told me to be at Losha’s apartment. I sat outside on a bench when I finally got there and told her I’d arrived. She said she’d call Losha and let him know. I had no idea where either of them were and why they weren’t together. A few moments later, Losha and Yuroslav came walking up the path. The best man was fully dressed in his suit and tie, the sash tied around his chest and his flower still pinned to his shirt. My mouth dropped open. Am I supposed to be wearing my sash, I exclaimed? They laughed, but said yes. I half hoped they were joking. I’d assumed Yuroslav hadn’t gone home night before and simply was wearing all he had. But when I went up with them to the apartment and say Irina, she asked me where my sash was. Embarrassed, I told her I didn’t know I was supposed to have worn it. She looked mildly disappointed, but shrugged her shoulders. I sighed. I can go back and get it, I told her. No, that will take too long. So I sat and waited while they finished getting ready, then we walked to her parent’s house. It was already noon and the guests had been sitting, waiting for us for almost two hours. W arrived carrying a tray of wine and vodka, and a box of chocolates. We tried to offer each to everyone we greeted coming through the gate. Yulia pleaded not to have to take a shot of vodka, last night’s alcohol still working its way out of her system, but Yuroslav insisted.
We sat down at the table, full of last night’s food, where guests scolded us light heartedly about being late. We only sat for about twenty minutes before Irina suggested the younger crowd go for a walk to meet some guests at the bus stop. Once we were back, we ate some more. Honestly none of the salads seemed too appetizing to me, as they were all mayonnaise-based and had been sitting out more or less since yesterday. But I ate what I could, then sat listening to the conversations around me.
It was such an amazing experience, to be a part of their wedding, and I feel so fortunate to have been asked. Follow the link below to see pictures!