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My big fat Slovak wedding

ON A WARM September day in 1999, I arrived at a farm on the slopes of Poľana Mountain near Hriňová, Slovakia, to meet the family of my fiancé. The entire clan sat in a group in front of their home and stared intensely at me. Since it was the potato harvest, most were dressed in farm clothes. A line from Seamus Heaney's poem, Digging, flashed through my mind: "I've no spade to follow men like them."

ON A WARM September day in 1999, I arrived at a farm on the slopes of Poľana Mountain near Hriňová, Slovakia, to meet the family of my fiancé. The entire clan sat in a group in front of their home and stared intensely at me. Since it was the potato harvest, most were dressed in farm clothes. A line from Seamus Heaney's poem, Digging, flashed through my mind: "I've no spade to follow men like them."

This was the first act of a drama that transformed me from a hapless American bachelor to a happily married member of an extended Slovak family. The next act came just a few hours later. The abbot of the nearby Capuchin Monastery came to the house to interview us. In America, Catholic priests are known to give prospective brides and grooms the third degree, so I expected a lengthy interrogation by a stern Jesuit type. To my surprise, the abbot, in his brown habit, came bouncing into the house with a beaming smile on his face. He looked more like the Thirsty Monk (Smädný mních) on the Slovak beer bottle than the Grand Inquisitor.

The abbot asked me some basic questions about my religion and background and then went over my rights and responsibilities as a non-Catholic marrying into a Catholic family. While I would not be allowed to take communion at the wedding, he agreed to marry us in a Catholic Church - an honour difficult to achieve in the United States for a non-Catholic.

Since it is forbidden for the groom to be with the bride on the night before the wedding, I stayed with my American family at the Horský Hotel Poľana. The next morning, a Slovak relative arrived to drive me to Lučenec for pictures. In contrast to American weddings, where the photographer usually takes shots of the bride and groom during the reception, formal wedding pictures in Slovakia are often taken before the ceremony at a studio. The practice makes sense because everyone's outfits, make-up, and hair looks best first thing in the morning before all the festivities begin.

In separate cars, the group then returned to the house of my in-laws for a goulash feast made that day from one of the farm's sheep. Seeing me looking a tad apprehensive, my sister-in-law's husband, the town doctor, offered me a prescription - a bottle of Zlatý Bažant beer.

An hour later, we gathered in the living room for a pre-wedding ceremony where the bride thanks her parents for raising her and prepares to leave her ancestral home. A master of ceremonies (MC) in traditional Slovak costume officiated the event, which included parents and grandparents from both sides of the family. The mood was solemn and all the grandmothers present (including mine) shed some tears.

To the sounds of a mixed Slovak and Roma folk band, we then left the house in a horse drawn carriage. A farmer had set up a barricade in the middle of the road a few minutes earlier, and, armed with a pitchfork, he demanded a bribe. After giving him some money and several swigs of slivovica (prepared from plumbs collected by my wife as a young child for her wedding), he allowed us to continue.

The church ceremony lasted an hour and consisted of a full mass with music provided by the monastery's youth choir. For most of it, I stood, kneeled, and sat with the bride not far from the altar. By the end of the service, I was relieved, "the wedding is now half over," I thought. At the time, I had no idea that the reception would last another nine hours. In the end, I understood why my wife insisted on a custom made wedding dress. A Slovak wedding is a marathon, so comfortable but elegant attire is a must. In order not to offend the Capuchin monks, the wedding dress also should not be too revealing.

During the drive up to the Poľana Hotel, more farmers stopped the wedding train, demanding shots of slivovica and offering hearty congratulations to the bride and groom. In front of the hotel, a crowd of about 100 guests gathered, the band played, and one of my wife's uncles handed me a saw with its blade turned upside down. Symbolizing the teamwork required in marriage, I required my wife's assistance to saw a board into two pieces. The MC then shattered a plate on the ground because shards in Slovakia symbolize good luck. My wife and I then tried to sweep up all the shards, but others foiled our efforts by kicking the pieces around. Finally, the MC asked the two of us to put our heads in an Ox's yolk. We were now joined together as a team but we would have to pull a big plough to overcome life's many challenges.

Over the next nine hours, the wedding party enjoyed course after course of Slovak food: chicken soup (which we had to feed to each other), turkey schnitzel, cakes and pastries, cabbage and sausage soup (at midnight), and finally at two in the morning a smorgasbord of cold cuts. For one course, the MC presented my wife and I with a sausage and two eggs arranged in a provocative shape - an obvious sign of fertility.

Between each food entrée, we danced to traditional Slovak wedding music played by the band and also to the latest dance hits spun by a DJ. The Americans, including myself, proved to be terrible dancers but the ever-gracious Slovaks danced with us anyway. Children dominated the dance scene: in Slovak weddings, one cannot invite too many kids. Kids bring a lot of humour and much needed levity to the event.

Suddenly, the lights dimmed and this haggard looking old lady entered the room. She claimed to be my mistress and demanded money from me, ostensibly to support illegitimate children. As I tried to profess my innocence, the MC grabbed the woman, and pulled off her disguise: she turned out to be one of my wife's uncles.

At one point, the MC pulled me aside and tried to teach me some dance steps. My wife soon emerged in a folk costume and the two of us danced inside a circle of guests. My wife's godmother then appeared with an empty soup tureen and began pounding it with a wooden spoon. Guests placed large bills in the tureen and then danced with the bride. The music got faster and faster as more and more money fell into the pot. Traditionally, the new family uses this money to establish a new home. At the stroke of midnight, my wife changed into her final outfit: a red evening gown. This symbolized her transition from being a bride to a wife. We were now free to leave the party, but guests continued dancing and eating until the sun rose the next day. For our honeymoon, we spent a week hiking in the Tatras.

In America, weddings tend to be carefully orchestrated, formal parties hosted by the bride to celebrate her new life: whatever she wants on her big day, she gets. In Slovakia, a wedding is more about joining two families together and celebrating Slovakia's unique cultural heritage: the duty of the bride and groom is to perform in a seemingly endless series of ceremonies and not complain. Survival for a foreigner depends on flexibility, a willingness to take orders from the MC, and a good sense of humour. The reward, however, is a "big fat Slovak wedding" that will rival just about any nuptial in the United States. My wife's parents planned and executed the entire event. All we had to do was show up.

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