Is it okay to invite yourself to a wedding? Considering that you know neither bride nor groom and haven’t ever seen one of them? A wedding and a wedding party in a country whose wedding traditions are alien to you?
I was sitting in a beer garden with Neli when she first told me about the Bulgarian wedding. She told me about her friend Rumiana who had invited her. About her upcoming trip to Sofia. She was going to visit her parents, meet a bunch of old friends at home and at the party. Her boyfriend was not going to come with her. But still, she was excited to return to her homeland for a couple of days. I started to question her about Bulgarian wedding traditions. One beer later, Neli asked me if I wanted to accompany her.
And so I booked a flight to Sofia where I spent a weekend with Neli, a bride in a short dress, a groom wearing suspenders and sneakers, with good and bad rakia and the insight how to distinguish the latter from the former without having to wait for the headache the next morning, and with group dances that put my endurance to a severe test.
I did not see any tears in the church, and neither did I hear anyone but the priests speak. No ‘yes, I will’, no ‘you may now kiss the bride’. Instead, Rumi and Zhivko were standing in front of the altar where two priests read to them from and made them kiss the Bible. They put golden crowns on the couple’s heads, and put on their rings. I didn’t understand anything of what they sung in their monotonous voices. Sometimes, Neli would whisper translations into my ears. Near the end of the ceremony, Rumi and Zhivko had to walk around the altar a couple of times, followed by their best man and woman. Then they were married.
I heard them talk for the first time when I introduced myself in front of the church and wished them all the best for their marriage. Hi, I am Anna, the one from Germany, who unfortunately doesn’t speak any Bulgarian at all but who is still freaked out about being invited. Hi, I am Anna, I expect this party to be legendary, the way you imagine a Bulgarian wedding, with hundreds of guests and liters of home made liquor. Hi, i am Anna, and I must say i feel a bit lonely standing amongst all these people I have never seen, and I really ask myself if it was a good idea to crash this wedding. Neli has just translated what your father said in church, Rumi, namely that men are the heads of family and that their wives have to respond to their wishes. I wouldn’t want to hear that from anyone, least my own father. But then again, my dad isn’t an orthodox priest.
And then I just said: Hi, I am Anna. Nice to meet you both. Later I was asked to write something in their guestbook and I wished them a bunch of beautiful kids. And I think Rumi was happy to hear that I loved her dress. I loved that dress so much that I made up my mind: Should I ever marry, I want to marry in a dress like that. It was a tailored dress. White, plain, with a short A-line skirt and a satin ribbon around the waist. Expect to pay around 60 Euros for a dress like that in Bulgaria. And that’s not a joke.
The party took place in a small garden in the mountains near Sofia. It was a small party, with around 60 guests. We ate bread with honey for a welcome and drank some red whine. We ate from the delicious buffet and drank freshly brewed wedding beer. We ate a lot. And then, Neli persuaded me to try Rakia, the traditional liquor of the Balkans – not to be confused with the Turkish or Greek aniseed brandy Raki. Rakia is made from boiled down fruit. And since everybody has some leftovers of that after the winter is over, you’ll find homemade Rakia everywhere. Depending on the maker and the making, it contains around 40 to 60 percent of alcohol by volume. You’ll never know how much it really is.
There was a great selection of Rakia in big, reused bottles whose labels I couldn’t read. We opened a bottle with the slightly brownish liquid and took an indecisive sniff. Then we poured it in a glass and sniffed again. We swirled the drink. A woman came over to help us. She took the Rakia from Neli’s hand, put her fingers in the drink and rubbed some drops of it in her palm. She took a smell , shaking her head disapprovingly, and dumped the rest of the drink on the grass. She explained that what we had been about to drink was very close to pure spirit. To prove that, she waved about with her hand that she said was smelling of pure alcohol. Good Rakia, she said, usually smelled of fruits. We chose another bottle and only had half a glass each, as a precaution. For a start, that is.
Other than at the weddings I knew, people didn’t stay at their tables after their late lunch. Everybody was up and dancing, and at some point in the late afternoon, when a trio of a drummer, a piper, and an accordion player played endless songs of love and heartache, and when a some people had already asked me to dance, I suddenly felt the urge to move my feet. And so I learned how to dance Horo, the traditional Bulgarian dance, or rather, dances. To the right, to the left, lifting the leg, jumping to the right, to the left, kicking the air, to the left, to the right, jumping, jumping, moving, moving. The music was getting faster and faster. At some point, I threw my shoes into the hedge and I danced on and on, until finally, when I was already sweating like hell, the song was over and I could get myself another Rakia. When I poured it into my glass, I knew that it didn’t matter how much alcohol it contained or how much you drank, dancing made you sober again anyway.