Last Saturday, instead of watching football, I went to a wedding.
Two well-known facts about me: 1) I love sports. 2) I dread going weddings. So this decision was very out-of-character, but part of joining the Peace Corps means letting go of habits I had in America and adapting to a new way of life. Or something like that. So when my Volunteer friend Miranda invited me to her host sister’s wedding in Milot, a small rural village in the north, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend an authentic, traditional Albanian wedding, even though the date fell on College Football Christmas (what I like to call the season opener). But I’m so happy that I went, because attending my first Albanian wedding was just as exhilarating, if not more so, than a day at Autzen Stadium. (And certainly more exciting than watching a game on an 11-inch screen via a sketchy, pop-up-ridden live sports stream.)
For the average Albanian, one’s wedding is the most important day in her life. A lot of people say that crap in America but it really is the case here. Family, relatively rigid gender roles, and (heterosexual) love are at the core of Albanian traditional values, so naturally marriage and weddings are very important. When a young woman from a conservative, traditional Albanian family gets married, she has years of herding children and scrubbing floors and laboriously stewing savory gjel me mish for dinner to look forward to. So naturally, a gigantic party in her honor at which she looks like and is treated like a princess is the most special day for her.
Meet Bana, Miranda’s sweet host sister, who is 19 years old. She met her fiancé several months ago, and the match was arranged by their parents. After meeting him for the first time, she had two hours to decide if she wanted to marry him–which also entailed moving to England, where he works, and leaving her family and her country behind. Bana said yes, and their wedding–called a dasëm in Albanian–was scheduled for August 31st. (August is THE month for weddings in Albania because Albanian immigrants who live elsewhere in the world, like Bana’s fiance in England, often return to visit their families at this time.) In some ways Albanian weddings are indistinguishable from American weddings, but in other more culturally significant ways, they are completely different. To put it simply, Albanian weddings blow American weddings out of the water as far as fun, emotional intensity, and sequins are concerned.
The average dasëm lasts three days. Here’s what Bana’s wedding schedule was like:
Saturday, August 31: “Pre-Wedding” Party
Bana’s family completely renovated their entire house for the event. Streamers hung from the roof and the balcony, and countless chairs were set up outside the house on a patio they shared with the local high school. Drinks were passed around throughout the night. The music was SO LOUD THAT YOU COULD HEAR IT FROM ANYWHERE IN THE VILLAGE. THE GOAL OF AN ALBANIAN DANCE PARTY IS TO PLAY THE MUSIC SO LOUD THAT YOU HAVE TO SCREAM IN ORDER TO BE HEARD BY THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU. – WHAT? – I SAID, IF YOU CAN HEAR ANYTHING BUT THE MUSIC, IT’S NOT LOUD ENOUGH. – WHAT? – NEVER MIND, LET’S GO DANCE.
The community gathered, claimed seats for themselves and their families, and danced and danced and danced. Mostly younger women dancing, with the men watching. Miranda and I were pulled out of our seats repeatedly to join them, swaying awkwardly to eastern European pop music and struggling to keep up with the quick steps of the traditional circle dance, or rrethi valle.*
*Note: Miranda is a gymnast and therefore superb at anything that requires physical coordination, so the “awkward” and “struggling” parts of this statement apply only to me. I am a swimmer for a reason: because I can’t do anything remotely coordinated on dry land.
I took a video of one of the circle dances we did, which you can find HERE. The person at the front of the line leads the dance, designated by the red scarf. Everyone is supposed to follow her. At the end of the song, the DJ says “të lumshin këmbët,” literally “bless your feet,” to signify a break. Once you get the hang of circle dancing, it’s really really really fun. Getting the hang of it is the difficult part, though. It’s not easy, but it’s simple–a sequence of five steps over and over in a circular progression that matches the beat of the chosen song, fast or slow. At first I had to stare at the girl’s feet next to me so I could imitate her movements since I had no confidence in my own. But eventually, I picked up the rhythm and was able to do it (almost) without thinking.
Bana was there in a short red dress, dancing with us. But the groom and his family, as is tradition, did not attend. This evening was an opportunity for everyone in the community to see one another, dance together, and wish the bride and her family well before the actual wedding tomorrow.
Sunday, September 1: Dasëm Time!
Miranda and I arrived at the village lokal (restaurant) in our finest dresses, and all the makeup we owned piled on our faces (as is the style here). The hall was filled with people. We were seated at a table in the back. Then somebody rushed up to our table and insisted that we move to a different one, so we obeyed. Then someone else rushed up to us and insisted that we relocate to a banquet table at the front of the room, so we followed him, confused and clueless as to what was happening. We took our seats, and then noticed the small plastic sign at the table: Familja. Bana’s family had invited us to sit with them! We felt, as Miranda put it, awkward and honored.
Dinner was served. And by “dinner” I mean various chunks of goat meat and innards, some of which I did not recognize. Soon after, the bride entered with the wedding party. Like an American wedding, Bana chose to have bridesmaids, and she herself wore a gigantic white dress. After the grand entrance, the party began:
- More more more dancing: Some dances were family-only. Others were for everyone. Still others were hard to tell; a few times, Miranda’s other host sister Ina barked at us to sit down after we had been summoned to the dance floor by someone else who didn’t know better. This made for a rather stressful situation.
- “Making it rain” on the bride: This is an awesome Albanian wedding tradition, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. You don’t give wedding gifts to the couple, you just bring a wad of cash and literally throw it at them as they dance.
- “Gëzuar!”-ing: Also awesome. Everyone toasts the couple an average of every five minutes, and as you clink your glasses together you say, “Gëzuar!” which literally means, “I’m glad!”
- Crazy-fancy dresses: I counted about 8,309,234 sequins covering the Albanian women at our table alone. That’s not counting the stilettos.
The groom and his family then entered, and Bana and her husband sat at a raised table and drank Red Bull from champagne glasses, kissed relatives, and posed for pictures. There is no actual ceremony in an Albanian wedding. From what I gathered, it’s like you have a giant party, and then the following day you go and live with a man your parents picked out for you in another country and start making babies. I’m not sure if a marriage license is involved, or how that kind of stuff works in Albania.
The lovely people of Milot took good care of us that night, encouraging Miranda and I to dance, complimenting our dresses and our language, and making sure our drinks were refilled at every moment. My favorite part of the night, though, was when a group of friends and relatives of Bana’s ran out in veshje popullore, or traditional Albanian garb. This stuff is BEAUTIFUL, and everyone looked great. It made me wish I was Albanian. Maybe I will get there someday…I can almost dance like one now!
The wedding ended at about 2:00am, and Miranda and I stumbled home to get some sleep for the final festivities.
Monday, September 2: “Giving Away” the Bride
I had to return to Kavajë the morning after the wedding, so Miranda participated in this final phase alone. In America, weddings are joyful events, and if anyone cries it’s usually because they’re happy for the couple. But in Albania, the marriage of a bride means that she is leaving her parents forever, so the expectation is that she and her family will be wrought with heartache. Bana loves her new husband and has been very excited about her wedding all summer, but her mother wants to see tears on her cheeks because it will prove that she is in the depths of despair at the thought of leaving her family.
The groom’s party arrived at Bana’s house that morning and took her away, amidst the weeping and wailing of the entire household. Miranda confessed to me that she herself was bawling over losing a woman who she began to know as her sister. Maybe we are becoming Albanian.
I checked football scores once I had internet the next day and saw that the Ducks had pummeled some poor Division 2 team 66-3. (Clearly, I hadn’t missed out on anything.) Come to think of it, the aftermath of Bana’s wedding was quite similar to the aftermath of a football game. I was dehydrated. My ears were ringing for hours after I left. My voice was hoarse from trying to talk over the music. I was sore in weird places, with blisters on my feet to boot, from standing and dancing for so long. And, like any Ducks fan, I was feeling victorious: I had picked up circle dancing so well that some of the Albanians were following my feet!
Merry College Football Christmas!