Earlier this week my brother-in-law married. He lives in Austria and his bride (Chilean by birth, Belgian by asylum) lives in Brussles – so it was natural that he marry in Cyprus. More specifically in the back yard of my in-laws' home here just outside Paphos.
A quick break for Family Identification (do I sound like an American television station from the '80s?). My Father-in-Law is 'Phil'. My mother-in-law is 'Mili'. My husband is Best Beloved. His younger brother is 'Bill' and Bill's wife is 'Sil' (yes, the -'il' suffix stands for 'in-law'. Clever, no?) So, I'll designate Youngest Brother (No, not as Yob!) as Li'l Bro, and his wife will get the Irish moniker Bridie. That way, we all know they're married. Li'l Bro has two teenage sons, Philip and Timi who, like my children, play themselves.
Li'l Bro and Bridie have been an item for a few years now, but it was only during the last six months that they decided to 'tie-the-knot', and to tie it here, in Phil and Mili's garden, during the holiday season that was convenient for all concerned.
Another quick aside to glance at the usual structure of Cypriot weddings. Most occur in Church, in a ritual that takes upwards of an hour and is linguistically incomprehensible to anyone who is not familiar with Katharevousa, the liturgical language of the Greek and Cypriot Orthodox Church. Village weddings have elaborate preparations leading up to the arrival of the church which includes the dressing of the bride, the shaving of the groom, and the preparation of the marriage bed, but modern urban weddings generally skip those steps.
A reception (300 guests is considered 'small', 500-1,000 people counts as 'average', 2,000+ is a good turn-out) usually takes place in one of the hotels or large restaurants depending on the depth of the pockets of the hosts. It used to be in the town square, but modernisation has put paid to that except in close-knit village communities where everyone turns out to help: one of the nicest weddings I ever attended was that of one of BB's cousins in the Plateia of Mandria, with the whole village in attendence and a genuine warmth and interest in the happiness and welfare of the couple. At these receptions bride, groom, and both sets of parents stand, sometimes for hours, accepting hand shakes, good wishes – and piles of 'fakkelakia', the little white envelopes that each contain anything from twenty to well over one hundred euros, depending on the relationship between couple and guest.
The flesh pressing is generally followed by a buffet meal where the menu follows a predictable pattern, and only the quality varies depending on the 'toniness' of hotel or restaurant. A selection of salads (tahini, taramasalata, tzatziki, and village salad); kleftiko, or baked lamb and potatoes (originally baked for a day in clay ovens, these days more often foil wrapped and cooked in the kitchen, although a surprising number of mobile kleftiko ovens are hauled around on the backs of trucks to cater for weddings and other community functions); pasticcio (the Cypriot version of lasagne); stifado, a beef stew; some form of chicken, either souvla or baked; and rice, potatoes, or bulghur wheat. Desserts generally include cream caramel, jelly, wedding cake, and platters of fresh seasonal fruit. Every guest takes away a little wrapped sweet, often containing almonds.
Weddings play an important role in the society, community, and family here. The gatherings are so large because traditionally everyone needs to come and meet everyone else: in a conservative, primarily agricultural society, such family events were the only times that a whole clan gathered and distant cousins could meet and renew old family ties. It was also an occasion to form bonds between the partners' families, and in a community where family links are prized as business connections or for job introductions, knowing who ones 'singenis' or relatives were could be a lifeline. A large gathering is also an essential economic start for a newly married couple: each guest brings money – and every couple hopes to recoup the cost of their wedding by inviting sufficient well-wishers. This may sound cynical, but it's true, and will be openly admitted. An invite to a wedding is also a tacit contract: I will come to your children's weddings and support them, and you are expected to come to mine... In a society that has moved as rapidly as Cyprus has down the materialism highway in the two decades that I have lived here, this has burgeoned into weddings becoming ever more sumptuous social occasions, and expectations becoming ever grander.
When Best Beloved and I wed, back in the early nineties, we bucked the general trend and opted for the gradually-gaining-in-popularity civil wedding, and really rocked the boat by insisting on only twenty-five guests joining us for an evening meal at a Nicosia restaurant. Mili was distressed (“We could have had a small gathering, only 300 or so close friends and family!”), but Phil supported me (“Think of Asproulla's side, only one sister coming! How will she feel surrounded by hundreds of strangers at her wedding, all speaking a language that she doesn't understand?”) I have always blessed him for that.
So we were married by the then-Mayor of Nicosia, Lellos Dimitriades in his city-centre office with only about fifteen attendees (remember, Lee?) in a quick ceremony in English where I didn't have to promise to 'honour and obey' and BB didn't have to say he'd always 'love and cherish' me. There was something about forsaking all others and poverty and wealth and sickness and health, but it was all rather bog standard. He wore a suit, I wore a pale pink party dress from the 1950's that I had picked up in a Galway charity shop. We both said 'I do!' with smiling enthusiasm, then we were driven off in a friends BMW to the Nicosia Hilton leaving 18-month old Alex in the care of my friend Rosemary for the night. Dinner was happily casual, nice food, pleasant music, good company – and several of our guests said 'Your wedding was much nicer than mine, and far less exhausting!'
But I digress... Suffice to say that to break the mould of Cypriot custom and invite only a few friends is unusual, and that although civil weddings are now much more common than they were a decade and a half ago, to have a civil wedding in your parents' yard is to really go out on a limb of originality. Stay tuned for the next post...