Oct/Nov 2007 Nonfiction

Gorko, or Belarussian Wedding

by Olga Grun

"I'm going to be late for my own wedding. You were right. I'm still at the hairdresser." Lesya, the Belarussian bride and my friend, sounds stressed on the phone. Considering that less than an hour is left until her wedding, I don't blame her.

"Blin," I swear mildly in Belarussian. That's a bad situation. I'm allowed.

I am to perform the roles of shaferka or "witness" at the ceremony and the party afterwards, equivalent of the Western maid of honor. In Belarus, it means I'm also responsible for implementing a myriad of rituals and making sure everything runs smoothly. The hundreds years of wedding traditions rest on my fragile shoulders. Gulp.

"Lesya, don't panic." I try to sound confident.

"I don't. It's the hairdresser who has a problem. She's not here yet."

"Just get home as soon as you can." I hang up and race to Lesya's place.

The bridegroom is not going to meet the blushing bride at the altar. Instead, he is to come to her parents' house to give a ransom. The ransom is rather funny and whimsical: candies, champagne, chocolate, money, and is engaged in a "questions-answers" game I need to prepare. I place the paper-cut footprints on the floor, fill a crystal vase with water, and recite my scenario. According to the old saying, "The future husband's side is the merchant, our side has the goods." And boy, I'm going to make them pay the price for "the goods."

Now, the only thing missing is the bride.

So I take an elevator upstairs to let the bridegroom and best men know the girl will be late. I've lucked out. The bridegroom lives in the same building as my Lesya, only seven floors higher, and the elevator is working. And she doesn't reside in one of those five-storied buildings, called khrushchevki (by the name of Khrushchev, who stood behind the plan of this economic housing) that don't have elevators at all. I appreciate the lift even more when I have to do the trips several times while Lesya, finally home, is getting dressed and freshened up. Each time, the bridegroom's side sighs and sits down to drink a little vodka. So after the fourth or fifth trip, I make a transparent hint that it's just the beginning and I need them all in a vertical position, not a horizontal one.

Finally, the bride is ready, and I invite the guests. The shafer, or the best man, is actually the one who is going to perform the tasks I'm going to throw upon him. In different weddings, the scenarios might be different. I choose to ask them to pay a bottle of vodka for the bride's pohodka or gait (see, it rhymes in Russian), chocolate for her eyes, and the paper money for spelling her name. They complete it all, and I hope they are grateful the bride's name is short and not something like "Angelica." Now I ask them to follow the footsteps to find the bride, who's hidden in the next room. The last task the shafer has to perform is to get a key to the bride's heart from the crystal vase. When he does so, the water spills all over the floor. Strange, I've tested the amount of liquid with my own hand. Oh, yes, I realize my hand is much smaller.

Now, when the bride is "bought," we run to the car. We're hopelessly late. I pause to squeeze the very slim Lesya wearing a very big puffy skirt into the first vehicle of the wedding train. The train is nothing to sneeze at. Each car is generously decorated with ribbons, balloons, artificial flowers, and what not. The first auto usually has a couple of swans, or two rings, or a doll dressed in a bride's dress. A bit pompous, but still lovely.

In a hurry, we leave for ZAGS, the place where all couples get married, even if they are also going venchatsya afterwards at the church. At the ZAGS, the ceremony is performed, shafer and yours truly sign the papers, and the couple is officially announced a husband and wife. The joyful newlywed carries Lesya down the stairs to his car, and we leave for the church. Besides having a deep meaning--supposedly, you're married for life--orthodox weddings are breathtakingly beautiful. The golden-domed churches are amazing inside, and the priests often perform the ceremony in gilded and richly embroidered clothes. Part of my job is to hold a big heavy crown--a masterpiece in itself--above Lesya's head and follow her anywhere the priest takes her. I'm impressed by the ceremony, but my hand is getting tired.

The shafer, a crown in his hand, too, winks at me, as if saying, "How are you holding up?"

We're not allowed to talk, of course, so I smile in response. It means, "I'm okay."

As we leave the church, the sun shines brightly, and we head off to the seven bridges. I'm not sure if it's because the number "seven" is considered to be a lucky one, or for any other reason, but many couples here strive to drive over seven bridges after the wedding. There are three rivers in town, and thus enough bridges to make this tradition feasible.

I look into my girl's eyes while we pass rivers sparkling in the sunshine. "Are you happy?"

Her eyes are as luminous as the water underneath us. She even smells of sunshine, of summer fields with wild flowers and ripe oranges. "Yes! You know I've dreamed of this."

I know.

We arrive to another milestone of Belarussian traditions, where a young couple places flowers on a monument. The ritual might have originated from the times when newlyweds visited a cemetery on the first day of their official life together to honor the ancestors. We get out of the car at the Victory Square, the place dedicated to the heroes of the World War II, which is called here the Great Patriotic War. The newlyweds, the shafer, and I steer our footsteps over the red marble that represents blood shed by the heroes. We go along the fountains to the monument where we lay flowers to the Eternal Fire. There is a multitude of steps behind the monument leading to the river the Western Dvina and the bridge we have just passed. Strangely, with all the city noise outside, it is quiet here. We look at the fire in silence. No words should be spoken. Frankly, I don't even blink.

Minutes later, we head back for the reception. According to another ritual, the couple's parents meet them with a tray. The couple bite into a pie. The bridegroom has swallowed a bigger piece, so he will be wearing the pants in the family. Or so he thinks. Then both he and Lesya drink vodka from ryumkas--small crystal glasses--and throw them behind to break them to scare bad spirits away. I'm not sure who is going to pick up the shards because I rush behind the couple into the building--somebody needs to squeeze Lesya's nineteenth century style skirt through the door.

And the feast begins.

There are toasts, many tables covered with food, and of course, a lot of booze. I raise my ryumka and gulp down the liquid that burns my throat. It tastes bitter.

The wedding is not a wedding without a river of vodka. The celebration lasts well through the night, so the breaks for music and dancing are helpful. It is amazing how much alcohol a human organism can bear if combined with good food, lots of exercise, and fresh air. But I remember my responsibilities. After the first toast, I shake my head to re-fills. I stay sober.

Unfortunately for me, there is also "kidnapping" of the bride when I turn away for a moment. To my surprise, I am not asked for bottles of vodka or chocolate or money. Somehow, I manage to get away easily, with a couple of dances with the "kidnapper."

From time to time, when everybody is at the table and the toasts are said, one of the guests shouts, "Gorko," and others join in. Gorko actually means "bitter" and is a signal for the couple to kiss. Sometimes the newlyweds hush down the guests by throwing candies along the tables, but most often they end up kissing. There is an opinion the tradition might have come from the times when there were bitter drinks at the wedding, or because saying "bitter" might be wishing the exact opposite, "sweet" life, etc. Sometimes the celebration lasts into the next day, too, when even a shafer and shaferka are required to kiss. Therefore, there is requirement for them to be single. I know cases when shafer and shaferka ended up being a couple after their friends wedding. I avoid such fate.

Months later, I am back in the U.S. Talking to Lesya, I hold the phone close to my ear and the memories close to my heart.

"Are you happy?" I ask her.

"I miss you."

I imagine driving over the seven bridges with her, the sparkling water in the distance. But no bridge is long enough to stretch over the ocean. "Are you happy?"


It means, "Yes."



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