Rise early for dancing, vodka, thievery

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, November 28, 2001 - 10:48 am: Edit Post

Rise early for dancing, vodka, thievery

Rise early for dancing, vodka, thievery

Rise early for dancing, vodka, thievery

Nov 26, 2001 - Topeka Capital Journal Author(s): Capital-Journal

SELESHCHINA, Ukraine --- Peace Corps teaches you to ask questions. Lots of them. Ones that seem silly, make sure you ask those twice.

Take, for example, my first Ukrainian village wedding. Three days before the big event, I happened to ask what to wear.

Something for the first day and something different for the next, my friend Svieta answered. You know, your Gypsy costume.

My what? I asked, confident it was a simple translation error.

She answered: That's the word, isn't it? Gypsy? Your Gypsy costume.

Well, Peace Corps allowed us to take two bags for our two years of service. Somehow I don't think any Gypsy wear made the cut.

So I packed my weekend bag for my friend's brother-in-law's wedding without a costume.

The groom's parents handle wedding arrangements (and foot the bill), which is where I woke up on day one of the wedding. Actually, dragged out of bed at 6 a.m. is more accurate for my "single people duties" beckoned.

The first. Making of red bows for other single people, apparently to clearly mark who to hit on.

The moonshine drinking began before breakfast. I read the average Russian drinks the equivalent of more than a bottle of vodka a week. These Ukrainians looked like they were shooting for above average.

We --- the single people that is --- decorated the salosh, the wedding tent on a dirt road in this tiny Ukrainian village.

Next came the first meal, which showed why the minimum Ukrainian engagement is a week. It takes that long to cook all the food.

Before long, we piled into a clunky Russian Lada to go "buy" the bride.

Male friends and relatives of the bride blocked the entrance of her family's apartment, while guests haggled over a price. Things seemed to be getting messy with the fists flying and all, but they managed to cut a deal.

Ten hryvna ($2) and a bar of chocolate. Some grumbled they should have tried for a bottle of champagne.

Off to the Palace of Culture. Church weddings are rare because the Communists forbid most religious activity.

No surprises at the ceremony. Songs, vows, rings and kisses.

Then out came the rushnyky or embroidered towel. A present to the groom when he proposes. (If the woman declines, he gets a pumpkin.) The official introduced the newly married couple, laying the rushnyky before their feet. Legend has it whoever steps on it first will rule the household.

Everyone seemed relieved the party got under way before noon.

An old woman who wobbled to the celebration with a cane was first on the dance floor.

I learned to hopak. Right toe, right heel, one, two, three. Left toe, left heel, one, two, three.

I started to sense a pattern to the celebration.

Dance. Eat. Dance. Eat. Dance. Eat.

There are 75 guests at the wedding. Food for 750.

When I comment on this, they tell a German joke.

If there are five people coming to a party, they prepare three sandwiches.

Throughout the day, guests chanted "gorka, gorka" (bitter) and the couple must kiss. Life is bitter, a kiss makes it sweeter, according to the tradition.

If I had to live with my boyfriend's parents after marriage like this couple planned to, I would probably consider life pretty bitter, too.

The groom passed on one village tradition --- drinking vodka out of his new wife's shoe. I didn't blame him.

To pass the time, I keep stats on questions I'm asked. Number of times asked if I want moonshine: 148.

Number of times asked if I want a Ukrainian husband: 71. Number of times asked if the reason I'm 26 and not married is I'm infertile: just one.

A cow walks across the dance floor. I explain the expression "party 'til the cows come home," but nobody understands. The cows come home at seven, they say.

Roughly eleven hours after the dancing began, I mention I'm a little tired. Why leave so early, they ask? Are you sick?

I notice the old woman with the cane is still dancing. But I opt for bed. The real fun happens the second day, everyone assures me.

They wake me at 6 a.m. once again with great news --- they found a Gypsy costume for me.

Dressed in rags with mascara smeared under my eyes, forehead covered in lipstick and enough scarves tied around me to clothe a small country, I make my debut.

I'm alone on the earthen dance floor except for my partner: a chicken with a lovely red ribbon tied around his neck. We hopak until the chicken escapes.

I envy that chicken.

Never mind, my work calls, consisting mainly of thievery.

We run from house to house collecting what we can.

A pumpkin here and few coins there. We trade food and alcohol from the wedding feast for gifts for the couple.

At one point, I carry a chicken in my Gypsy apron while dragging a goose in a potato sack. The crowd goes wild.

The groom tells me I'm the best Gypsy, especially with my funny Gypsy shoes. The shoes actually weren't part of the costume, so I make a mental note not to bring those back to America.

Several of my fellow Gypsies cross-dressed for the occasion. We stay in character through lunch, eating off an old sheet that covers the earthen floor in front of the wedding tent.

Nobody seems to mind we're making fun of one of the most discriminated-against races in Europe --- Gypsies, or Roma.

The groom's mother finally absolves me of my duties.

I rush in the house to change, wondering how to get makeup off my face without running water.

An old woman solves my dilemma by spitting on a napkin then wiping my face. Not wanting to offend her, I tell myself this builds character, but I don't believe it.

No time for that. I'm dragged to the party for the big event. A man dressed as the bride is pretending to birth a baby, signaling it's time for the bathing of the parents.

The other Gypsies douse the parents of the newly married couple with water and dress them in each other's clothes, which means there are two grown men on the dance floor dressed in underwear and bras.

Then the parents insinuate what the couple did on their wedding night. I've read that in some villages, they strap on vegetables to help illustrate exactly what happens.

It's not wrong --- it's just different, we always were told in training. I repeat these words in my head.

Still, I'm relieved when everyone dresses, and the dancing resumes. And even more relieved when it's time to head home.

I chat with Svieta about American wedding traditions, describing everything from throwing the bride's bouquet to dollar dances.

Americans have such strange traditions, she said.

Christie Appelhanz is in Ukraine volunteering with the Peace Corps. Her column will appear each month in Prosper. She can be written at A/C 2, Poltava, 36000, Ukraine.

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