Weddings are kind of how I picture the afterlife. Free food, free drinks, various Gods, grandparents, spiffy wardrobes. On the flip side they can be hell. There is endless planning, terrible music, awkward conversations, pesky in-laws and everything seems to cost a fortune.
That’s why Saturday mornings in Lviv were always a little slice of heaven for me. Around 11:30am the church bells from the local Dominican cathedral would ring, summoning brides, grooms, well-wishers and babushkas from all across western Ukraine to gather beneath my windowsill to celebrate the joyous union of two lovers.
The bells would also summon me to get a strong coffee, a pack of cigarettes and take up my perch high above the festivities to ogle bridesmaids and bask in the warmth of the confluence of everything I love about Ukraine.
As my friend Peter would say, “the wedding industrial complex,” is a driving force in Ukraine. Bridle shops are everywhere, young couples set their sights on getting married long before most Canadians have even fallen in love for the first time. The age of first marriage in Ukraine is 22.2 for women. That is the lowest age in Europe. By contrast the average age of a Canadian woman’s first marriage is 31.7.
The reasons for this rush are manifold. Religion, tradition and economics all play a part. Most Ukrainian youth live with their parents until they are married. In their case, getting hitched allows them to pool their money, get their own place and ultimately make sweet love away from the prying eyes of God and grandmamma. Undoubtedly mom and dad are happy to have a little more room at home as well.
Watching these wedding parties was better than TV. They have it all. Beautiful women, dressed up beyond belief. Music, traditional dresses and suits, food, and of course the gratuitous taking of photos with the bride and groom in ridiculous poses. I’ve mentioned before the Ukrainian pastime of taking sexy pictures of oneself. In front of fountains, castles, churches synagogues, stray dogs, trees, opera houses anywhere in Ukraine really… you’ll find giggling groups of girls posing, pouting and puckering for the camera. On their wedding day, husbands get dragged along in this enterprise and it’s priceless to see their resigned expressions as they feed swans, release doves and basically pose for whatever ridiculous stuff their new wives desire.
All of this stuff happened right beneath my window as the Dominican cathedral right next door is one of the most photogenic spots in Ukraine. Plus it has a parking lot. I’d love to know how many wedding albums, have a shirtless me or Eddie, replete with coffee, cigarette and shit-eating grin gawking at the happiest day of their lives.
Beyond the over-the-top photos, there are a few other wedding customs in Ukraine that are pretty cool. Firstly, when the groom arrives (with his groomsmen as backup) at the brides residence to pick her up for the wedding, he is confronted by a coven of frosty bridesmaids.
Now begins a process called Викуп or “buyout.” Sometimes money and vodka are involved – a groom offers money for a bride, and they bargain. You can see how it happens here. Nowadays people tend to make it more romantic and less about “buying” yourself a bride. So the bridesmaids mandate the groom complete tasks instead.
Once the union is complete, the bride and groom make their way to a bridge and fasten a padlock engraved with their names to the railing. The symbolism is pretty obvious, but it’s a great tradition none the less. Suddenly any bridge crossing is a great exercise in imagination — just picturing that each lock as a couple, and to think where that couple is now, and that their lock will probably be there longer than they are alive (or married).
Of course, not all weddings are traditional. Behold the following. A Star Wars themed wedding in Lviv. I can just picture the babushkas sitting around with WTF looks on their faces. The best part though… the groom mixing a traditional cossack hairdoo with a wardrobe from a galaxy far, far away.