Sunday, September 16, 2001

I guess I better mention Athens and the wedding, before I forget the small details, such as the two men - handsome, sunbaked, lean as cats, matching grey trousers several sizes too large for them, a sad craziness about them, looking for all the world like some double Greek version of Hazel Motes without the intensity - walking back and forth and playing accordians on the median on one of the main roads leading out of Athens. Or the startling newness of Athens - most buildings look to have been built in the 60s or 70s - as dirty and choked with traffic as I'd been told, a sort of European version of Bangkok.

As usual when traveling with Swedes, it was important to find the watering holes of the beautiful people and then stay out, night after night, drinking too much and laughing and dancing until dawn, then sleeping late and getting up just in time to go to the beach/go shopping/eat a very late lunch/have a drink for a few hours.

So we went to these clubs in Piraeus (''all the good clubs are in Piraeus'') on the sea, everything was white, white, white, including the clothes of all the beautiful people inside (except us, we tended toward fashionista black). And in the day we went to the beach (Scinia)/went shopping/ate a very late lunch/had a drink for a few hours, depending on the day, followed by going back to our various hotels and apartments to nap and bathe and dress and preen in preparation for another evening.

The day at last arrived for the wedding, which was held in a new Greek Orthodox church up in the hills somewhere. The service itself was barely understandable, being in (probably old) Greek, a mix of chanting and recitation involving three priests, the bride and groom, a best man (who was, er, a woman) and a second witness, along with the two families and various still and video cameramen, including press who were there because the groom is a well-known sportscaster in a country where sports is the No. 1 topic of conversation among males (followed by politics, family and sex, so it was said).

We had been warned to stand throughout the service, but after about five minutes we noticed that most of the Greeks had taken their seats, so we followed suit, although there were intervals in which everyone stood. But mostly, they sat and kept up a non-stop chatter that rather shocked the Swedes, who found it a bit disrespectful. (We were told later that in fact the chatter had been less than usual, in fact normally the priests have to shush the congregation several times throughout any given wedding. The bride said people talk because they're bored, but someone sitting at our table at the reception said that in fact it is a very deliberate sign of disrespect, or rather an assertion that the very powerful Greek Orthodox Church is not going to run their lives).

At about three-quarters of the way through, 13-year-old girls walked slowly past the pews, passing around baskets filled with rice for everyone to take a handful. A short time later, after the best woman passed over the heads of the bride and groom two diadems tied together by a ribbon, everyone stood up and threw their rice as hard as they could at the bridal couple. The service seemed to continue, but the Greeks lost interest after this and the chatter grew to a low roar and everyone started making their way to the back of the church until finally, some five to ten minutes later, the service was finished and the bride and groom walked out.

The reception itself was on another hill somewhere not too far away, at the Jockey Club, with some 200 Greeks and 25 Swedes (or pseudo Swedes such as myself) eating dinner and making constant speeches.

The bane of any Swedish wedding or birthday is the long list of mostly formal speeches which usually take up a good hour and a half's worth of time, of which nearly a full hour is actual speech. And you're not supposed to eat while someone is speaking - it always seems as if you've just managed to spear a small potato on your fork but before you can get it up to your mouth, another long and tedious speech has begun, starting with the details of a rarely humorous childhood incident and ending with a toast, all of it in careful doggerel. Which means it's rare to actually eat a hot meal at such an event in Sweden.

The toastmaster (another important feature of formal Swedish parties), poor man, was in rather a difficult position because the Greeks had a dual reaction as the speeches went on and on - some began to leave while at the same time others, realizing what this whole speech thing was about, were determined not to be outdone by the Swedes and all of a sudden wanted to make their own spontaneous speeches, which is a breach of Swedish etiquette: all speeches must be made via a request made to the toastmaster before the wedding.

Then the Swedes pulled out a couple of Swedish flags and got up (me included) and sang the Swedish national anthem, ''Du Gamla, Du Fria.''

It's odd, Swedes and their flag. Hanging a flag in your window in Sweden is a sign of nationalism to most, and just about everyone I know finds it more than distasteful. But this is the second time I've seen the Swedish flag hauled out at a foreign wedding like this. (Is it the same in the U.S.? I have such ambivalent feelings about the U.S. flag as well. Well, maybe not so ambivalent. The fight about the flag-burning amendment - an amendment which would, in effect, take away people's right to show respect for the flag because it would be illegal to show disrespect to it - has turned it into an unfit symbol of what I think is worth being patriotic about the U.S.)

The national-anthem singing was not my favorite part of the wedding, it felt quite odd to me. And, of course, afterwards the Greeks had to sing their national anthem. It felt a bit tense to me, especially with one of the best friends of the bride complaining loudly about how most of the speeches from the Greeks were in Greek and not English, the language the Swedes had chosen as a lingua franca. When she got up to make her speech, which was to be the final speech of the evening, I found to my great relief that rather than a speech, she made the bride and groom play a game wherein they were blindfolded and had to choose which was their spouse among various legs and/or noses presented to them. All of this to the great amusement of the Greeks.

At long last, the dancing began - including a period where the bride and groom danced rather suggestively on top of a table during which the groom's friends tried unsuccessfully to rip his shirt off - and lasted nearly until dawn, at about which time the Swedes were quite drunk and the father of the groom, perhaps drunk himself, threw a glass onto the dancefloor, smashing the glass into a thousand pieces in celebration (his two young nephews, gleefully following their uncle's example, threw their glasses as well). And the Swedes (and the few Greeks left) continued to dance on top of the shards of glass, laughing, the long skirt of the dress of the bride ruined by the dirt and glass.

- by Francis S.

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