The Reception

We got to the restaurant a good hour before the party was supposed to start, and had to wait outside (are you noticing a trend?) until someone could find the manager and pour the champagne so that the manager could properly welcome the hc and nanashi to the restaurant and toast the marriage. Most of the women promptly took off for the kitchen -- to save money, many of the dishes were homemade -- to finish the food and setting the tables. I got to hang out and take pictures of Rodica and Ioan finally hungry enough to eat something and therefore ravenous.

Around six, people started coming in, which meant the receiving line/group was back on their feet and smiling. Everybody brought flowers and every time someone started the approach, the musicians would start the same keyboard tune over again. Sort of a processional thing. After they kissed everybody and said lovely things and handed over the flowers (which were promptly handed off to an efficient cousin, who set them in buckets at the back of the room), they were given a glass of wine to toast the hc, courtesy of the groomsmen, and I tried to guilt them into a pastry. It worked about fifty percent of the time. Every now and then, I knew the people, and then I had to step back into my pumps and come around the table to get hugged and kissed and adored. Oh, and there was a tray by the wine, and people would toss in some money. Anything between one and fifty lei (12.25 lei to the dollar. Monthly salaries vary from a few hundred lei to a thousand dollars. Those with a thousand dollar salary live the luxurious Moldovan life, with an elegant wool suit and a car. All of you with wool suits and cars, raise your hands. Okay, now put them down).

After an hour or so of this, the master of ceremonies, who looked a little like Roberto Benigni, told everyone where they were to be seated -- friends of the hc here, friends of the nanashi here, his family here, her family there, clueless people at that table over there. Since I couldn't understand what he was staying, I missed my cue and ended up at the friends of the hc table, which was more fun than the clueless table anyway. Actually, I followed the best man, Marcel, since he seemed to be pretty diligent about telling me what to do. Also, his English got better the more excited he got, whereas most people just stopped speaking to me when they got excited and turned to friends who more readily understood them. If it weren't for the fact that Ioan and Rodica seemed to be really good friends with him, I would almost think they picked him precisely so they wouldn't have to worry about me. He didn't even insist that I drink, and those who have traveled in eastern Europe know how rare that is! (I did drink, but nowhere near so much as I would have had I not had jet lag or had a pushy companion. And I drank nowhere near my share of the bottles glistening across all the tables. I think there were fewer than two full bottles of alcohol per person, but there were definitely more bottles than people.)

So then we ate. And drank. I have always wondered what Moldovans did when the plates and platters of food finally overwhelmed the table space. They stack them, overlapping so as to squash as little as possible. Now I know.

There were little diamonds of bread with butter roses and caviar, various cured fish and sardines, olives, pastries with cheese (placinta, the name of which still give my brother the giggles), pickled red peppers, stuffed green peppers, sausage, cheese, two types of ham, lots of bread, chicken breasts, cutlets, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled mushrooms, a sliced roll with various meats in it, tart shells with a creamy filling, chicken and god knows what else in aspic, potato salad, some other salads (I think, my memory is already hitting overload), and a large fish with a nasty expression on its face which had been skinned, turned into a gray fish loaf substance, and then restuffed and sliced so that it looked like a normal baked or poached fish until you removed one of the slices and saw the uniformity. It did not have a pleasant expression and I discovered a hitherto unknown aversion for solid gray food, so I can't tell you what it tasted like. Oh, and big bowls of apples and grapes (which look unlike any grapes I've seen in the U.S., and much more like grapes from children's stories), and piles of those little pastries. Also champagne, bottles of red wine, village red wine in pitchers, cognac, vodka, and (thank god!) mineral water. I didn't include the mineral water in my comparison of bottles and people.

So, that was the table we sat down to. Cloth napkins, wine and cognac glasses (but no water glasses), and silverware that we kept throughout the meal. Now, the musicians are a little hard to describe. The guy had a black suit and wanted to be more attractive than he in fact was, and the wife was awfully cute and wore a black, beaded dress and shoes that made my feet hurt just looking at them. And there was some other guy back there to keep the keyboard going while they were both strutting around with microphones. The keyboard did a decent job of sounding like a bad band all by itself, and they covered songs in both Romanian and Russian, both traditional and pop, both sweet and saccharine. But they weren't bad, just loud, and the overall effect was extremely festive and lent itself well to the occasional screaming thing I warned you about. Unfortunately, we had the table closest to the speakers, so speaking was challenging. I could have done with a few more breaks between songs.

Since conversation was frequently unnecessarily difficult, we danced. This was mostly Marcel's fault -- he was the best man with the emphatic English. Come to think of it, he started a lot of the screaming, too. Anyway, the hc did their waltz at some point, and we all danced. For the traditional songs, dancing considered of circles or lines of people holding hands up in the air and doing some simple, easily repeated set of steps -- step, pause, step, pause was pretty common, as was step, step, step, touch left, touch right, start over. Think about the Zorba the Greek image and you've pretty much got it. Except for the screaming, which I think anyone could initiate. Sometimes there seemed to be a male-female call and response screaming, but again, I couldn't make out any morphemes. Other times everyone just held it as long as they could. The pop music dancing was pretty much exactly what it would have been at home. Except for Rodica's father, who looked a little overexcited. I admit to being a bit afraid when I danced with him, but I didn't lose any digits, and he was a bit like the screaming. Once you get into it, it's really rather exhilarating.

I'm a little confused as to when everything happened. Bear in mind, I'd been in the country for about two days and there was an eleven hour time difference and a language barrier. I was pretty punchy before I had any champagne. At various points, the MC would say meaningful and poetic things and everybody would toast. At some point, the nanashi and both sets of parents came around and clinked glasses with absolutely everyone (they did not, fortunately, drink every time they toasted. Rodica's father did, however, spill champagne on the sulky blonde sitting next to me, whose name I never caught and who, actually, didn't say anything to me in any language the entire seven or so hours we spent in close proximity. I can't remember her saying anything to anyone else, either. So sullen, in fact, that I wondered if she wasn't the proverbial jilted girlfriend from Ioan's past. But I don't think she was his type).

After an hour or two, our plates were replaced and they brought out little cabbage rolls (a lot like dolma without the lemon, very standard Moldovan food) and we ate more. Sometimes the singers wandered around as though we were supposed to be paying serious attention to them. Other times, were got up and danced, or kept on dancing, or whatever. The restaurant had one of the cleanest bathrooms I've seen in Moldova, which was good, since Rodica and I had to figure out what to do with the hoop skirt and train. Lipstick was reapplied several times. I had trivial conversations with most of the people on my end of the table and some not so trivial ones. The people on my end of the table were mostly university friends of the hc and their English, when they bothered to use it, was excellent. Unfortunately, their Romanian was also excellent. This meant that, while I can frequently understand a healthy majority of a dinner table conversation (since they tend to be mundane), I had great difficulty following theirs. Still, they seemed like the most interesting people to hang out with. I had no desire to switch to the other end of the table, where all of the high school friends that I knew were sitting, even though I knew I would have an easier time with their conversation. The university friends may have ignored me much of the time, but when I could understand or when they switched into English, they were enchanting. Alas, the girls I went to school with while there still tend to treat me like a slightly floppy but lovable mascot.

Somewhere after eleven o'clock, the lights went out and the waitresses brought out flaming plates of chicken. The chicken was quite good. After that, there was some more speaking, and then a small (select?) group of us danced around with another one of those embroidered cloths and two loaves of ornate bread (shaped like a wreath, with little bread flowers and vines on the top) with the instruction manual for a VCR sticking out of the top. This was the present from the hc (and their families? I'm not sure) to the nanashi. The MC announced that, not only was it a VCR, it was a Panasonic. Everybody screamed. Then the nanashi said poetic and meaningful things to the hc, and put money in a decorated basket for them. Then his parents, then her parents. Niku (nanash number 2) told everyone that, although the head table had announced amounts (in dollars), that love and kind wishes were more important than money, and that they were not going to follow the tradition of having everyone announce exactly how much, fiscally, their love was worth. Instead, they would play music while the nanashi brought the basket around and the best men poured wine for everyone to toast, and they would only stop if somebody wanted to say something special to the hc. A few people announced how much they were giving anyway, although my favorite was the guy who said he knew Rodica had been to the states and that there was an American there that night, and he wanted us to tell everybody that he was giving the hc a full month's salary for a university professor. Which tells you a lot about the economy. After everyone had put money in -- about half the gifts were in dollars -- the nanashi said thank you (again, most of this is guessing. I understood about 35-40%) and handed the loot to the hc. Which is when the photographer got one of my favorite pictures of Rodica, looking like a kid with a Christmas stocking full of candy. This being one of the main parts of the ceremony, several people left after it.

I think we danced some more then, or maybe sat around and ate tidbits of things. (The initial plates of food were, although substantially diminished, still out for consumption. The part of me that works next to the food safety folk was horrified, and I have to admit, I stopped nibbling on the things involving cream, eggs, or meat after the first few hours.) At some point Marcel, who had been off pouring wine for the basket cases, came back to the table to discover his only partially eaten chicken and pasta had been cleared away. This was one of the true notes of tragedy during the entire affair. He consoled himself with several morsels comprised largely of cream, eggs, or meat.

Okay, so by now it's after two in the morning. For the record, we got home from the salon at 12:55. The registration was at 2:45. The party started at 6:00. Sometime around two or two thirty, the mothers pulled a chair and a table out into the middle of the dance floor. Ioan sat down and Rodica sat on his lap. Her nanash (Lilia) carefully unpinned her veil and pinned it into my hair (which was quite difficult, since it wasn't really up or down and if it had been anything at all, it hadn't been for several hours. Especially brushed.), then tied a little ornamental kerchief over her coiffure and an equally ornamental apron around her waist. This is called undressing the bride and symbolizes the transition from bride to wife. They ignored my suggestion to swap the apron for a briefcase. Then the mothers started wrapping the hc in heavy woolen blankets, putting perfume on them, and piling presents on them and the table. Those who had brought gifts pulled them out at this point and presented them, one by one. Oh, and the music was still blaring, and I think the MC said something at some point. I was pretty out of it. Shirts, bathrobe, dishes (actually, the box that the set of dishes came in. Rodica picked out the dishes herself sometime before. And the nanashi picked out the VCR), an electric kettle, spoons, a tablecloth, and so on. I (oh how discreet! oh how lazy!) had left my family's present at home, but I really think that by that point everyone was past worrying who was generous and who wasn't.

Then Marcel and I muddled through a dance. Let me put it this way -- he could dance, and had I been totally awake and sober, I could have done a decent job of following him. But I do not, actually, know where to put my feet, and for my daze, muddle is a kind verb. Again, however, I think that by that point everyone was past worrying. The point was that I dance with the best man while wearing the bride's veil and I did that, in a fashion. Tradition was respected. Okay, except for the getting married next part, which I don't think people take too seriously any more anyway.

As soon as we quit trying to dance, the wait staff (who, if you think about it, must have been really tired of weddings) wheeled out the five layer cake. It was a very impressive piece (okay, five pieces) of confectionery -- with marshmellowy frosting, stiff sugar flowers and leaves and swans, and five different cakes, each one consisting of several layers within itself. After some confusion about which layer to start with (it was on a stand, with each layer separated from the next by a good six inches), Ioan and Rodica cut the cake and served it out to the remaining guests. Luckily for me, they started with the third layer and worked down, as this meant we took the two top layers home for later and the top layer (and smallest cake) was by far the best. Which I found out the next day.

Sometime shortly after that, Ioan trundled me off to a minibus which was eventually packed full of food, flowers, and family and headed back to the apartment. Once again, I was extremely grateful to be the gauche American who doesn't actually have to help out. Rodica, Ioan, and I talked for a while (and Rodica wanted to open the rest of her presents!), and then I went to sleep around 4:30 or 5:00 while her parents put everything away.

Continue.