Sunday, October 10, 2010

After I Do

My new husband and I sat on the bed in the master bedroom of the ancient villa. We’d been married for about nine hours. The guests had gone save those who were staying in the villa with us. The frenzy of the day finally drifted off and we could breathe the fresh Tuscan night air.

More than anything I felt relief; relief that the event was over and that the day had gone, more or less, according to plan, relief that I had gotten here. I was not out there alone and searching for The One anymore. I had found One and we were legally and emotionally bound. We’d survived the drama and could now focus on building our lives together.

I petted the ivory satin of my grandmother’s 1940 dress that a talented friend had made over for the occasion. I looked out of the windows set in the thick stone walls of my favorite place on earth. I smiled at the presents we’d just opened and cataloged for thank-you notes. My husband hugged me and we sighed in agreement: we should have eloped.

In many ways I got my fairy tale wedding: a select group of friends and family in Italy, incredible food prepared by a local chef friend, a relaxed party that lasted all afternoon and into the evening. That morning, I’d walked down the cobble-stoned main street of my favorite Tuscan hill town escorted by family and my girlfriends. Tourists out for their morning cappuccinos Ooooed and snapped pictures of me. Some had clapped or shouted congratulations. It was surreal.

We’d climbed the steps of the stately stone palazzo on the main piazza where I’d seen countless other brides ascend in my years of visiting this place. We stepped into the city council room where weddings have been preformed since 1435. A town official in a sharp black suit and Italian flag sash presided over the ceremony that was all in Italian much to the consternation of my mono-glot family. In the end we signed the certificate and stepped out into the sun a married couple.

Our first act as marrieds was to head to the gelateria next door for a celebratory gelato despite the fact it was only noon. We strolled the town with our friends and photographers for some unique wedding shots. Then we trundled back to the villa for a country buffet at the villa’s forty-foot, pergola-shaded picnic table in the back yard. Eventually there was cake (heavenly tiramisu made by the villa’s motherly caretaker) and dancing as the party faded into the dark of a rural summer night filled with fireflies. All the elements had been what I wanted from the wedding favors of local honey to my bouquet picked from the villa’s grounds. I’m proud that by and large we truly managed to avoid the American wedding industrial complex and do an out-of-the-box event.

And yet. At the end of it all our prevailing feeling was that of disappointment. The year of planning was fraught with such dramas and other stressors we could have done without – both financial and emotional.

As women we are told that in being a bride we are queen for a day. As much as I tried to downplay that, there was still a latent expectation to be catered to and adulated. Playing the wedding/bride card didn’t get me anything. Every flight we had, at the car rental, every hotel or restaurant I made sure to mention that we were traveling to our wedding. Yes dammit, I expected some special treatment, upgrades, squeals of sisterly delight from the gate agents, something. In general I got blank ‘so what’ stares. One bitter, single flight attendant seemed to actually treat us worse. So much for queen for a day.

We know our choices upset many friends and family. Some perceived our destination wedding as a financial boast or a chance to exclude them. It was actually cheaper for us to do what we did than to plan a standard ballroom wedding here.

Still we knew we were asking a lot financially for folks to make the trip. We decided doing a unique celebration in a place we loved was worth the risk. As we’d planned the event, I’d pictured certain friends there with us, sharing in our joy. One by one the NO RSVPs came in. Many cherished friends and family couldn’t make the trip. Some had understandable financial reasons. Some didn’t care to travel or couldn’t get off work. In many cases they were friends whose weddings we’d gone out of our ways to be part of because we knew how much it would mean to them. We found ourselves struggling to hold on to our understanding as the wedding approached. At the end of the day the reasons didn’t seem to matter. All that will be remembered is that they weren’t there.

In an effort to entice friends and family to make the expenditure, we’d planned a week’s worth of activities for our guests so we could share our favorite place with them. “Make our wedding your vacation this year, it’s worth your while,” we crooned. The problem with that was that we got a bunch of lovely guests and family who expected a vacation. And with us as the knowledgeable ones, the ones who spoke the language and knew the area, they needed our help. Instead of us getting pampered and assisted in the final prep days, we ran around taking care of them and still needing to manage last-minute derailments and obstacles such as ice.

Though well-acquainted with the fact that ice is not a standard beverage feature as it is here, it hadn’t dawned on us that large quantities of ice were not readily available. The husband of the villa’s caretaker finally volunteered to take time out of his fields, cart a giant wine cask he had in his tiny, ancient truck to another hill town an hour away the morning of the wedding so we could have ice for the white wine and water to chill in. As something Italians just don’t do, it meant a lot to us that he would take his precious work day, break with community norms and do this heavy, tedious job for us crazy Americans.

It’s actions like that that make me feel like a cad in whinging at all. I had some amazing friends who stepped up and helped me with both last-minute details and keeping my sanity. They were willing to sacrifice their vacation recreation for my well-being and I can honestly say I wouldn’t have gotten through the week without them. But they were the exception.

Most of our families were either too sick to help or more interested in sight-seeing than in helping us with the preparations or bonding with their soon-to-be in-laws. We both grew angry and resentful as we herded our friends through their fun activity days. “I’m not having fun,” my husband-to-be growled. “This is my favorite place, I wanted to share it with them and I thought it would be fun. I’m not having fun.” I agreed with him. We were drained and stressed while many people found our planned activities too demanding or not interesting enough. Instead of “we’re here for you” the vibe seemed to be “we came all this way and paid all this money for you, now entertain us.” Not one person offered to buy our lunch or even a coffee on our group outings. We hadn’t really expected it, but when we noticed it never happened we were hurt.

No one at the villa ever broke through their jet-lag to join me on what I’d envisioned as family morning walks filled with laughter and wedding advice. I walked alone along my favorite country paths as the sun took the night’s chill away.

Having now felt the incredible mix of tiny disappointments and drama, pressure to be lovely and kind, plan everything perfectly, not to mention the emotional journey of the larger picture: giving up our single identities once and for all and actually getting married, I have every sympathy for the creature known as bridezilla. I never thought I would be that girl but one’s nerves gets pulled so tightly by so many forces going in different directions I don’t really see how it’s possible not to have at least one meltdown. I’m happy to say I only had one. It involved screaming at my father-in-law to-be at the rehearsal dinner which was nearly two hours late, had many of us including myself getting lost en route, and friends with kids begging off before dessert exhausted by the long day. I’m not proud of my meltdown, and I’m not saying it’s justified. But I defy a modern bride to get through without one. Thankfully my father-in-law was understanding. Despite his wounded pride that night, he waved away my apology on the palazzo steps the next morning with a hug and cheek kiss.

As what we thought would be our festive pre-week with our friends and family came to a drained and drama-filled end, all we could think was “this was a huge mistake, we should have eloped.” Too late to turn back now, we went to sleep way too late on the wedding eve.

All in all, the day itself went smoothly. All the things that went “wrong” were comical and somehow involved dessert. One friend waved a gelateria’s card in my face as we reached the bottom of the palazzo steps, post-ceremony. She insisted she knew where we had to go for gelato because they had her one favorite flavor – never mind that I may have put some thought into planning where we’ll go and for chrissake, I’m the bride, we’re going where I want to go. We led the wedding guests to our gelateria of choice, which was the same one our friend had wanted, thank goodness, and she boldly strode right in front of me up to the counter to order her scoop. I stopped, an incredulous “really?” dying in my throat. I looked back at my girlfriends in line behind the groom and I. “Really?” one grinned at me, her eyes twinkling. We laughed at the line-cutting friend still completely oblivious to her faux pas.

After the delicious lunch, we made our way to the dance floor and picked up the mike to thank our guests for making our dream of an Italian wedding come true. We we’re going to have the first dance and then cut the cake and here was the mike if anyone wanted to offer a toast. We looked over to see my father-in-law with a heaping plate of cake he was thoroughly enjoying.

“Dad! We haven’t cut the cake yet!” my husband moaned.

“What? It was out,” his dad reasoned. We laughed and helped ourselves too.

We laughed less when the evening wore down and no one toasted us. Not one person stepped up to the mike as I had imagined and said kind words about us, wished us well, told funny, heartwarming or embarrassing stories. No one. Had the language barrier intimidated people (half our guests were Italian and half American)? Was there nothing anyone wanted to say to honor us? We were deeply stung.

We sat on our bed that night, relieved it was over. Awash with contentment and love mixed with disappointment and hurt. I was sad that I’d never had the family bonding moments I’d so hoped would be part of this gathering. I’d wished for heart-to-hearts, advice, stories, quiet moments shared in this lovely setting. I had wanted to feel closer to everyone. I didn’t think those were unreasonable or selfish expectations. But it hadn’t turned out that way. Instead we were thrilled that with the dawn we could kick them all out of our beloved villa and hit the road for a few days on our own mini-moon.

It was the final coup de grace when our wedding photos finally arrived from the photographer. They were all vaguely blueish and cold-looking. None of the fizzy joy or radiant beauty I’d hope to have captured from the day. There were a few nice ones but I felt like so many photos showing connection and love were just missing. I guess that’s fitting and truthful in the end.

As the summer wore on, we took part in several other weddings. Often I saw examples of the selfless toiling of friends and family, shared sweet bonding opportunities, and pampered bride moments. I tried not to compare these to the absence of my own such moments but bitterness grew. In one instance I was the one who took off from work, traveled and did the toiling. I couldn’t help wondering “where was mine?”

I felt that in spite of all the lovely things my wedding was, there were many emotional things it wasn’t – things I hadn’t realized I’d expected from it. My husband and I compared notes and he felt the same way. We talked over our resentment and tried to let it go. We resolved that no matter what, we’d never do that again. One big lesson I took from it all: no one truly gives a crap about your wedding but you. I don’t say that to downplay the efforts of friends or family who stepped up during the year or took care of things at the event. We did see much generosity and love and for that we are grateful. In retrospect I just wish we could have channeled that generosity and love into something different; an event with less built-in expectation.

The funny thing is, several of the summer brides I’ve spoken to this year feel the same way. It was much ado about nothing and left them feeling empty and exhausted from hundreds of little dramas. So why do we as couples continue to subject ourselves to this costly, emotional, draining ritual?

As autumn approached, my husband and I realized something important was missing about the day. With the secular nature of our ceremony, there had never been an opportunity to exchange vows. Aside from agreeing to uphold the legal obligations of an Italian marriage, we hadn’t promised each other anything. We agreed that was an empty spot that needed filling. So we are writing our vows now. We are planning a short get-away where we can be by ourselves to exchange them and feel our commitment to each other become true for us. It will finally be like we ran away and eloped. I can’t think of a better way to connect.

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