You can trust me on this one: I’ve been there. I’ve been there many times, varied roles (bride, bridesmaid, guest, musician, observer). The major advice I can give when it comes to Dalmatian weddings is this: don’t attend one!
That is, don’t attend one if you are a well-behaved specimen of the western virtues, you have a reputation to lose and you don’t have a spare week that you can do nothing but eat and party, because there is a high risk you will have the time of your life and that you will laugh at whatever you called manners and reputation before.
1. Weddings are an institution in Dalmatia. Wait – no. They, in fact, are the central event of an individual’s life: as soon as you are born, your parents get worried and obsessed about your future wedding. Then there is your wedding. And then your children are born and you start worrying and obsessing about their wedding.
2. The volume of attention, time and money invested into the event is scandalous. If you wonder, how can a family of average or under-average earnings afford an opulent wedding for 300 guests in the finest hotel in Dubrovnik, here is the answer: the wedding gifts. – If you are a guest, don’t come with a box of expensive pots and pans. Come with an envelope that includes a tasteful card and 200 EUR (the maid of honour and the best man usually give multiples of this sum). Your gift will not be forgotten.
3. Actually, talking gifts: the wedding gifts are so important, that there is usually a special separate party a few days before the wedding, intended for the wedding guests to drop by at the bride’s and the groom’s parents’ house and hand over the envelope. A special trustworthy person will sit behind a little table like an accountant and scribble your name and the value of your gift into a large notebook.
4. The notebook is worth gold in many families. It keeps track of every single gift the family ever gave or received on occasions like weddings, baptisms, birthdays, etc. In case somebody gave the parents a gift years ago on the occasion of their son’s birth, the same value is expected to get returned in the other direction. It’s the parallel shadow economy, that secures that even the poorest families never reach the bottom. (Long ago, I read an article in the Economist about poverty in the Balkans – the author was puzzled how people in war ragged areas can live on nothing for years. Well, the tradition of giving reciprocity is part of the answer.
5. Here it comes – the wedding day: you join in either at the groom’s or the bride’s parents’ house, depending on which side of the future family invited you. This would be around noon. Avoid shock upon arrival to the rather modest village house you used to visit: it will have changed into a gourmet catering show for the coming few hours. Expect best food. Best wines. Countless delicious home-made cakes. And about a hundred people who will wear the absolute best of what they can afford.
6. Yes: the dress. You, too, should wear your best. Hint: “the best” in Dalmatia is some two or three financial and style categories higher than “the best” in London. Some local ladies actually do spend their monthly salaries on outfits when invited to weddings. As regards the bride’s wedding dress and look, it is likely that you won’t recognize the girl when she comes out of her parents’ house. Some of the dresses would make Kate Middleton just stare in awe and disbelief.
7. The music: in case you actually want to talk to someone at the wedding, use the total of ten or fifteen minutes you have throughout the day. The rest of the time, everybody, but EVERYBODY will sing (and dance, at the later hour). Music is a crucial element at a Dalmatian wedding and the best musicians get sometimes booked a year in advance. The basic ensemble that will accompany the wedding until dinner consists of accordion, guitar and double-bass. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, hum along and have a drink. You’ll get into it eventually. At dinner, there will usually be a pop band (don’t count on them playing international hits, though; domestic pop is a requirement at weddings). Oh, and don’t expect anyone to have a speech. Why talk? Love is in the air, everything else is in that wonderful red wine.
8. There will be at least fifty cars that will need to drive, park, depart and arrive in a long glorious uninterrupted chain in various locations. – First, the guests from the groom’s parents’ house need to get to the bride’s house. In the bride’s house, the party continues, while all of a sudden there is commotion and chaos – quick, everyone! – the entire flock of guests must hurry to their cars, parked in zig-zag pattern all around the house, form a convoy and drive to the church for the actual wedding ceremony. And from the church, you still need to drive to the hotel, for the dinner party. It is a lot of driving of a lot of cars with a lot of drivers who can’t be sober – and the roads around Dubrovnik are dangerously curvy. Close your eyes, if you are one of the terrified passengers and don’t expect the random policeman to stop anyone: he would probably lose his job.
9. If nothing else got you on your knees, the dinner will. It is endless heaps of delicious food. Five or six courses. Often, there would be home-made wine. And in between the courses, there is dancing. Go dance even if you can’t dance at all! Anyway, it is unlikely that the crowd will let you sit or stand in the corner like poor Baby Housman. This is the one great thing about being a foreigner at local weddings: people don’t regard you as a foreigner. They want to make sure you enjoy the wedding just like them. So expect that somebody will just grab your hand.
10. In case you are kum or kuma, i.e. the maid of honour or the best-man: be prepared to travel to Croatia for future birthdays, baptisms and wedding anniversaries. Because you are now part of the family – no joke. (Logistically speaking, it might be easier for you to marry a local and stay.)
Blanka Pavlovic a.k.a. the Adriatic Bride is a Czech writer. She studied law (Prague) and creative writing (Oxford). As a lawyer, she specialized in international human rights law, first working for the European Court of Human Rights, then for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. She wrote five books, among them Total Balkans, The Handbook of the Adriatic Bride or The Return of the Adriatic Bride. She now lives with her family between Dubrovnik and Donji Brgat. More information and English translations of her work are available through www.blankacechova.com