Let me tell you about Polish weddings – our Polish wedding.
Of course, it wasn’t intrinsically Polish in the literal sense, as a Greek or an Italian or indeed, even a British or Irish wedding might be.
My betrothed and I had agreed that there were different cultural boxes to be ticked, particularly as my guests – who made up roughly a third of the party – came (mainly) from the UK.
So what went well and what didn’t?
First of all, my guests were a little surprised to learn, from their invitations that our wedding ceremony was scheduled for five in the afternoon and the celebrations were likely to go on until five the following morning. Of course I was apprehensive about this too, as I usually like to be tucked up in my pit well before midnight, and I know that many of my guests – particularly my family – are similarly inclined. I needn’t have worried – we got to bed by three-thirty and my family was amongst the last to leave – having almost exhausted the supply of vodka.
A Polish wedding, in contrast to British and Irish weddings (I’m not going to use the term UK here, because it soon won’t exist any more) is surprisingly informal. The civil ceremony, in the ceremony room of the Zamek Topacz Resort and Spa was a sit-where-you like-affair and was mercifully short. The most complicated bit was that I had to remember that Monika was marrying someone called William … and that William was me.
Following the ceremony, there was a thankfully short photographic barrage … you know the form … “Anyone wearing a suit for the first time, stand with the bride and groom … now, anyone who was only invited to make up the numbers …” – no, seriously, I promise that none of you were.
Anyway, our friend Michal and Maja, his daughter, managed to capture everything that needed to be captured in less than ten minutes – perfecto, and the picture on the right is a fine example of his artistic prowess.
I’ve been to a couple of weddings in the UK (err… my previous wedding was a particularly good example?) where guests are left, without alcoholic sustenance, to make small talk with people they wouldn’t hold a door open for, while the photographer totally hijacks the occasion.
The Greeting-slash-Recieving Line
In reality, there is very little cultural divide between the Polish and non-Polish mechanism for saying hello to guests, receiving their good wishes and gifts, and giving them access to the reception room and the goodies that lie beyond the door, to be enjoyed at their tables; and let’s not forget the all-inclusive free bar on offer for the next twelve hours.
Bread and Salt
Now this is definitely a Polish tradition.
My new in-laws, Irena and Jan formally endorsed our union and welcomed me to the family with a few words and the offer of bread with salt, and what was supposed to be water, but was actually vodka. The tradition is to drink the water-slash-vodka then throw the glass over your shoulder and ensure that it breaks. Okay, that was drink number one out of the way.
In Blighty it’s traditional to give the newly wed couple some sort of domestic tool or something for their (theoretical) new home. My father once owned a furniture business, and when it went broke he managed to pirate a vanload of aesthetically acceptable and indestructible mahogany coffee tables before the receivers moved in. This, I considered to be a perfect – and low outlay – wedding present for friends getting hitched, and if I went to your wedding, it’s likely you will still have one of these around your home somewhere, even if you tried to burn it or chop it up for firewood.
In Poland – where all men are capable of building their own houses and consequently already own every tool ever made by Black & Decker, and women have had an impressive array of domestic tools since puberty, it is traditional to give the bride and groom money.
I was delighted that some of our guests chose to ignore this request and we received some really imaginative gifts, which we will cherish.
We also received a shedload of money from our Polish guests, and we will cherish this as well.
Oh … and I’m not going to mention what we received from my family. What did we receive from my family?
Moving on …
Okay, so we knew we were going to be snowed under by food from the word go. The tasting dinner had confirmed this, and I can honestly say that never in the field of marital celebration has so much food been consumed by so few.
First there was the starter – I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of everything that was put in front of us, but let’s just say that the starter would have sufficed as a main course.
Then there was soup … then there came a tray groaning with duck, pork, beef, chicken and fish … and another creaking platter bearing vegetables, potatoes, dumplings (well it was a Polish wedding so we had to have some Polish food).
After this was cleared away, we had a brief respite before the buffet.
The Polish aren’t used to buffets – buffets are very English affairs. The Polish like two things on their dinner tables: vodka and food, and do not consider that it is right and proper that they should be required to leave their table, form an orderly queue and forage for food. And I have to say, I’m with them here. It’s okay for a cricket tea, but not for a wedding.
A buffet, to the Polish, is a bit like hunting. There may be a time and a place for it, but certainly not at a wedding. Solution: send the women to fetch food.
We had the wedding cake at some point, and I really can’t remember whether it was after the main dinner or after the buffet, but it was delicious and at least it put a stop to the dancing and allowed us to park our arses for a while.
There were two parts of our wedding that I had been dreading, the speeches – and I’ll come to those in a minute – and the dancing.
Despite winning the 1980 South Valencia Disco Dancing competition – I may have been the only entrant – and dazzling the ladies at Borough Road College as “The Fox” with my regular inebriated interpretations of Travolta’s Staying Alive performance, the older I get, the less time I want to spend on the dance floor … been there, done that, and yes … I actually do still have the tee-shirt.
‘Just to warn you,’ I’d told my soon-to-be-trouble-and-strife, ‘don’t expect many of my lot to actually, like, dance?’
Furthermore, I had nailed down assurances that I would not be expected to strut my stuff for more than three numbers per set.
Worse still, the day before the wedding we had absolutely no idea as to how we were going to perform our “first dance”, The Power of Love.
We needn’t have worried; my wife’s daughter’s best friend is a dance instructor and she managed to knock together something passable that even a sheep could remember in less than an hour.
And my guests surprised me by actually spending most of the night on the dance floor. There were some interesting interpretations of dance too; my son, Cameron, entertained us by performing a dance that I can only describe as the physical embodiment of a slug on Ecstasy climbing a lettuce leaf.
The DJ was magnificent to the extent that I found, to my great surprise, that I was actually enjoying myself on the old dance floor; the vodka helped (see next paragraph).
I only had to endure one rendition of Come on Eileen, and – to my astonishment – no one requested Staying Alive.
Bonding With My New Family
The best way to ensure that you never fall out with your in-laws is to make sure that there is absolutely no possibility that either of you will ever understand what the other is saying.
So, about midnight I’m chilling at my table, with all other occupants on the dance floor-stroke-noses in the buffet, when I have a visitation from Jan, my father-in-law and two of his close relatives, seriously tooled-up with vodka.
One of the delegation – Mariusz – speaks good English, but vodka has by now rendered this particular skill set inaccessible.
So we do a shot, followed by some hearty laughter, a handshake and a bear hug. This is repeated four or five times in the space of around fifteen minutes and then the delegation departs. No talk of Brexit, football, or what we were doing for Christmas – this is precisely how welcome-to-the-family bonding should be done.
I’ve been keeping this bit for the finale, because this is where my Big Fat Polish Wedding very nearly went tits up.
Wedding speeches are not a Polish tradition, so some spadework had to be done to have them incorporated into the festivities, and my betrothed was less than enthusiastic about this addition.
But things get off to a good start with Irena saying a few words welcoming me to the family and stuff like that. Joanna, a cousin of my new-trouble-and-strife’s – lives in Milton Keynes, and had kindly agreed to translate for us. What she hadn’t agreed to was to defuse a situation as potentially inflammatory as the Bay of Pigs.
My speech is straightforward, thanking all who need to be thanked; obviously it includes a few quips and I have the good sense to shorten it, as the translation gap and sporadic laughter threaten to push it over the obligatory ten minutes.
Then the Best Man gets to his feet.
What follows is a tirade of abuse – pretty much what I was expecting, and totally normal in Blighty – that totally silences one half of the room. My guests find the onslaught very amusing but no one had pointed out to Cameron – or me, for that matter – that to be disrespectful or to speak ill of a family member in this part of the world is tantamount to confessing that you have tied up your granny and have locked her in the cellar, and are intending to waterboard her later. Just for the hell of it.
Half way through the speech my wife is shaking her head and our guest from the Czech Republic is making the sort of comments that Corbyn used to make across the floor of the House to Bojo before the latter stopped him by abolishing Parliament. My forehead has gone beyond “beaded up” and my face has turned the colour of the very acceptable vin de table; I’m praying for the fire alarm to go off, triggering an urgent evacuation of the premises. It doesn’t happen.
Eventually the speech finishes and Cameron sits down to rapturous silence from one half of the room and enthusiastic applause from the other; Joanna spends the next hour visiting each Polish table to explain that character assassination of the groom is perfectly normal back in Blighty – in fact, not only normal, it’s expected. But I can see from some of our Polish guests’ faces that they still don’t get it, and who can blame them for that?
On the positive side, when my Best Man himself gets married, the father of the Groom’s speech will take me about thirty seconds to write … payback, amigo!
So between the Best Man’s speech and the copy of my book, Losing The Plot, which each of our guests received, by the time the dust settles on our wedding our Polish guests could be excused for believing that my wife has married an MI5 sanctioned undercover hit man who writes pornographic fiction in his spare time; most of which, amigos, isn’t true.
So what to make of it?
Our wedding surpassed our greatest expectations and, although recollection of the Best Man’s speech will fade in time, the day will live forever in our memories. But a great wedding is only so because of the people who attend it, and heartfelt thanks from us both to all who made the journey – both long and short – to join us at our Big Fat Polish Wedding.