Monday, January 07, 2008


“Marriage is a wonderful institution… but who wants to live in an institution?” Groucho Marx.

Χρόνια Πολλά και καλή χρονιά. For my part, I would have to confess that I do not really know how I come find myself married at the turn of this New Year and for this, Greek demotic songs are to blame, in particular, Epirotic ones. For reasons that warrant further elucidation, Epirot demotic songs are diametrically opposed to marriage per se. When one considers that, for example, the men of Cheimarra were considered immature and ineligible for marriage until they attained the venerable age of fifty, at which time they were married off to underage girls, Ambrose Bierce’s assertion that “the world had suffered more from the ravages of ill-advised marriages than from virginity,” is lent added weight.
Take for example the Epirotic folk song of Kostantis, my name-sake, who is considering marriage. Does the demotic bard offer sweet words of sage advice, akin to those of Andre Maurois, to the effect that “A successful marriage is an edifice that must be built every day?” Does he closely counsel, as did the great Lao Tzu, that “Marriage is three parts love and seven parts forgiveness of sins?” Does he caution, Benjamin Franklin-like, to “keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half-shut afterwards?” No. In the case of Kostantis, no advice can be given, no Melway reference to help him avoid pitfalls along the way, save that his chosen path is one of mortal peril, and thus, should not be traversed. Thus: «Την Κυριακή, σαν παντρευτείς/ άϊντε την Τρίτη θα πεθάνεις.» (If you get married on Sunday, on Tuesday you will die.)
Similarly Panagio’s song casts aspersions upon Honore de Balzac’s conviction that “One should believe in marriage as in the immortality of the soul.” In that song, Panagio, a particularly nubile Epirot girl, who is prime marriage material is discouraged from taking the plunge as it were, through the employment of the argument that «Τι κι αν παντρευτείς; Θα φιλήσεις, θα αγκαλιάσεις και θα βαρεθείς.» (So what if you get married? You will kiss, you will embrace, and then you will get bored.)
Even more ominous is the Constantinopolitan song «Αρχοντογιός παντρεύεται,» where the evil bourgeois mother in law engages in class conflict and perpetuates the persecution of the proletariat by poisoning her economically disadvantaged daughter in law’s fish, proving James Thurber right when he postulated that “The most dangerous food is wedding cake.”
It was from this anti-wedding position that I returned from the reception centre in early 2007, having discussed and resolved such weighty topics as the precise arrangement of candelabras and most importantly for the sustenance-obsessed culinary freaks that comprise the Kalimniou horde, the presentation of food offerings, the wind blowing mercilessly through my hollow pockets, whispering the ominous demotic verse in my ears: «Κωστάκη μην παντρεύεσαι και μην πολλά ξοδιάζεις...» Having explained to my then fiancée that my misgivings were not cold feet, but were deeply founded in literary analysis, she proceeded to unilaterally resolve my poetic dilemma by arranging a Saturday wedding, thus avoiding the curse of Kostantis, which seems only to be activated by nuptials conducted on the Lord’s day.
The rest of the year could well have been reflected in Zig Ziglar’s observation that: “Many people spend more time in planning the wedding than they do in planning the marriage,” had it not been for the fact that, both of us not having been married before and being possessed of relatively few clues as to how to go about doing so, any planning that took place, did so within the midst of total confusion and disorganization, my fiancée valiantly attempting to explain why place cards are important and my parents rolling their eyes in despair as I disputed the need for a wedding cake given that none are ever mentioned in Epirotic folk-songs.
My original conviction was that in traditional thinking, wedding celebrations have little to do with the married couple. Instead, they are a display window or shop front of their families, a chance to strut their stuff, (who can resist a mother in law of sturdy peasant stock making her grand entrance at the reception, replete with royal wave and large hat?) or at best, discharge reciprocal obligations to third parties who have invited them to their own offsprings’ weddings in the past. A poor wedding thus reflects poorly upon the parents of the newlyweds, as does one of questionable taste though too often here it is the case of the one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind that is the arbiter of taste in bourgeois weddings lifted out of context from Italian customs, the silver screen and a multitude of women’s magazines. For many modern day newlyweds, their wedding day is perceived to be one of the few, if not the only time when all attention will be placed upon them and their otherwise insignificant lives and every moment of it is stage managed and contrived to full, if somewhat dubious effect. As Eliott Erwitt states: “Now very often, events are set up for photographers… The weddings are orchestrated about the photographers taking the picture, because if it hasn’t been photographed, it doesn’t really exist.”
In the end, our bourgeois conception could not supersede the conviction that the main focus of any wedding should be the progenitors of the main protagonists, who laboured long and hard to propagate and grow their seedlings, only to have them graft themselves onto total strangers. As I cleaned out my drawers from the room I had slept in for most of my life, I reflected that for a parent, mixed in with the joy, a wedding is also a time of misgiving, fear (as to whether the graft will take) and sadness and it is for this reason that much could be done to mitigate this fact. In the process, I discovered that my mother had bizarrely lined my bottom drawers with copies of the September 1970 edition of the Australian Socialist, containing such edifying articles as one entitled “Apartheid is Shit.”
On the day of my wedding, when the photographers arrived and no one was ready because the Kalimnious were busily engaged in cooking for the hordes that would descend upon the family home to ensure that I did not try to do a runner, my koumbaro and one of the groomsmen discovered that their shirt had not been provided with their hire suits. As I rushed to the car, the rollicking strains of Robert Brownings’ “How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” (“I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris and he; I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three) came to mind, mixed in with the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, stirred, not shaken: “Marriage is like life – it is a field of battle, not a bed of roses.” I returned home bearing extra shirts, only to discover that the original shirts had been present in the suit bag all along.
When I arrived at the church, I was in a daze, totally dissociated from my surroundings. I mused upon cars driving past, engaged upon their own business, oblivious to the fundamental change in my life that was about to take place. When the priest put the cup of wine to my lips, I was so thirsty that I said out loud, “thank you,” causing my father to guffaw loudly. To great comic effect, at the conclusion of the reading of St Paul’s epistle, I stretched out my foot and placed in squarely on that of my wife, to the cheers of both Greeks and Assyrians, who also have this custom. Looking back furtively at the congregation, I noticed that an honour guard of Pontians dressed in their full regalia had been positioned themselves at the aisle, a surprise gift by a devoted Pontian friend and a gesture appreciated especially by my newly arrived Athenian grandmother, who was touched to witness what she called: “ a lovely Assyrian custom.”
The mystery having been completed, the priest who had baptized me thirty years ago clasped our hands, telling my wife sternly: “You are a very lucky woman,” before kissing us both. I squeezed her hand and muttered “moskhine,” meaning ‘poor thing’ in Assyrian. We now belonged to each other, something we could not believe and which, a little less than a month later, is only just beginning to sink in.
Heinrich Heine once mused: “Music played at weddings always reminds me of the music played for soldiers before they go into battle.” Admittedly, the concept of music at the wedding reception filled me with foreboding. In the case of mixed marriages, guests and family alike often suddenly remember their ethnicity and flaunt it in order to gain ascendancy or achieve a feeling of superiority over each other. A chilly atmosphere ensues with half the hall seated on tenderhooks waiting their turn, while the other half is on the dance floor, eyeing them and knowing that they are about to be kicked off at the commencement of the alien revels. We had no such problem, simply because my wife and indeed many Assyrians in Melbourne have either lived in Greece and thus are completely enamoured of Greek music. Similarly, Assyrian music differs only slightly if at all from it, permitting guests of all sides to enjoy themselves, parents to breathe a sigh of relief and my Athenian grandmother to exclaim: “These Pontians have lovely dances don’t they?”
It was while I was observing my guests dance, with band leader and former NKEE editor Argyris Argyropoulos valiantly keeping the beat while struggling with temporary blindness caused by oxygenocolysis, that I finally understood what weddings were about. Before me paraded people I had always known, who had always loved and supported me, my family. My wife, persecuted and displaced from her country was not afforded the same privilege. Her family is scattered across the ends of the earth, with her friends, neighbours and members of her community comprising her surrogate family. Here were people that were reveling in our happiness and our task was to remain constant at their side, to return their love and maintain, throughout our lives, a sense of cohesion, a sense of family. It was at this moment, when I remembered in my speech all those elements in my upbringing, inserted surreptitiously by my parents, that morphed, or if you ask my sister, distorted my psyche, that I almost broke down, like Humphrey Bogart, who attested that “I always cry at weddings, especially my own.” My wife is much too tall to be carried over the threshold. When we arrived at our home, she collapsed into an armchair and I set about extricating her hair from the constraints of the fetishistic fantasies of a demented hairdresser with pretensions to couture. We fell asleep.


First published in NKEE on 7 January 2008