Editor's Diary: A multicultural wedding

Editor's Diary: A multicultural wedding

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David Gordon Smith goes to someone else's wedding for a change.

18 September 2006

Last week I went to a wedding - someone else's for a change (I've been married twice, or rather married once and blessed once, since May). I figured this must be wedding karma in action - which is appropriate for me seeing as I did in fact have a Hindu wedding - give enough people free food, entertainment, and booze, and they will do the same to you.

At the risk of being immodest, I like to think of myself as some kind of wedding expert now, having done the thing twice in the last few months. And so it was intensely interesting to be able to cast my professional eye over someone else's nuptials, as a sort of benchmarking, to use a phrase beloved of management consultants. A live jazz duo at the lunch - why didn't we think of that? Wines of the same vintage as the bride and groom's years of birth - nice touch. People hanging around not sure what to do between the lunch and dinner - at least that wasn't just at our nuptials.

This was, if my memory serves me correctly, my third German wedding. Perhaps because of the ausländisch (but rarely outlandish) company I keep, there always seems to be a high Ausländer quotient at the weddings I attend here.

The first wedding I attended was of a German student of mine who was getting married to a guy from Crete. It took place in Franken, where I had my first introduction to full-on rural German dialect (I couldn't understand a word her parents said) and local customs - the bride had to be ritually 'kidnapped' by her male relatives and had to be ritually freed by the groom. (Not the most feminist of cultural practices.)

It was also an introduction to Cretan piscatorial practices. The groom's father was missing an eye and a hand as a result of a accident while fishing - with dynamite. And, just to further reinforce my positive stereotypes of Crete derived from reading Zorba the Greek, the Greek contingent ritually fired their guns into the sky after the wedding, which certainly beats throwing confetti as a way to bless a couple. All in all, it was a fun weekend.

The next wedding I attended was here in Berlin and a somewhat bleaker affair. A Brazilian illegal immigrant of my acquaintance was getting married to her German boyfriend. Alert readers may have already figured out from the previous sentence that this was in fact a marriage of convenience so that the bride could stay in the country.

I confess I have never quite understood how marriages of convenience to the person who are dating are supposed to work. Are you 'really' married or not? Does one person effectively say to the other, I like you enough to go out with you, but not quite enough to marry you? And what happens should you some day decide that you really want to get married out of love? Do you annul the first marriage and then get married again?

Anyway, this Brazilian friend of mine, who was clearly fonder of her German boyfriend than he was of her, had gone to an effort to dress for the occasion, partly out of a desire not to induce the suspicion of the German authorities, but also, I suspect, because she secretly did want to believe it was a real marriage. Her useless German boyfriend, however, turned up in shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and trainers, as if to make it clear exactly how seriously he was taking the ceremony. Ouch. That relationship didn't last long, you won't be surprised to hear.

At first glance the third and most recent wedding did not have much to do with foreigners. After all, both bride and groom are German citizens.

But, as they discovered when they went to do the paperwork for the wedding, they are not quite German enough for the authorities' taste. It turns out that just having a German passport does not appear to make you German in the eyes of the marriage bureaucrats, if you happen to have been born in Poland (the bride) or have a Syrian father (the groom).

And so apparently both bride and groom had to go through some kind of complicated bureaucratic process to prove that they were, in fact, German. This is another thing I don't understand - why don't one set of German bureaucrats trust the work of another? Surely the people who gave the bride and groom German citizenship did it for a reason? I've never tried getting one, so I can only speculate, but I imagine it must take a certain amount of effort to get a German passport.

This must have been especially galling for the couple as they are, in fact, model German citizens. She's an architect while he is a doctor, they both (of course) speak perfect German, and are a million times more productive members of German society than I am ever likely to be.

In the course of sorting out the bureaucracy, the groom found out that his absent-minded father had somehow forgotten to mention that he actually had Syrian citizenship as well as German. His reaction was along the lines of, well, thanks for letting me know, Dad, before I go to visit Syria and find myself conscripted to do my national service. (Which I can completely understand - if I had to choose an army to be conscripted into, I think Syria's would be pretty low down the list, probably just under North Korea's and above Iran's.)

They gnashed their teeth in envy when we told them how it had taken us all of fifteen minutes (really) to take care of the wedding formalities when S and I got hitched in the US - a form, an oath, and fifty dollars was all it took for us to get a marriage certificate ready for our Hindu priest to sign. (None of the Germans we've told this to can believe it.)

Mind you, the bride and groom may have the last laugh yet - S and I haven't yet had to prove to the German authorities that we are married. I expect our American certificate will not carry much weight and we will have to get a certified translator to translate it and then get it notarised, along with our parents' birth certificates, our primary school diplomas, and an officially-recognised version of our family trees.

A certain insensitivity to the couple's origins was also evident during the ceremony. The official from the Standesamt who was marrying them, and who on all accounts seemed to be a very sympathetic and friendly woman, first said how she wasn't even going to try to pronounce the family name of the Romanian-German witness, as if she was being asked to perform some impossible task. Then, when she came to read out the bride's Polish middle name, she prefaced it with a none-too-tactful "here comes the tongue-twister". Which I suppose seems like a fairly minor thing, when you compare it to the prospect of being conscripted into the Syrian army, but it still annoyed me. I'd like to think, although I realise I may be completely wrong, that a public official in, say, the UK would be a touch more sensitive.

However any irritation caused by these faux pas (which quite possibly failed to register with anyone apart from S and me) was dispelled when we turned up for the evening dinner and found the couple had booked a private dining room on the 14th floor of the Intercontinental in which we were going to be regaled with a 6-course meal. The view over Berlin was spectacular and over the course of the evening we watched the sun go down on one of the room and the moon rise on the other. Not to mention a fireworks display over Köpenick which nobody seemed to notice except for me.

The groom's father, something of a wine buff, had chosen the wines, including a 1973 Mouton-Rothschild. It was undoubtedly the most expensive wine I have ever drunk and was approximately 20 times too expensive for my palate, whose range of sensitivity extends at most to a binary nice/not nice distinction. (I admit I googled it when I got home to find how much it cost. Wouldn't you? No? Well, you're obviously a better person than me.)

Sitting there, surrounded by Syrians, Syrian-Germans, Poles, Polish-Germans, Romanian-Germans, and (naturally) Germans, I felt content (which perhaps wasn't surprising, considering how much food and wine was being shoved down my throat). This is what society should be like, I thought. Everyone was speaking German, and it certainly didn't feel like a gathering of foreigners. If this wasn't an argument for a multicultural society, I don't know what is. But maybe that's just the Mouton-Rothschild talking.



David Gordon Smith / Expatica

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