Monday, September 20, 2010

A Crimean Tatar Wedding

Food prep in the back yard. My house on the right.

Waiting for the bride to come out. My door on left.
At the wedding.

It’s the wedding night. I’m sitting here at the computer, planning on getting dressed in a few minutes, listening and watching all the commotion outside as my neighbor’s large extended family gather in the street and pile into cars to take off to the reception, which is called “the wedding,” but as far as I can tell, is more of a reception.
These Crimean Tatar weddings seem to be pretty complicated affairs, complicated enough that I don’t quite get all the doings.
(Got interrupted by a call from Serdar asking where I was. Now it is Monday, and I'm at the library, not wanting to do my "real" work for some reason, so will finish this blog post.)
In the Crimean Tatar tradition, there are two weddings—one given by the bride’s family for her family and friends and one by the groom’s family for his family and friends, and even the bride and groom’s parents don’t go to both. These aren’t wedding ceremonies, but rather lavish parties which take place one night apart. And these two parties happen even if they all live in the same neighborhood. And somewhere in there is the actual ceremony and registration, the registration taking place at a “registration house” which we might call a wedding chapel, and the religious ceremony in this case at the mosque in the Khan’s Palace in Bakchseray. And even both families don’t attend these events—at least I know Maia and Server (my neighbors, the groom’s parents) didn’t.
It really was a “wedding weekend” and began the previous day when relatives started arriving at Maia and Server’s house. I had gone into the center to meet with my Russian tutor and then walked around some, checking out where to buy a camping stove, dawdling really. Finally returned home in the late afternoon. I was very tired from having slept so little the previous night, and just couldn’t get it together to go next door and join in the festivities, which meant speaking Russian. So I laid on my bed and read, ate a little supper, and eventually went over to Serdar’s family and hung out there for the rest of the evening. Felt a little guilty about not showing up at the neighbors’, which got intensified a million times when I did show up the next morning and Maia’s ancient mother was so glad to see me and told me she had asked about me yesterday, wondering where I was. Sigh…. Sometimes I think my life here is a series of wrong decisions!
But I made up for it, I think, because I spent almost the whole day at the neighbors, helping them prepare food for the wedding celebration that night where 250 people were expected. It was to be held at a restaurant, but the restaurant was only providing the meat dishes, and we all prepared the salads, cold cuts, etc. There were at least fifteen women or more working away at Maia’s—relatives, friends, and neighbors. I was on the backyard crew as we first sliced mounds of eggplant which were then fried in a large wok type pan over an open fire. Later they were smeared with fresh garlic and mayonnaise and rolled up with chopped tomatoes inside and a sprig of parsley sticking out. Quite lovely and very tasty. Went on to chopping artificial crab, cucumbers, peppers, olives, cheese for salads, and slicing huge chunks of cheese and sausages, taking a few breaks for beer and coffee (not combined!), and of course, talking and laughing the whole time. I really couldn’t follow the conversations, and as least some of them were in Crimean Tatar, but I loved being with everyone anyhow, participating in the work of the wedding.
We finally finished after about five hours, and all the food was hauled over to the wedding place. I went back to my home and put my feet up for a bit, and tried to wash the smoke out of my hair with what little water I had stored (I have no water after 1pm). Got dressed, wearing a swishy black skirt and frilly white blouse thanks to by fashion friend Cindy, put on the gold necklace of my mother’s, and even scrunched my not very attractive, callous laden feet into a pair of low heels that I had inherited from a PCV. When I went out my door, everyone was lined up in the narrow passageway between my house and my neighbor’s, waiting for the bride to come out. (Oh, I forgot that part. The bride is moving into my neighbor’s, and though I hadn’t seen her, I guess she had already shown up. I have met her a few times and really like her and look forward to another female presence next door).
I tottered across the street to Serdar’s house and the four of us took off (Safie staying home, as most children her age don’t go to weddings), getting a ride with their nephew who wasn’t going to the wedding, so Neshet didn’t have to worry about drinking and driving.
So much of the wedding was like wedding receptions we know in the States—food, drinking, music, dancing—all the basics. And here is what was different, what it made it a uniquely Crimean Tatar wedding:
For one thing, the food. There was soooo much of it, not enough room on the tables, and it kept coming all night. Many different salads, plates of cheeses and sausages and some kind of traditional meal jelly, chunks of bread, platters of camca (pastries stuffed with meat), chunks of mutton with potatoes, and a sort of breaded and fried ground meat that I forgot the name of. Also, each table had bottles of vodka, wine, juice, and water.
And then there was the music. I had heard about Crimean Tatar wedding music, indeed preserving its traditions is one of the missions of the NGO I have worked with, but apart from the music drifting out of the wedding tents in Ak Mechet, I had never really listened to it or seen it performed. I think it is what we would recognize as Turkish music but with a kind of joyousness to it. And the musicians were just fabulous—a violinist, saxophonist, accordion player, drummer, trumpet player, and maybe one more. I kept thinking that to hire a band like that for a wedding in the States would be a fortune. And that is the really interesting part of it all—the musicians are paid by people dancing with members of the wedding party. First, the sister and brother of the groom—people lined up to dance with them for a few minutes and give them some cash. Later, a pair of elderly twin aunts in identical dresses, two young men, and then finally the bride and groom. In between this dancing, there was general dancing that everyone joined in. Crimean Tatars do love to dance!
We left about midnight, but I think it went on until at least 2 or 3, because about 3:30 I was woken by a knock on the window by my bed, Maia asking me if some of the overflowing guests in her house could sleep in my extra bedroom. Of course it was fine with me, so a bunch trooped over and curled up on the three beds in that room and the mattresses we put on the floor.
The next morning there was still a gang at Maia’s house, but one by one they all left. I stopped over later to return the bedding, and poor Maia was so tired. But she had pulled off an immense task, a wedding she had been planning since I came here. And, as for me, I got to go to my very first Crimean Tatar wedding! And a great experience it was.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Odessa with the older PCV's

Street scene in Odessa center.
Sign for the Jewish museum.
Some of us old folks having a beer. Actually, I think I might be the oldest in this group.
Inside the magnificent opera house.
Our hotel.
Monday morning at the library, just looked at my last post. My, that time on Demerdji Mountain seems like a long time ago even though it has only been a couple of weeks. Life here is a continuous parade, it seems, of new experiences and new thoughts about my life here. I have truly learned the importance of taking it one day at a time, because my despair/happiness on one day can change so radically on the next.
Two weekends ago I went to the famous Black Sea port city of Odessa. I have been wanting to visit Odessa ever since I have been in Crimea, so I welcomed the opportunity when SNAC (the over 50 Volunteers group in Ukraine—I seem to have forgotten exactly what SNAC stands for—guess that means I am truly a member of this group) decided to have their meeting in Odessa. Our “meeting” is really a pretense to spend some time in an interesting place in Ukraine. In November we are going to meet in Lviv in western Ukraine, and in the spring I and my fellow older PCVers will host the meeting in Crimea. I want to make it at a Crimean Tatar “cultural tour,” as a way to educate PCV’s about who the Crimean Tatar people are and also to perhaps develop that tourist concept among the Crimean Tatar establishments here. We’ll see how it goes…
Despite still feeling the effects of a lingering cold, I had a nice time in Odessa. One of the reasons I wanted to go was that I knew it would provide an opportunity to spend time with the new older PCV’s in Crimea, Cheryl and Vicki, and to get to know them better. They each live in villages about two hours from Simferopol. We took the overnight train together—Cheryl and me from Simferopol, Vicki from a stop two hours after Simferopol—and shared a room in the old hotel in the center of Odessa where our group was staying. We opted for the cheapest room so the bathroom was down a very long hall, but it was a huge room with many windows facing onto the main street. Unfortunately, that main street was quite noisy at night, but that is what ear plugs are for. The hotel was a find, as accommodations in Odessa are very expensive. Apparently, it was a palace of some sort at one time and had a grand staircase and large wide hallways. All a bit shabby, but really, quite lovely. It felt very Ukraine.
We arrived in Odessa on a Friday morning after 13 hours on the train (not bad coming from Simferopol where all train trips are at least overnight) and didn’t leave until Sunday evening, so we had three days to explore and hang out. Odessa is a lovely city. Not so old by European standards—it was established by Catherine (known historically as “Catherine the Great” but I have learned to drop the Great part around here. Russian czars are not looked upon very favorably by Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian nationalists) in the late 1700’s when she added Crimea and much of the surrounding land, including the Black Sea coast where Odessa is located, to the Russian Empire. The city was spared a lot of building damage in World War II, so many of the grand old buildings are still standing. The opera house was really something. It is said to be only second to the opera house in Vienna in grandeur and the elaborateness of its interior. We all got tickets to the current ballet production because we wanted to see the inside of the building. And it was certainly worth the relatively inexpensive tickets—gold leaf everywhere, tiers of balconies rising up to an elaborate domed ceiling, a red and gold velvet stage curtain. Photos definitely don’t do it justice. It looks like something that a czar would have built.
We spent the rest of the weekend exploring the center and its historic buildings and monuments, taking a short boat tour of the famous harbor, stumbling into a cat show (yes, even in Ukraine there are people obsessed with their pets), wandering through the archaeology museum with its interesting displays about ancient Black Sea cultures, photographing each other on the Twelfth Chair (from a very famous Russian story) and the Potemkin Stairs whose 200 steps lead down to the Sea (or did at one point—now they lead to a busy highway!), and just generally enjoying the beautiful weather and city and the company of older volunteers from all over Ukraine.
I also wanted to explore another side of Odessa. I had always known Odessa as the center of Jewish intellectual life in pre-war Europe, the home to many famous writers and artists. And, of course, I knew that the Holocaust devastated the Jewish population there. But I went to Odessa with the hope of seeing some remnants of that historical past where the 50% Jewish population played such a vibrant role in the creative energy of Eastern Europe. But all I found, which speaks volumes I think, was a very small (five rooms) museum of the history of Odessa Jews. It was filled with odds and ends--much of which I didn’t understand as there were no English signs--but one thing I could read was the sign showing the Jewish population numbers in Odessa, which ranged from thousands before the war to only 600 Jews left at the end of the war. And even that doesn’t tell the real story, as the soft spoken elderly woman at the museum informed us: Jews from all over Europe fled to Odessa during the war in hopes of being safe in the “Jewish capital” of Europe, only to be slaughtered along with the rest of the population, their numbers lost in the historical count of who lived and who died. The museum did little to satisfy my desire to know more about pre-war Jewish life in Odessa, but sometimes I think you learn more from realizing what is lacking than seeing what is there. Such was my experience at the museum of the Jewish history of Odessa.
Somehow this has turned into a longer post than I had planned, so I will save my other doings for the next post. The weather has cooled down here and the days are getting shorter. Nadjie is still on vacation but will be back later this week, and I look forward to our next year of work together. And who knows, what it will bring… Hopefully more Russian understanding!
With love from Crimea.