The Culture of Weddings: Ukraine vs. USA

I never wanted a ‘traditional’ wedding - I never fantasized about it nor created scrapbooks of the perfect event. I knew I wanted to have a partner to share my life with by my side but I didn't care what will the ‘send off’ looked like.

In most American movies I got used to seeing church weddings and funny priests, flower decor and beautiful dresses, but even without using my degree I could see through the Hollywood smokescreen. Americans kept telling me that weddings are an industry and I could potentially understand it but I don’t think I fully grasped this until I faced the industry head on.

Everyone gets married in a registry office in Ukraine. In the last couple of years outdoor ceremonies have been gaining popularity but they still have years of development and perfection to go. A registry office is usually a rather depressing place with tacky decor, and a woman who has been marrying people all day and is sick and tired of her well-rehearsed speech, polished over the years. Couples come in, she delivers her speech, they sign the book of registration (that’s a thing) - their maid-of-honor and best man sign it as witnesses, they turn around, and they go and drink.

Rather simple, right? Wrong. Here are 5 things that are messed up with the way Ukrainians do weddings:

1. You do not know the person officiating the wedding. Most likely you will be seeing that woman for the first (and the last) time in your life. A stranger is responsible for giving your marriage boat that push off the shore.

2. You can’t put your own spin on the decor of the registry office, therefore, you and thousands of couples after you will have the exact same pictures inside the cheap and old interior of the happiest place in your marriage.

3. The officiator’s speech is always the same. Yes, she is wishing happiness to you and a couple after you. Does she care about your name or your story? Doubt it.

4. Since it is registry office job to marry couples - they get tired and cranky too. So, do not be surprised if someone yells at you on your wedding day.

5. If you come from a religious background you still have to get married in the registry office and only after have a ceremony at your place of worship.

After the official part, everyone goes to a reception that is usually held in a restaurant and gets trashed. But this is common for most cultures. What makes Ukraine stand out is that a lot of receptions have a specifically hired person whose job it is to come up with entertainment. No joke: this person is playing MC and an event manager, and is dealing with everything else on the fly. This person is called тамада (~toastmaster). There is not really an accurate translation for this person’s job but rest assured: it is hard hard work. Fun games are involved (sometimes inappropriate games too). All of this fun is supposed to not only entertain but bring two families and all the friends invited together. And that’s kinda beautiful, isn’t it?

There are a lot of traditions involved - some are mostly to entertain, some people really do believe in. For example, the toastmaster (тамада) is collecting money throughout the whole wedding. One jar is for the girl one jar is for the boy (future kids, that is). At the end of the night the money is counted and if one gender has more money in the jar than the other - that will be the sex of the couple’s first child.

Here is another one for you: right after the ceremony the mothers of the couple lay down a рушник at the feet of their children (~embroidered towel from the generations before). It used to be that a mother of the bride was supposed to embroider it herself - now you can just purchase one. The couple turns around and steps on the рушник. Whoever made the first step (either a bride or a groom) will then be the ‘head of the house’. Sorry y’all - equality wasn’t invited to the ceremony.

Weddings rarely last a day. Back in the day it was three days or even more - now it is just two days or so. During the second day the parents and ‘older’ folks are usually not present. The second day is limited to hangover cures and binge eating leftover food. And trust me when I say: the second day is the best.

I haven’t been living in Ukraine for awhile but I know things are changing. Changing for the better! More and more couples now seek originality and isn’t it great? I am sure my knowledge and experience with Ukrainian weddings is getting more and more outdated with every single word I type.

Best gift to give to Ukrainian newlyweds? Money.

Now, let us glance at the USA. I’ve been to quite a few weddings here in the US and feel like I have a harder ground to stand on when it comes to wedding structures. No two weddings were the same, of course.

Here is a step-by-step of a wedding timeline as seen from the point of a friend/invitee:

1. Couple decides to get married, gets engaged, the whole world celebrates with them. There is an engagement party you are invited to cause everyone just wants to share the bits and pieces of their happiness. You bring a small gift to celebrate.

2. You get a Save the Date with the day of the wedding. You get a link or a place where the couple is registered (aka, listed all of the gifts they need/want to receive for their wedding).

3. Couple sets the date, all is going according to the plan, you are getting invited to the Bridal Shower. You are bringing gifts to the bride-to-be and drink and have a good time.

4. If you are close - you are invited to a Bachelorette/Bachelor party. Could be something low-key on the spot or a destination one (Nashville is a hot place for Bachelor/Bachelorette parties right now). You bring a gift. In case this is a destination party - you pay for the ticket/gas/outfits/chip in for airbnb or hotel/spend money on drinks and entertainment as well as bring a gift.

5. Wedding invitation arrives in the mail. You now know where to be and at what time.

6. If you are in a Wedding Party: this is the time where you freak out cause you need to pay for a dress/tux and get it fitted and all that jazz.

7. The Wedding Shower. Yep, usually happens few weeks before the actual day of the wedding. You bring gifts from the registry and celebrate the upcoming wedding.

8. Rehearsal dinner. You come, you eat, you rehearse for the next day.

9. THE WEDDING DAY. You come, you eat, you have fun. And you bring gifts.

So, in short: I don’t know why some couples choose to go through this ‘cause let me honest here - it all sounds painful and oh so expensive. A wedding photographer alone will cost you about $3000.

The ceremonies are usually very pretty. No matter if they are held at a church or at the venue - I honestly enjoyed them all. A minister a couple knows or more often a friend of the couple ends up holding the ceremony which makes the occasion and scene very home-like. A catered meal, dancing, and getting trashed is on the menu after the ceremony. Throwing of the bouquet is a thing as well as father-daughter/son-mother dances. It is all very very cute. No entertainer (well, a band or DJ), so a little slow after the dinner for my Ukrainian soul.

Now, all of this is a more ‘traditional’ way to have a wedding in the US. It costs a lot for both guests and the newlyweds but it is hella pretty and memorable. Clearly, I am not a traditional kinda girl and am so lucky to be married to not-so traditional guy.

Best gift to give to American newlyweds: stuff from the registry. Stick to the list. Always, stick to the list.

I LOVED my own wedding. And I hope every single couple that gets married feels empowered to say the same after years of marriage. No matter how much money they spent or who hit whom in a drunk debacle.


Creating Friendships as an Expat

I’ve been writing for wordly for about 2 years now and every month out of these 2 years I was thinking about writing this: a piece on friendship. Why was it so hard for me to write? I am not sure. Maybe I didn’t want to offend some people - maybe I was just scared of facing the reality. For now, I’ve decided that the importance of this is higher than my insecurities. Yay for personal liberation! It is a gift for myself and (hopefully) everyone else for wordly’s second birthday.

I always had friends but I felt alone a lot of times even when I was a kid. When I was bullied in my school I still wanted to be my tormentos’ friend. It was very hard for me to imagine being friendless even if it did come with tears brought on by my so-called ‘friends’. It is weird how the urge for remaining social overpowered basics like pride, and self-respect. When you live in a small town you are chained to the friendships you formed when you were a kid. Meeting new people is, of course, possible but when are you planning on hanging out with them if you are going to a different school?

Upon my move to the US I wasn’t really worried about creating friendships. I was just not thinking about it. I had a million things to be nervous about and finding someone to hang out with was far far down on my list. After all: I was about to join the love of my life. Why would I even think about other people?!

Ah, naive girl. Who would have thought that building a healthy life would entail creating friendships with other people, right? To make your fortress stronger you need to create allies. Unless it is a Fortress of Solitude. Then, you know, it’s optional.

Andrew’s friends became my friends. Or to put it better: my acquaintances. I was ‘cool’ for about a second in his friend group mostly because people were relieved (excited?) to see I was, in fact, real. I am assuming all the talking Andrew did before my move here led them to believe I might be fictional. You never know! Maybe it is all a lie and I don’t really exist. Maybe no one exists and we are just a part of some video game. Maybe...alright, that’s enough insanity for one paragraph.

My first Nashville friend found me. Or we found each other and never really let go. Whenever Andrew tried to say ‘B is my friend too’ I would flip since:
a) I was possessive
b) She was the only friend I had

We met at a Returned Peace Corps Volunteers event and even though I have never been a PCV - Andrew was. That means I belong, right? She had just moved to town and was looking for friends. She was waaaay more proactive than I was in forming friendships and I will be forever thankful that she was.

Right now our womance (there is bromance. I am fighting for womance. This has to be a thing) developed into being neighbors and life became exponentially easier. I don’t even know how NOT to live on the same street with my best friend. That’s just crazy talk!

Both of us make sure our friendship work. We put time and effort into us. I understand clearly that friendship, just like any other relationship, is hard work.

That’s probably where I went wrong in the beginning: believing that Sex and the City-type careless friendships stand a chance in the ‘real world’. HA!. Work, time, desire, and effort has to be put into a friendship in order for it to work. As soon as I realized this - it became so much easier to form friendships. Even in my not-so-teenage age.

As we continued to create a bond, one weird thought kept creeping in. Will I be able to have a fruitful and mutually stimulating friendship even when I am not speaking my own language? Of course this wasn’t the first time I had this thought. With Andrew it was different. He had spent 2 years in Ukraine and had an understanding of the Ukrainian soul so to say. My friends didn’t.

There is something about culture that sits deep inside of you and no matter how accepting or open you are - it will forever be a part of you. No matter how good your command of the foreign language is some things will remain unsaid, always. And that’s a big thing to hold on to especially when forming friendships. It is like you are unintentionally lying to everyone around you and feel a bit fraud-ish but you can’t really say anything.

If you ask me if it’s possible to create life-long, honest bonds with people while living in a new county - I will say yes, but nothing is ever 100%.

There are things I will forever crave and won’t stop reminiscing about. Things like sitting in a small soviet-style kitchen with a girlfriend and talking until the wee hours. Drinking wine and poking at cheese. Sneaking an occasional cigarette and opening all the windows so the other roommates won’t find out. Talking and talking and talking about life and sorrows and regrets… It might sound ‘depressing’ but it is like a free version of a shrink.

Maybe that’s why psychiatrists are so popular in the US. Americans tend to not ‘bother’ other people with their problems. Don’t get me wrong: I see both sides of the coin. However, I was also brought up in a different culture and seeing and understanding the other side of the coin doesn’t necessarily mean following it or choosing it as a favorite.

At the end of the day creating friendships as an expat is hard. Creating friendships when you are older is hard. Building bonds with people from a different culture is kind of a base for being an expat. Integration is crucial but how do you integrate without betraying yourself?

About a year ago I reached a point where friendships with Americans were just not completely ‘it’ for me. I needed those late-night kitchen talks. I needed to shed a tear about everything that is happening and I needed a friend to be there and to hear me. I needed a Ukrainian or Russian speaking friend. I needed a save. My attempts at finding someone to be friends with by going to the Nashville Eastern European store did not end up being a success. To this day (even though I shop at that store fairly frequently) they address me in English when I walk in. For them I am gone. I can’t be Ukrainian. I am an American now. However, I was determined to put all of that aside and find me a friend (gosh, the things you have to do when you live in a foreign country). I was ‘fishing’ (I know it sounds gross but that is what I was doing, trust me) for anyone who would be remotely right for the part. After awkward chats with new mommies and grandmas who don’t leave their house unless they are going to the Ukrainian store - I had to admit defeat.

The Universe is a mysterious lady. When you really need something or someone - she will put in a request for you. And so, my request was granted and one day I received a message from a girl named K, who had just moved to Nashville from Kyiv. She could have been a serial killer but I did not care: I needed a native friend. STAT. Full disclosure: she is not a serial killer. Or at least she hasn’t revealed her identity just yet.

Each time I lived in the States I had a couple Ukrainian or Russian speaking friends. I always called them my ‘circumstantial’ friends just because we were bound to communicate somehow because the thirst for the native tongue is real, y’all. Funny enough, my ‘circumstantial’ friends are still some of the closest people in my friend circle. Some of my ‘true’ friends are no longer interested in having a friendship with me. Funny how that worked out.

And here I am, twenty six and no cafeteria to make friends with during lunch hour. I should just create an app for expats looking for friends. Unfortunately, there is no one here to kid: that app will turn into a ‘date a foreigner’ shindig faster than the speed of sound. Or a free immigrant registry for the current administration.

If you live in Nashville I am looking for more friends! Here is what I have to offer:
  • My addiction to coffee
  • Occasional tears of desperation
  • My obsession with Harry Potter
  • Ukrainian chocolates on me
  • Sarcasm and eye rolls
  • Mimosas
  • Candles and notebooks
  • Free advice on any topic (please use this with caution and at your own risk. No responsibility will be taken from the actions that inevitably come out of that advice)
  • I can’t be the muscle of any operation just yet but I can turn on my Ukrainian face and verbally destroy any or all of your enemies
Beware: you will have to take pictures of me at random places ‘cause Instagram (insert eyeroll). But I am an ok human, I swear. And the best part is - I can talk to a tree if I have to in case you were nervous about potential awkward pauses.

Today I am very grateful to have the friends that I do here in Nashville. They are amazing humans who for some reason don’t hate my company. I try my best to be an equal partner in all of my friendships and put in work and time into nourishing something as fragile as human relationships. So, next time you can’t find a person to go do things with - shoot me a text. We will give this whole friendship thing a try.

Olia Hamolia for The Hello Series

Alisa's note: 

Ok, I am seriously excited about this one. I love The Hello Series so much. Thanks to my determination to share the stories of Ukrainian women in the US, I have met so many wonderful humans and Olia sure is one of them. No, we haven't met IRL just yet but I am sure the day will come when we'll sit in the most Instagramable coffee shop and think back to the time when I first sent her a message. Joking aside: this is one hell of a strong woman. I am proud to call her my virtual (for now) friend. Get yourself some ice tea and settle in - this one is a great one. 

 To be honest, this is probably my fourth attempt to write this😂 In fact, I'm so ashamed to admit that Alisa reached to me a couple of months ago with a request to share my story. I was thrilled by the idea and even asked about deadlines promising to send back my text within two weeks. Well, it's better later than never, right? (Great thanks for Alisa's patience😇)

So who am I and what's my story? My name is Olia that funnily rhymes with my last name HamOlia (at least, I think so😂). Mostly, people know me by my Instagram nickname @olka_gamolka. Three years ago I was super lucky to win in a green card lottery from the first attempt.

So a year ago I packed all my Ukrainian life into 4 bags, took my husband and my cat, and flew across the Atlantic. A year ago I saw America for the first time, I admired the beauty of Chicago and I cried a lot of tears cuz this city didn't seem to like me😂 I had endless paper issues (my ID was lost twice and my green card took 6 months to arrive instead of a month), plus unsurprisingly nobody wanted to hire such a hardworking Ukrainian so I was already planning my quiet death from hunger (exaggeration is def my thing😂). Then I felt disappointed by fake people from my native land many many times cuz everybody wanted to "teach" and tell you how little you deserve😑 In two months I left my husband and got divorced, then I finally found myself again and started building my life from the scratch. This spring I found my first apartment just for me and my cat, I bought myself my first bicycle and started living by the Michigan lake in my favorite neighborhood in Chi. Almost a month ago I even found courage to start my own tiny project in Instagram - since the moment I got to know I won in the lottery I've dreamt to promote Ukrainian designers in the USA. So now I hope step by step I can make my dream come true🙈

Being a one-year-old immigrant, what can I say? Life in the USA isn't a piece of cake as many people say and America isn't a place for the weak. I still cannot understand why so many bloggers try to paint a pretty picture of a trouble-free immigrant life in the USA where straight in the airport you get a bag with million bucks, a free Jeep, iPhone and many other things😂 Still, looking back at all the 💩 I went through, I am truly grateful for everything cuz it made me realize who I am and what I am capable of! In fact, only when I moved to the USA I managed to get myself together and understand my aims and life goals. I learnt how to appreciate what you have and simply enjoy life😂 Here I met my people and learnt to expect less from others (still working on that😂) So I can say that my story has just started and I hope you will hear about me with my Ukrainian shops nationwide in the USA😂 (I know I'm very shy)

*The Hello Series features stories in their original form written by Ukrainian expats living in the USA*

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