Getting married in Greece during the pandemic
“May the gods grant you all things which your heart desires …for there is nothing greater and better than this—when a husband and wife keep a household in oneness of mind, a great woe to their enemies and joy to their friends.” – Homer
Part 1. An Unexpected Ceremony, the Back Story
When I woke up on the morning of September 14, on the southern coast of the Greek Peloponnese, I had no idea that I would be married two days later. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get married, or hadn’t tried, or hadn’t found the right person, or even that she didn’t want to marry me. It was just that with Covid, getting married, or at times simply being in a relationship with someone from another continent, seemed impossible.
Maria and I were in China when the pandemic broke out and we witnessed Chongqing, the world’s largest city, transform into a ghost-town overnight. At the end of January, we took the last flight out of the country to Italy. It was there that we got engaged and experienced the first wave of the pandemic and the first lockdown in Rome. That was when we discovered the waitlist for us to get married in Italy would be one to two years. Added to that, with mutually exclusive travel and tourist restrictions it was almost impossible for us to stay in the same country, let alone plan a wedding.
Of course, many others have found themselves in similar situations over the past two years, faced with the ultimatum of choosing to remain close to friends and family throughout the pandemic or of seemingly risking everything to put relationships first. The pandemic has been an intensifier and those of us in long-distance relationships found that the stakes were suddenly raised the moment the world shut down travel. (As a tour guide in Europe and having already been indefinitely laid-off during the pandemic, the stakes were already high.)
So when I awoke to the sun rising over the Messinian gulf and the hillsides speckled with olive groves and vineyards on September 14, I had very little inkling that our planned visit to the town hall in Pylos would be any different. We had already made numerous trips and sent countless emails to embassies and consulates, contacted lawyers in various countries, emailed, called, and visited local municipalities, and spent most of our savings just trying to survive. It’s not that Maria and I despaired at every getting married, it’s just that the increased bureaucracy and pandemic restrictions had worn our hope thin. Needless to say, we were both surprised and delighted to be given an appointment to be married by the mayor of Pylos, two days later. Although given the choice we would have selected a time and place our family and friends might have been able to attend, we both felt that there was a poetic justice to the wedding ceremony we now awaited.
First of all, Greece itself is immensely rich with poetic resonances and truths that date back to very ancient times. The town hall in Pylos, a relatively modern building, is no exception to this. It is built just a few feet from the bay of Pylos, already famous in the time of Homer’s Iliad. It was here that the wise king Nestor ruled, and that Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, came seeking counsel. But even more than that, the surrounding coastline and the southern Peloponnese was a place that both Maria and I had come to love. We spent the autumn of 2020 and the second lockdown of Europe, living in a small cottage near the sea. On countless occasions we experienced the magic of stopping along the side of the road to collect figs and other wild fruits growing abundantly; we swam daily in the crystalline waters of the Adriatic until December; and we encountered the incredible hospitality of locals who treated us like old friends.
So, although we were getting married away from those closest to us, we both felt that it was a kind of homecoming; that when everywhere else in the world seemed to have imposed insurmountable barriers, the birthplace of Western civilization told us we could get married in two days.
Part 2. The Wedding Day, Unexpected Beauty
Both Maria and I had minimal expectations for the civil ceremony, which is exactly why I wanted to share this story. Ours was not to be a Big Fat Greek Wedding nor a destination wedding with lots of friends but a simple civil marriage. We thought we would sign documents and that would be it. And in some ways that is what it was, but in the most important ways it became the wedding we hoped to have.
Our meeting with the mayor was at 1:00 p.m. A few minutes before 1:00 our good friends Konstantinos, Chrisoula, and Thanasi arrived in the same white van they use for the olive harvest, and just a few moments later the mayor welcomed us into the municipal boardroom. The first great gift of the day, in addition to the flowers Chrisoula had brought for Maria, was the marriage declaration and the translation in English.
“It is your mutual duty to love, trust and respect one another through your life for the rest of your lives. … To jointly and equally face all the difficulties that may arise from living together as man and wife. … In overcoming the burdens presented by married life into the protection and support of the family which may create.
Finally, it is your mutual duty and right to ensure the upbringing and education of any children you may have so that they become useful in good citizens and freethinking individuals.”
We were not only pleasantly surprised by the fact that there was an English translation so that we could understand what was said and promised, but also the unapologetic truths contained in the civic promises. I couldn’t help thinking that although my expectations for bureaucracy were perhaps unnecessarily low, that even Homer would have approved.
We had decided earlier that day that we would celebrate together in Ripena, an abandoned town we had visited the year before. Although little remained of the ancient town it was a magical place. The church of the Annunciation to Mary was still attended by locals on feast days. And the surrounding very tall oak trees and olive trees were still used occasionally to host dances.
As we finished taking pictures outside the town hall, Konstantinos explained the route we should take, and by accident, after taking a wrong turn, we drove the entire way through old farm roads that lead us across the hills and olive groves.
When we did finally arrive, Konstantinos greeted us near the entrance to the church of the Annunciation with and enormous handful of rice, and said, ‘now the most important part.’ Then he proceeded to shower the rice over us. His mom, Chrisoula, approached us next. She had a huge bag of rice that she repeatedly poured into her hands and showered us abundantly. Smiling, she explained, ‘these are for moments of happiness.’
Again, I had to pause, realizing that without Chrisoula and Konstantinos I might never have known what this beautiful tradition meant. Chrisoula then hurried us over to the table she had set with the same dishes from her own marriage celebration and with the tablecloth given to her by her mother-in-law on her wedding day. She then opened a jar of honey, one produced by her brother just a few kilometers away, and as she gave us each a heaping spoonful of honey, she explained, ‘this is so that you will always be sweet. You must stand on something hard when you eat it, because you must also be strong.’
The five of us stayed together, eating and drinking, until late in the evening. Maria and I had brought some traditional dishes from a local restaurant. Thanasi had brought large jugs of local wine. He prepared a tzatziki in the back of their white van while Chrisoula, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, with olives and olive oil from her own garden for a Greek salad. Just before sundown, Thanasi took me for a walk and showed me where to collect wild fruit. Chrisoula, in the meantime, shared with Maria the same wisdom that had been shared with her by the married women on her own wedding day, simple advice that had been passed down from generation to generation. Maria told me later of what Chrisoula had shared ‘that some things can be said only between women.’
Shortly before midnight, we returned to our little cottage, nestled between the olive groves and vineyards. A great swath of stars lit up the night sky. We were married. Our next adventure was just beginning.