Thursday, July 10, 2008

My Big, Fat Macedonian Wedding

Mare Davitkovska is planning for around 200 guests when her son is married later this month. It is a modest celebration by Macedonian standards, a country where elaborate and conspicuously costly weddings are a necessary luxury for many people.

"This caused a lot of problems because restaurants wouldn't hold such a small celebration, since most of them require a minimum of 250 guests," Davitkovska says.

Guest lists of 500 or more are common, and with restaurants charging 7 to 15 euros per person, the cost adds up quickly. Families go into debt for years to pay for them, although the investment may pay off over the long term — Macedonia has one of Europe's lowest divorce rates.

"We expect to cover half of the whole celebration from our savings, and the other half with a bank loan," says Davitkovska, whose son Branko is to be married on 27 June.

Davitkovska earns a monthly salary of around 300 euros, and her husband is unemployed. Even so, a bigger wedding party is a practical solution.

"If we don't do it, we'll be forced to have guests almost every night for a year maybe. Everybody will want to visit and congratulate us, so we'll always have to have something to eat, snacks and drinks. It will cost us much more," she explains.

Branko Davitkovski, 27, says he and his fiancée didn't want a traditionally large party.

"We planned to celebrate our marriage with lunch with our parents and our closest relatives and with a small party for our friends. But our parents insisted on a big wedding," he says.


In addition to the cake, photographers, wedding dress, gold jewelry for the bride, and perhaps a limousine or even messages dropped from an airplane, many wedding planners have to budget for two further expenses.

The cost for the band, an essential part of any big party, ranges from 350 up to several thousand euros. Less expensive, but no less important to many Macedonians, is the fee for an Orthodox priest. The services of a single clergyman cost about 30 euros, but often three or five priests officiate at a church wedding. A civil marriage license, on the other hand, costs just 2.5 euros.

The habit of citizens of one of southeastern Europe's weakest economies to spend the equivalent of several years' salary for a party is not so contradictory as it may seem, says Aleksandra Filipovska, a sociologist from Skopje.

"It seems that they see these occasions as their one opportunity to forget about saving money and paying the bills, unlike most of the time," she says.

"Most parents are unable to cover the costs of a massive celebration, so they go to a bank. The loans they take out will be a burden for at least the next couple of years. But they live with the motto ‘you only live once,'" Filipovska says.

Nearly 30 percent of Macedonians live in poverty, according to UNICEF, and the country of 2 million suffers from a startling 35-percent unemployment rate. The quality of health care and education for children is eroding in Macedonia, creating conditions that a February UNICEF report calls "unacceptable.”"

But all linguistic and religious communities in the Macedonian ethnic mosaic aren't stingy when it comes to weddings, although there are no estimates of how many couples of the approximately 15,000 who marry each year have expensive wedding parties. Often, the expense is borne by a male "gastarbeiter" who returns home from Western Europe or North America to marry a local woman.

Marriage to a gastarbeiter brings higher status. At least, that's what Ajnet Mustafovska thinks. The 19-year-old from the city of Bitola is engaged to the son of an emigrant in Australia.

"I haven't seen him in person. He's coming in July and the wedding is in August. My family is poor and money is the main reason why my parents decided to give me away to his family,"says Mustafovska, whose Albanian-speaking family are Muslims. "I'm very worried because Australia is a long way from home and I don't know English. But the thought that he'll take care of money and home and of me too, calms me down," she says.

Her parents didn't want to comment on their daughter's marriage.

The groom's parents will foot the 10,000-euro bill for the three days of wedding celebrations. The bride says her wedding dress will cost about 1,000 euros, and she'll receive 20 more dresses from her fiancĂ©. Keeping with a custom in Albanian, Turkish and Romani families, the bride can also expect to receive a substantial amount of gold jewelry — 10 kilograms, Mustafovska says. A guest list of 800 will party in the most expensive restaurant in Bitola and dance to a band hired from Albania.

Although the old-fashioned extravagant wedding is slowly losing popularity among the Albanian-speaking community, big, expensive parties are still de rigueur because people want to show off to their friends, relatives and new family members from foreign countries, says Nehru Mehmed, owner of a restaurant and hotel in Tetovo, a city in the predominantly Albanian-speaking northwest of the country.

"Tradition is tradition, money or no money,"he says.

This is no less true of the Roma, generally Macedonia's poorest community. By custom Romani weddings last for a minimum of four days, says Sebihana Skenderovska of the National Roma Centrum.

Customs such as this put too much strain on the budgets not only of Romani families but all who come under social pressure to spend lavishly on major celebrations, says the woman's rights activist among the Romani community in Kumanovo.

"Music is an essential part of the Roma tradition. That's why wedding guests give a lot of money to the band. They pay 100 or 200 euros for one song. There's a trend now of who will give more money. It's a kind of competition to prove themselves and to create an impression that their social status is higher, even when they don't have bread to eat," Skenderovska, 30, says.

She says when she marries she'll have a small, very private ceremony and pay half the bill herself. But she knows her parents won't like it.

"My parents are conservative and they think I shouldn't take any responsibility to pay for the wedding. They'd be strongly opposed if I asked for a small reception instead of a big Roma wedding. All in the name of our traditions," she says.


Lavish weddings are not the only way to show your social status. Private parties for senior proms and even primary school "graduations" can cost just as much time and money.

"We plan to invite around 50 guests. Since our daughter is our only child we'll buy her everything she wants," Dobrinka Bundevska said this spring as her 14-year-old daughter Marija looked forward to celebrating her successful completion of primary school.

Dobrinka and her husband, both accountants, said they would be working extra hours and weekends to save for the party.

"I've got to have the most fashionable dress and shoes because all of my friends will have the most expensive outfits and the latest fashions. If it's necessary we'll go to Greece for the dress, I don't care," Marija said.

The big spending is not just for weddings. One family budgeted 1,000 euros, about four average monthly salaries, for their daughter Anastasia's senior prom party at the Jadran Hotel in the center of Skopje.

"We took out a bank loan of 5,000 euros. One thousand we plan to spend on the celebration and the rest is needed for her university tuition. She'll have to study hard if she wants to go to university," said Anastasia's mother, Liljana Blazevska.

Filipovska tries to explain what it is that drives Macedonians to splurge on lavish parties even on the occasion of a dog's new litter of puppies.

"These celebrations have been seen in some manner as a holiday, an escape from everyday life, a way to forget for one day or a week who they really are," the student of Macedonian society says.

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