Home again. Home again. Jiggety jig.
That’s the song I sing in my head every time I have the blessing of coming home.
For this weeklong trip to Slovakia, the words jiggety jig have a particular irony. My feet, legs and knees are ridiculously sore from hours of dancing a jiggety jig at the 16-hour wedding I attended last weekend.
This wedding that began in a tiny village in the Tatra Mountains in northeastern Slovakia was more than special. Elements of it were like something out of National Geographic, but for me, the emotional journey of returning to a land and people I knew began before the ceremony.
I was the bride’s first English teacher when she was 8 years old. Her mother, Maria, and I taught together. Her family treated me as family. I spent holidays with them and grew to know and love them, despite language barriers. Staying in touch with them during the 18 years since I left Slovakia was a gift. When the bride graduated from high school, her dream was to come to university in the States. I worked with her and several universities to find the right place for her to go to school.
Since flourishing in her undergraduate studies, she has earned scholarships and accolades from near and far including stints at the East-West Center in Honolulu, a year at Berkley, and finally Harvard — earning a law degree. That’s a lot of detail, but I’m crazy proud of her of this little girl from a village so small in the mountains of Slovakia.
I had not seen her parents since I left Slovakia until Friday night before the wedding. Friends of the couple from 14 countries and her husband-to-be’s American family came to the dinner. I was the last in line to greet her parents, my old friends. The guests all knew the story of the inflated credit the bride’s family gives me in helping to create this fairy tale. When it came my turn to greet Maria, they all stood back and watched. Her mother said, just as I knew she would, “Oh, Jan,” and we embraced and could not hold back the tears. We stood there crying and doing our best to realize just how much time had passed and how much had changed.
The next morning at 11:45 a.m., we headed through the mountains to the bride’s tiny village of Kamienka on a chartered bus. As soon as we approached the village, the bus driver laid on the horn. He went back and forth through the village four times, horn blaring, before finally stopping at the bride’s parents’ home. Traditional Slovak musicians were singing as we approached the home. After everyone gathered, the bride came downstairs and a relative said a prayer.
The couple then knelt in front of their parents and expressed their gratitude. The mother of the bride took a round loaf of bread tied up with flax. She used the bread to make the sign of the cross on the head of the bride and groom. Each of the parents followed suit. The bread represented the blessing of food and the flax, clothing.
Then we went outside and had food and drinks before the entire wedding party walked down the street to the village church. The entire village was out to watch the procession. It was like a movie. Inside the recently refurbished Orthodox church, we witnessed a beautiful ceremony and music. Then we loaded back up in the bus and went to the hotel. When the bride and groom arrived, the hotel director and another staff member offered the bride and groom each a small piece of bread — to represent plenty. Then he offered them salt — to represent the more difficult times they would face. Just as he was offering them salt on two small plates, he dropped one. It crashed to the floor and broke into hundreds of pieces. I was mortified, afraid he would lose his job.
But the bride and groom jumped into action. The groom grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the pieces of porcelain into a dustpan the bride was holding. Just as he almost had the pieces swept up, one of the family members kicked them asunder. He started sweeping again — when another family member kicked them. Finally, the couple was able to work together and sweep all the pieces up and the crowd cheered.
And it was on to the next party, including meal and drinks in the ballroom. The bride danced with her groom and dad — and each guest who was up for dancing, and the dancing for the rest of the crowd began in earnest.
Around midnight, the bride changed into traditional garb and re-entered the ballroom. That is when she officially became his wife, but the fun wasn’t over. Other women in traditional dress began to put all sorts of headgear on her while she sat on a satin pillow and held a hat where people placed money. After much wrangling, the women were satisfied with the job they had done, the bride took the money and gave the hat to a man.
Then she looked to make sure her younger sister was ready. Her sister said she was, and the bride jumped up and the sister sat down quickly on the pillow. Everyone cheered. So I did too. Then the sister stood up and threw the pillow. The girl who caught it should be the next person to get married, according to tradition.
The dancing continued into the not-so-wee hours of the morning.
Being with guests from around the world and seeing people I hadn’t seen for so long celebrate such a thing of beauty was good for the heart and soul and a confirmation of the power of tradition, dreams, hard work and love.