The Wedding and the Zoo

I’m sitting in the guest bedroom of a beautiful house in the north of London, looking out the window into the back garden. I think I’ll need my umbrella today. The house belongs to my friends Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James. I arrived here on Monday, and yesterday I spent the day walking around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. But before I get into describing what I’m doing in England, I should finish describing what I did in Debrecen.

I mentioned that Ophelia and I went to a traditional Hungarian wedding. Really, it was more a modern Hungarian wedding incorporating traditional elements. It was very long, about twelve hours from start to finish. It included a lunch, a religious wedding ceremony in a church, a civil ceremony at a sort of hotel/spa in a forest, and a dinner at that hotel. I’ll post just a few pictures from the wedding.

Of course I hadn’t come prepared to go to a wedding, so I was scrambling for an acceptable outfit. I ended up wearing a long silk skirt that my father’s wife had given me and a black silk blouse that I had bought long ago at Goodwill. I thought the outfit had a sort of boho vibe, and at any rate it was cool and comfortable. (This picture was taken by Ophelia.)

At the lunch before the wedding, the groom came and ceremonially asked for the hand of the bride. He was offered two other girls first, before he got the the one he wanted. The whole event was presided over by a man who would announce what was happening next and tell everyone where to go. He was the only one dressed in a version of traditional Hungarian garb.

Everyone else was dressed the way guests dress at the American equivalent, which would be a rural summer wedding in the south, perhaps in a city like Richmond. If you imagine how a variety of guests, about two hundred of them, of all ages, would dress at a southern wedding — well, that was how this wedding looked as well. At the lunch, there was a gypsy band.

My favorite part, I have to admit, were the deserts. They were the most traditionally Hungarian parts of the menu (the rest of the menu was rather like banquet food at every wedding I’ve been to). I didn’t get a picture of the dessert table before it was ravaged by hungry hordes, but here’s what was left.

That was just the lunch. Ophelia and I were too tired to make the religious ceremony, so we slept for a while, then rejoined everyone for dinner in the forest. What it made me realize, interestingly enough, is that weddings are the same the world over. The bride in white, a large dinner to celebrate, dancing afterward with a disco ball danging overhead, and a Hungarian band singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (yes, the Olivia Newton-John song from Greece). I wonder what Marcel Mauss would think of that?

The next day, my father took me and Ophelia to the Debrecen zoo. It was interesting to see what was still very much an old-fashioned zoo, mostly unaffected by the more modern concern with conservation of species. It was very much what zoos were like in the nineteenth century. There was a tiger, but also a cage of fancy pigeons particularly associated with Debrecen. The focus was still on the display of animals, and there were certain animals you could feed. Ophelia fed the llamas and ostriches.

The strangest sight for me was seeing three Canadian Geese. They have such plaintive honks, and they honked at me as though trying to make the point that they should be in the skies above Boston, not in a zoo in Debrecen. And I have to say, I rather agree with them.

The next morning, my father drove me to the Debrecen airport, which has been open only two months. It’s a converted Russian airforce base, and rather looks like it. Only one airline flies out of it (Wizzair), and going through it took me back about twenty years, to when the Budapest airport was much less international. Back then, people would look at you curiously if you were traveling with an American passport, and I got those looks that morning, although I never get them anymore in Budapest. The plane was filled with Hungarians going to London, mostly to jobs there. A man started talking to me and turned out to be a doctor, a former student of my father’s who was now an oncologist in London. It paid so much better than work in Hungary, he told me.

That concludes my stay in Debrecen, at least for now. I landed at Luton to the north of London, then took the train to St. Pancras station. And since then I’ve been here. But more on that soon.

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