Many years ago a business acquaintance invited us to his daughter’s wedding. The event, we were told, was going to be a traditional Russian wedding in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The invitation said we needed to be there at 7:00 p.m.
Leaving plenty of room to get there on time, we drove from Manhattan to Brighton Beach. When we arrived, the location was dark; actually it was closed. After making certain we were at the right place, we drove around the venue looking for a valet, for anyone to ask if we were in the right place—there was no one!
Again and again, we circled, searching for a light, a person, something. I got out of the car and knocked on every door we could find, but there wasn’t anyone anywhere. I kept checking the invitation to confirm the date, the location, the time; we were at the right place, at the right time, on the right day.
Totally confused I finally said, “This is ridiculous, let’s call someone!” It was a great idea, but these were business friends and it was the first time we were going to socialize so we didn’t have any home numbers. We were considering leaving, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone.
“Someone’s here!” I yelled, jumping out of the car. “Excuse me!” I shouted, running to the man in the shadows. From his frightened expression, I realized that he thought I was accosting him. “We are looking for a wedding that is supposed to be held here,” I explained, backing off a little. He looked confused. Maybe his English wasn’t great. I offered him the invitation, pointing to the date and time, hoping he would understand.
He looked at the card I had now pushed into his hand and after what seemed like forever, he said in his broken English, “I don’t know this wedding. I work for a wedding at 9:00 in building.”
Still totally confused, I watched him walk away.
Suddenly a woman appeared out of the dark and asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling dejected. “I’m looking for this wedding.” I extended the card. “It says it starts at 7:00 p.m.”
“Oh yes,” she said with a smile. “This is the place.” She paused, seeing that I still didn’t understand. “The wedding starts at 9:00; this is the place.”
“But why does it say 7 p.m.?”
“It is the Russian tradition,” she answered. “The wedding is always two hours later than it says.”
Shaking my head, I walked away. Why were we the only ones who didn’t know this?
With more than an hour and a half to kill, we decided to go to a diner for a snack. However it was the dinner hour and a snack wasn’t going to work, so we had a delicious meal.
When we returned to the wedding location, it was lit up and full of people arriving at the correct time—two hours later than the invitation said. As we entered, people greeted us and showed us into a large room, explaining that there would be a cocktail hour before the ceremony.
They handed us drinks and offered more appetizers than I have ever seen at a cocktail party. Everywhere we turned someone was offering us food and we kept saying, “Thank you, no.” This worked until the person we were talking to said, “No, no you have to try this; it is so good.” Too embarrassed to admit we had just had dinner, we accepted a plate piled high with food. Our companion explained that dinner would not be served until after the ceremony and because this was a traditional Russian wedding, it was much longer than other weddings. “Eat up,” she insisted. We watched our plates fill up and we politely tasted everything they raved about.
As we sat down to await the bride’s entrance, I realized I was extremely uncomfortable. My dress that fit perfectly when I left the house was now so snug that I was in pain and, to be honest, I was also slightly nauseated.
As promised, the evening went on for hours and hours. After the ceremony, there was a full dinner with enough food to feed twice as many people as were there. What I tasted was delicious.
As the meal was ending, the band started to play and the dancing began . . . and continued into the evening with total abandon. I lost track of the time because at that point it didn’t matter and we were all having a great time.
Just as I was beginning to feel like I was going to survive, they announced that there was a Viennese table—a dessert buffet filled with a variety of cakes, tarts, cookies, mousses, and on and on. Time to eat again!
Everyone stayed to enjoy it. This wedding was unlike any I had ever attended. It would have helped if we had known the traditions but when I asked if people knew that 7 p.m. actually meant two hours later, they replied, “Of course. It’s a Russian wedding!” I guess they assumed we knew.
And that is what is so interesting about different cultures: they expect that you know their traditions.
What about you?
Have you ever run up against cultural differences you weren't expecting?
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