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Elisabeth: Going The (Intercultural, International, Wedding Planning) Distance

Today I’m thrilled to give you a post from intern Elisabeth, who’s writing for us once a month about her wedding planning process. Elisabeth converted to Islam just about a year ago, and she is currently in Saudi Arabia, with her fiancé in London, planning a wedding in Dubai. (And you thought your wedding planning was complicated!) But everyone on staff laughed till they cried over this post, because RIGHT? YES. We’ve all totally been there. I mean, just look at these annoyed Skype faces. I rest my case.

When Amin and I got engaged last November, I didn’t give a second thought to how long distance would affect our wedding planning. After all, we were world champion long distancers. If we could handle ten years in different places, surely wedding planning over a distance would be a walk in the park, right?


Let me be the first tell you: long-distance intercultural wedding planning is a special, special flower. A puce-colored flower, covered in thorns and smelling of poop. One that steals all your money, runs to the shops and buys a diamond-encrusted baseball bat with which to beat you over the head.

Thinking back, the situation with my engagement ring really should have tipped me off.

Early on, I told Amin that I had actually been given my grandmother’s engagement ring when she passed away. This is something of a tradition in my family—my mother wears her grandmother’s wedding ring, and plans to pass it along to her eldest granddaughter when the time comes. So we identified the ring, and that should have made things simpler.

Enter long distance. The ring was in the US, in my parents’ house, and Amin and I were in London. A year ago, Christmas-time, he called my sisters and tried to enlist them in getting the ring without letting me know. They didn’t know where it was. My mother didn’t know where it was. Time passes. Eventually he has to ask me for help, so I called my mother and walked her through the house to find it. Then we knew where the ring was, but it was nowhere near to me, or to Amin.

Lo, the many months passed, and eventually the stars aligned, and I finally got my hands on the ring. I brought it back to London, and handed it to Amin. Family visits ensued, and the ring burned a hole in his mattress during months when we enjoyed almost no time alone together. Finally, last November, three days before I was flying out of the country, the time was (finally) right. He put that lovely ring on my finger, but then took it right back off… the alterations still needed to be completed. My grandmother wore that ring every day of her more than forty years of marriage and, though it broke my heart to change it at all, it was wearing pretty thin in places by the time it came to me. So when I took off for Saudi Arabia, I left the ring in London. Last week, nearly two full years after we first discussed the subject and four months after getting engaged officially, everything is finally arranged, geographically and otherwise, and the ring has found its final place on my happy little finger.

This ring was meant to make life easier, cheaper and more meaningful for everybody, and instead sucked up almost two full years of time and energy on three different continents.

I’ve dedicated quite a lot of thought over the past months to what, exactly, makes the wedding-planning process so excruciating. With the help of Meg’s book and its wisdom, I have narrowed it down to two major factors.

First, logistics. As Meg astutely observes, a wedding is often the first big party a couple has ever planned. This is doubly true for us. Since we’ve lived in different countries for most of the past ten years, this is really the first time that Amin and I have needed to make any substantive decisions together on a deadline. Talking about our days and our futures together is just really different from trying to find, transport, and alter an engagement ring. And yet here we are trying to pick venues in London or Dubai with neither of us able to go for site visits, and test caterers with neither of us there to taste the food. Thus far, to be honest, it’s something of a train wreck. Amin works in London until 9 or 10pm and comes home exhausted. I’m three hours ahead of him, so when we do get to talk it is because I’m still awake at 1am, and also exhausted. This has led to some lovely moments. Highlights have included “This is MY day! I should be able to have it exactly the way I want!” (from Amin, hilariously) and “Fine, go to sleep, but when you wake up in six hours I WILL STILL BE CRYING!” (me, at my best).

Secondly, we’ve run into the age-old APW problem of trying to carve a place for our baby family in our families of origin. The cultural and religious differences between our families make it very hard for us to meet (or even anticipate!) all of the variety of expectations that are being thrown our way. Long distance only serves to exacerbate the problem. Contacting our far-flung family and polling them on a venue or a date or any of a million other questions takes a week or more, and there are no opportunities for all of us to sit down together (we are getting desperate enough to consider family conference calls, however). Perhaps most importantly, since we’re all in different countries, we have very limited opportunities to make our families and friends feel involved and helpful, and this has made for added tension. For example, it appears that our mothers both have fairly specific ideas about what their roles in planning are supposed to be (read: large). But how can my mother go shopping for a dress with me, or help me choose wedding china, when she’s in the US and I’m in Saudi Arabia (and the wedding is in neither)? And how can his mother choose a dress for me or arrange the food when she’s in Pakistan and the groom’s in London (and I’m in Saudi Arabia)? Side note: yes, they both want to “help me” choose my dress. Please join me in the “we’ll deal with that later” room.

In particular, I think everybody is a little uncomfortable with how very different from any family precedent our wedding is shaping up to be. My parents met in California where my mother’s brother was in medical school with my dad. After living together for a few years, they were married in a ceremony at my mother’s childhood church followed by a small cake-and-punch reception in a nearby social hall. My mother wore an inexpensive white dress. My father and his groomsmen wore ruffled shirts with their 70s-era tuxes and all of them sported terribly fashionable tinted shades.

Amin’s parents, on the other hand, never met before their wedding day. Their marriage was arranged through mutual acquaintances and the informal network of Pakistanis that traverses the globe. At the time of their wedding, they were both living and working in Saudi Arabia, but their wedding took place in Pakistan. Like most traditional Pakistani weddings, it took place over three days. The bride wore a succession of gorgeous and brightly colored Pakistani gowns, embroidered with gold.

My mom told me the other day that she had had a dream. In it, Amin and I were standing together in front of a preacher. I was wearing bridal white, a veil over my face. The preacher solemnly said, “I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.” Amin slowly raised the veil over my face, looked into my eyes…. and gave me an awkward little wave. I found this intensely amusing, but it clearly made my mother a bit sad.

We haven’t even gotten to the questions of what I will wear or what we will eat, because we’re finding unexpected trouble with the basic expectations our families and friends have about what the day will feel like. For example, traditional Pakistani culture expects the bride and groom to be subdued and reserved with each other. Western culture, on the other hand, encourages the bride and groom to publicly declare their love and then party with their nearest and dearest. Now, Amin is not a terribly demonstrative guy (I, on the other hand, like to dance while walking down the street), but it’s important to both of us that we don’t pretend to be strangers on our wedding day. So how do we plan a party where we can be joyful and happy without offending the sensibilities of those expecting reservation and bridal shyness?

We’ve now spent three months talking and negotiating (and crying) and trying to make everyone happy and, as a result, have not yet answered any of those basic necessary questions like where, or when, or how many people. I turned to the APW book in my desperation and found predictably sage advice: you will never be able to make everyone happy, so stop trying. Well, we can’t stop altogether, because we do really want our families and friends to feel comfortable and included. Instead, we’re performing a sort of wedding planning triage: focusing first on what is important to us, and then satisfying as many of the expectations of our nearest and dearest as possible. Things are moving forward slowly, thanks in particular to some very necessary same-geography visits. My engagement ring is finally out of alteration purgatory, we’ve visited some site venues, we’ve chatted about our priorities, and we’ve reminded ourselves that we don’t hate each other. Onward and upward!

When I told Amin about my mother’s dream, he laughed, but then, with panic in his eyes, said, “Uh… We did agree not to have any kissing, right?” Clearly, we’ve still got a bit of negotiating to do.

Photo: A screenshot of Elisabeth & Amin’s frustrated Skype faces

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