I should have known I was in trouble when I read the wedding invitation and saw that the reception was in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge someplace in New Jersey. The second clue was that the directions were in a foreign language! I was no stranger to ethnic couplings, having seen both the Indian epic Monsoon Wedding, and that big, fat Greek thing, not to mention attending all those Italian wedding extravaganzas, including two of my own. But even they didn’t prepare me.
“What is that?” I asked my friend John, who used to be Yugoslavian when Tito was still alive. Now he’s not sure what he is. I pointed to the page covered in what looked like hand lettered Zapf Dingbats!
“Cyrillic? Isn’t that some kind of paint? Something you make in pottery class? Or a synthetic fabric that comes from combining cotton and acrylics?”
“It’s the alphabet of my people,” he said, “like the Greek alphabet or Chinese characters, only different.”
“You’re Chinese?” I said.
On the day of the wedding, armed with a Mapquest translation of the directions that routed me through scenic downtown Newark, I made my way to the “The Gardens of Zagreb,” a catering hall in Fairview, New Jersey, where “the fairest view” turned out to be a view of the Young Croatians for Freedom Club, a storefront in the K Mart shopping center.
The lobby of “The Gardens” looked like an explosion in a lawn ornament factory–a profusion of plastic plants arranged in plaster pots sprouting from every inch of available floor space! And where there was no space on the floor there were shelves up the walls holding plants never intended by Mother Nature to be together in the same hemisphere, even if they were plastic.
The effect was intensified by the full-mirrored walls and ceiling that made it difficult to ignore. Water from a large fountain guarded by plaster angels painted gold gurgled down one simulated rock wall and filled the room with the whisper of leaky plumbing and the heavy scent of chlorine that was reminiscent of my youth spent at the old St. George Hotel swimming pool in Brooklyn.
“More is more” was the obvious message that carried us into the cocktail hour, when a roast pig with a surprised smirk on his face and a headless lamb guarded from their final resting places on carving boards the endless trays of ethnic dishes. Big-headed men with Slobodan Milosevic hair and mustaches, not the turned down Saddam Hussein type, but more like the Josef Stalin straight across scrub brush cut, crowded around the bar puffing on cigarettes while their wives, some of whom also sported facial hair, heaped dishes with food.
I listened to their conversations for some insight into these strange people, whose technology brought the Yugo briefly into the world and also brought down a Stealth bomber.
After the cocktail hour I waddled with the others past the mirrors and up the marble steps to the main dining hall where “Sonny Mustac and The Croates,” who apparently thought that loud compensated for good, were vibrating the chandeliers with their specialty polka rendition of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” The female drummer was either a Sinead O’Connor impersonator or someone who had fraternized with the enemy and got her head shaved.
Father Stipe Tscherne stopped waiting the tables and stepped up to deliver the blessing. Then Sonny and the band broke into an interesting interpretation of “God Bless America,” which they may have thought was “The Star Spangled Banner.” I was seated directly in front of the huge speakers that caused my stomach to rumble from the ultra bass, and couldn’t help but notice that the crowd had some trouble with the words, until it came to the part, “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam.” That was followed by the “Croatian National Anthem.” Everyone in the room but me seemed to know the words of all four verses.
After innumerable floor pounding polkas, an interminable Croatian “Hokey Pokey,” interrupted by dinner and an orgy of desserts, when I had more than I could possibly tolerate, I dropped off my envelope with the bride and groom, picked up my wedding favor–a gold painted plaster angel–and headed for the door. The route took me directly in the path of the pulsing sub-woofers that brought on a wave of nausea and vertigo as I passed.
“Hey,” a Lech Walesa looking guy in a blue tuxedo with a smoking cigarette between his stained fingers confronted me as I approached the exit.
“Huh?” I asked. I could see that his lips were moving under his mustache, but I couldn’t make out the words. Even the wet toilet paper that I had wadded into papier maché cones and stuffed into my ears hadn’t prevented my hearing loss.
“You have good time?”
I looked at my watch. “Eleven-thirty,” I answered.
“How you like my place?” He gestured with his hands and I flinched.
“Yes, you’re right,” I responded. “It’s very late.”
“How you like my food?”
“Yes, they certainly were good and loud, and a good night to you too.” I shook the extended hand that wasn’t holding the cigarette.
Hours later, safe and secure on the New York side of the George Washington Bridge, I was unable to fall asleep, due in part to all the sugar and black coffee I had ingested at the “Venetian Table,” also due to the echoes of “The Gardens of Zagreb” still pulsing inside my throbbing head like the aftershock of an exploded hand grenade in an empty garbage can. But mostly it was because of the musical refrain marching around in the back of my mind: “Tak-she zeppa no-ka du-pa,” which may have something to do with the mountains and prairies of Yugoslavia, although I can’t really be sure.