Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am


Austrian weddings emphasize simplicity

Most Europeans would shake their heads at the pomp and expense of a typical American wedding.

A $10,000 dress - the down payment on a house to look like a fairy princess for a day? Good one!

The $1,000 cake? A long weekend along a Croatian beach!

Bridesmaids? Groomsmen? What are you - royalty?

A band? Dancing? That's what balls are for, not weddings.

The reception for 200 - you think you're Fiona Swarovski? (Heiress to the crystal fortune, Fiona Swarovski is the nearest thing to an Austrian celebrity - she married Finance Minister Karl Heinz Grasser last October.)

But the diamond ring - surely that should reflect how much the groom values his new bride? Ha ha. You must be joking! Why not say it in camels?

Austrians tend to be on the pragmatic side where the big day is concerned. Despite this being a heavily Catholic country, the divorce rate has crept above 50 percent. People don't usually go to the trouble of having their first marriages annulled, so second weddings tend to be made official in a civil ceremony at the local marriage bureau rather than at a church. First weddings are either a civil ceremony only or a civil ceremony followed by a church ceremony. Either way, once the knot is tied, guests are invited to a meal at a local inn. Then everyone goes home.

After my husband proposed to me, we spent months scouting wedding locations north of New York City. Nothing seemed to have the right feel. Also, with more than 90 percent of my relatives living near Vienna, Austria, I started to have nightmares about the groom's-side, bride's-side church tradition - visions of the groom's-side guests spilling into the parking lot while the emptiness on the bride's side reverberated with hollow echoes.

The thought of being the center of attention in front of a crowd of 150 or more guests, many of whom would be strangers to me, gave me panic attacks. I attended a friend's wedding at a country club - her father was CEO of a large company - and she spent the entire afternoon circulating among the large number of corporate friends in attendance, making sure no important entries in her daddy's Rolodex went away feeling slighted. The marriage struggled along for five years before its demise - apparently in the excitement of the engagement and the wedding planning, they had forgotten to talk about whether they both wanted children and who would raise them. (One of the most popular articles on the New York Times Web site this winter is a list of questions couples wished they had asked before marriage.)

Maybe it's because there's still a good bit of European in me, but the Hollywood industrial aspect of producing a wedding depressed me. I was a bridesmaid at a popular wedding factory in New Jersey where two or three different weddings were taking place at once. As soon as our group finished in the marriage room, we were hustled to the photography room, then hurried out to the reception room, with the next couple hot on our trail. The idea of a stranger announcing first dances, cake cutting and garter removal appalled me.

My mailbox began filling up with ads depicting stretch limos. Maybe if I were Jessica Rabbit getting hitched in Toon Town ...

We knew what we didn't want, but not what we did want. I told my fiance that I had always dreamed of a wedding like my cousin Veronika's - small, personal, traditional Austrian.

"Why don't we do that then?" my fiance asked.

Why not, indeed?

He knew and liked my relatives. We traveled to Austria every year to visit them. His close family would step into an airplane for a wedding; more distant relations wouldn't, thus ensuring that they could be safely invited without the danger that they would actually show up. That took care of the small.

My cousin Veronika married into the Fischer wine-growing family; together with her husband, she owns and manages a popular restaurant in the village of Sooss. Her own wedding reception took place there; a phone call confirmed that, yes, she would be glad to help us host our wedding reception. That took care of the personal.

With an eye to a summer wedding, we took a reconnaissance trip to Vienna in February that began with - what else? - a week of skiing in Salzburg to loosen up. Once in Vienna, we selected silk fabrics for dresses, chose a traditional Austrian suit for my fiance and ordered wedding invitations engraved in old-fashioned Gothic script.

The seamstress, who has sewn for our family for 50 years, lives next door to my aunt. She agreed to sew a pink silk dirndl for the church wedding and a green silk skirt and jacket combination. I agonized over two shades of pink silk, trying to imagine the finished dresses from small rectangular swatches.

Before we left Austria, we coordinated dates with the official at the marriage bureau. I asked if he had every document he needed. He nodded. "So there's nothing standing in the way of our July wedding?" He confirmed that all systems were go. Relief. These officials can be picky, as a recent Associated Press news item attests - a bride jokingly said "no" to the question about taking the man for her husband and the official pulled the plug on the ceremony. Despite the bride's tears and protestations, the official refused to marry them. (News flas The couple did manage to get married several months later. I have to wonder if one day that bride isn't going to reflect back on that "no" she blurted out.)

The priest at the church cleared his throat and matter-of-factly asked us if the wedding was an - ahem - emergency.

There were several crises over the next five months. The invitations were shipped from Austria and got stuck in customs over the three-day Memorial Day weekend when we planned to address and stuff envelopes. When replies came back, there was stress over all the travel companions people wanted to bring (party of 2 invited, party of 8 attending).

My mother arrived in Austria a week before the wedding. When she stopped in at the marriage bureau to check that we were still on the calendar, the official told her that one more document was required - it would take eight weeks to get it. With a bit of encouragement (this being Austria, it may have been monetary) from my mother, he admitted that we could get the document in Vienna if we hand-carried the supporting documents from which this necessary and vital remaining document could be generated.

Then it was on to the seamstress' for a fitting. Did I want a triangular cut-out at the nape of the dirndl or the square one that was all the rage? We discussed pros and cons while I slipped into the dress. The seamstress looked horrified; the dress was much too large with all the weight I had lost thanks to Jane Fonda workout videos. Alterations were significant; the wedding dress was finished hours before the wedding.

Austrians don't have rehearsal dinners, but my future father-in-law invited out-of-town guests to a local inn. We sat in the garden under the apple trees and all through dinner, little crab apples fell onto the long tables at which we dined and drank wine.

The civil ceremony took place on a Friday (officials do not work on weekends unless they are bribed or owe you a favor); the church wedding was on Saturday. A horse-drawn carriage brought us to the church. There was no wedding party - just my cousin's little girls carrying bunches of flowers and my sister and my fiance's brother as witnesses walking down the aisle ahead of us.

After the ceremony, we gathered in the churchyard for a test of marital fitness devised by my cousin's husband Rainer. Shouldn't that come before the marriage, I wondered? My husband had to change a mustard-daubed diaper on a doll. I had to cook him an egg. Together we had to saw a log with a two-handled saw. Rainer grew impatient with our efforts and hollered that we must be getting paid by the hour.

My grandmother was too ill to attend the wedding, so we asked the carriage driver to stop at her house so we could give her a hug and a kiss. Then we drove on through the vineyards to the reception, where our guests were already relaxing at tables in the garden.

Veronika directed everyone to the buffet, where platters of Wiener schnitzel surrounded by potato salad framed a three-tier marzipan-decorated sacher torte. We didn't hire a band, but we had brought tapes, and our 80 guests - 40 Austrian, 40 American - danced and chatted until the stars came out.

It's a wedding tradition for a group of friends or cousins to kidnap the bride and form a search party to accompany the husband as he tries to find her. Manners dictate that a round of drinks be bought at every inn along the way, in exchange for a wink and a hint from the innkeeper.

Small(ish). Personal. Traditional Austrian.

As far as weddings go, I'm all for rolling your own. A friend of mine married a Frenchwoman and he blended some favorite elements of American weddings with French tradition (foie frais, all-night reception, day-after "piquenique") to create a fabulous, unique wedding to remember.

Eva Ciabattoni is a Los Altos resident and freelance writer living abroad with her family in Austria.

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