a wedding in the east and a plumber who likes a challenge, suits, tents and paper boats
14th July 2013
Genovefa, an ex-student, and a lovely friend, is getting married. So I get up early for the long drive to Nottingham, leaving the campsite at 7:30am, late enough that the campsite is starting to wake, so I don’t disturb anyone, but early enough, I think, to get to Nottingham with an hour or so to spare to find the venue, find somewhere to park a campervan, and moreover get changed into a suit " yes, me in a suit.
On the way I am dropping camping equipment off at Steve Gill‘s house in Cardiff. I had intended to camp in some sections, but the time pressure earlier in the walk meant I never did this … maybe another trip.
I know where his house is, in the valleys just north of Cardiff, but roadworks lead to a diversion, and I take the wrong road leading down ever narrower lanes, some barely wider than the van itself, with potholes that threaten to send you careering into the high, earthy, hedge-topped sides. As I bounce over yet another pothole, I am glad that the exhaust fixings have been fixed.
I should simply throw the camping equipment through the door and set off, but of course spend longer chatting, not having seen Steve since I set off three months earlier. We are writing a book, Touch IT, about physicality and digital devices, and could do with talking more about that too, but put that off to a Skype call when I am back on Tiree.
Arriving nearly the same time as me at Steve‘s is the plumber who is also a water polo friend of Steve‘s. I guess being a plumber may be like being a fisherman, if you ever need to swim it is probably so bad it won’t help. Anyway, for whatever reason, the plumber had not been able to swim, so took up water polo, where you spend the whole game snorkelling inches from the bottom with a small metal puck flying towards legs, arms and head, as a way to learn to swim.
To make this small challenge a little more intense, down there for the first time, in that muffled deep resonant noisy silence of water, surrounded by flailing flippers, endless arms and shifting bodies, he discovered that he was also claustrophobic. I assume when I next meet him he will have taken to going to pop concerts in potholes.
As I drive away from Steve‘s I realise I now have only just enough time to drive to Nottingham, with nothing spare and also, from my turning tummy, that I had not yet had any breakfast. An hour later, where the M50 joins the M5, I stop at the heat-packed services to grab a pie, and then move on, taking bites as I drive.
I have looked up the venue, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary Eleousa, on the web, so I know it is on Derby Road, but Derby Road is a long road, running nearly from the motorway to the centre of Nottingham. I know from the area that it is closer to the latter, probably within the western ring road. A short way after crossing the ring road roundabout, I spot people gathered outside one church, but it turns out to be a Vineyard Church afternoon service, meeting in Linton Methodist church. Then, nearly at the centre of Nottingham, I pass the right church, suited men, dressed-for-a-wedding women and the sign ‘Greek Orthodox‘; this is it. I turn the van round and spotting guests arriving ask if they know where I can park a campervan.
"Turn first right after the church; it is narrow but then widens."
Of course they meant turn the first sensible right, not immediately after the church down a tiny no-through road, too narrow and car lined to turn the van, but where, thankfully, there is one, long place and I managed to park, with less than 15 minutes to go. In five minutes I change from shorts and T-shirt to full suit, tie and shirt, and join the family and friends gathering outside the church.
Of course, my timing was not as tight as I had thought, no wedding is on time, let alone a Greek wedding, and let alone Genovefa‘s.
Indeed, Alex is still waiting for his parents to arrive with the wedding bouquet; Genovefa and her father are in contact and holding off until they arrive. There is that lovely sense of vaguely organised chaos. In fact, it seems that Alex is the one point of order in the proceedings, on the phone synchronising the different parties, explaining, to the best of his knowledge, what we should do. No nervous groom sitting foot shuffling at the front of an echoing church, but master of ceremonies of a sun-drenched garden party.
While waiting for Genovefa to arrive, I recall the many times she waited for me when I was her master’s thesis supervisor (twice, two master’s degrees, but that is another story). I was always late, with people queued up, and Genovefa would make little paper boats, each with its own Greek name, and each no more than the size of my little finger. She would present them to me, when we eventually met, the longer the wait the bigger the flotilla, until the convoys and navies on bookshelf, windowsill and desktop were a constant reminder of my own tardiness.
I join a group that had started to wander into the church, but then we were asked to go back out as the Greek Orthodox tradition is for the guests to greet the bride outside and then enter after she has met the groom.
As I go back out Genovefa‘s mother is in the porch and greets me with smiles and hugs. Although Fiona had scanned and mailed me the formal invitation, it had slipped though my organisational net whilst walking (not difficult); so I had never RSVP-ed and neither Genovefa nor her mother knew I was coming. We share not one word of common language, but for some reason I am sure I don’t deserve, I have always been a favourite of Genovefa‘s mother, and she would often send a bottle of Metaxa for me when Genovefa had been home to Greece for Christmas or Easter from Lancaster.
I have never been to a Greek Orthodox wedding before, indeed I have never been to any sort of Greek Orthodox service. Fiona is a little jealous as she has read a substantial amount of orthodox writings and often listens to podcasts of AFR (Ancient Faith Radio), but yet another trip down from Tiree would have been too much this summer, which seemed full of weddings. After the Great Schism, the East kept closer to traditions going back to the first few centuries of the church, a point that Orthodox writers frequently emphasise and, albeit gently and ever so subtly, the priest reminded us of this when explaining how the ceremony would be different from any we might be used to in an Anglican or Catholic church.
It turns out the Greek priest has a Liverpudlian wife, who has lived many years in Greece (a sort of Shirley Valentine with icons), and is sometimes called upon to translate at the surgery where she works. I suggest she should do a Scouse translation of the Greek service, like there are Scouse translations of the Gospels.
The service is in three parts: first a civil marriage with the standard vows, and signing of the register with a lady, who I assume is an official Registrar, then a betrothal and finally a ‘crowning’. I assume the betrothal stage would have once been at a different time, maybe even as children promised to one another in days of arranged marriages, but now the two are printed as a single service in the English translations of the service.
Some parts are spoken twice, in English and Greek, some just in Greek, and some of the latter I recognise, such as the ‘Kyrie Eleison‘. The service is full of symbolism, and both betrothal rings and the crowns, simple bands tied together with white ribbons, are swapped back and forth between the couple as if binding them together, like a Celtic knot threading through time.
As one of the guests remarked, the words of the service seem to have taken just about every reference to weddings or married couples in the Bible and thrown them together in an apparently random order. However, knowing a little of the Orthodox tradition, I am fairly certain each word will have been considered and its full theological significance pondered endlessly and at length over the last two thousand years.
Sadly I could not stay for the reception, so, clutching little wedding favours, for me and the whole family, I ask someone to help me reverse out of the tiny alley, but then find several of the cars have gone so I can swing myself round.
I set off, discarding layers of wedding clothing along the way, the jacket, tie and shoes, cast into the back of the van as I first got in, the shirt and trousers following soon after when I found a leafy suburban road to pause in. By the time I get to a garage to fill up with diesel (in a three-ton campervan, always a wallet-challenging experience), I am once more a sandal footed, T-shirt and short dressed walker, the suit neatly in the van’s ‘wardrobe’, and signs of wedding-ness fading with the miles down the M1, M42, M5 and finally M4 back to the Gower.
As I pass into South Wales, I start to see familiar places: a sign for the Monmouth campsite, where the van had stayed for the beginning of the journey; the Transporter Bridge at Newport. It is just three months ago, but seems like a lifetime; indeed it is hard to even envisage a life before walking.
Driving round the M4 north of Cardiff I pass a bright red, vintage vehicle, which looks a bit like a fire engine, but has ‘breakdown tender’ written on the side. A ‘breakdown tender’ sounds like the RAC, but it looks more like Fireman Sam. Then the characteristic smell of Port Talbot, I have hours of that to come later in the week, and the narrow lanes of the Gower.
And so, eventually, to Three Cliffs Bay Campsite, where we had stayed once before as a family, maybe twenty years ago. It was 8:30pm, thirteen hours since I set off barely 15 miles away this morning – a mile an hour, I can walk faster.