Friday, April 29, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Report from a Royal Wedding (No, Not That One)

by Peggy Robin

So Wills and Kate are wed. I did not get up at 4 a.m. to watch this spectacle, having already had enough royal wedding hoopla back in 1981 to last me a lifetime. You see, I was at the wedding of the groom’s parents. Not literally there in the sense of being one of the wedding guests, but there in London, taking part in the public festivities. I should mention that at the time of my arrival in the UK a few days earlier, I was only dimly aware that Charles and Di’s Big Day was coming up.

My trip was actually planned around another wedding entirely. I had traveled to Europe that summer in the hope of being able to attend my brother’s wedding in Moscow. He’d recently met and fallen in love with a Russian woman. This was just about a decade before the collapse of the Soviet state. Back then it was extremely difficult for a Russian to get permission to travel abroad, and there were strict time limits on how long an American could stay in the Soviet Union as on a visitor's visa. Practically the only way they could keep the relationship going was to get married, after which she could apply for an exit visa to join him in the US.  The first big hurdle was to get permission for the marriage from the state Marriage Bureau -- no easy trick in Moscow, 1981.

That's where I came in. My brother and his intended had already made multiple trips to the Marriage Bureau, filling out paperwork, supplying documents, pleading with officials, jumping through hoop after hoop. There was always more documentation demanded. They had bribed the officials who could be bribed, and they thought they were making progress, but then came the requirement for my brother to show his official birth certificate, accompanied by a notarized document translating it into Russian; this had to be produced by a certain looming date. (Soviet officials, it seems, were Birthers, even before there was a term for it.) 

After looking into the bureacratic obstacles in both countries, we concluded that the most efficient way to meet the demand would be for me to do the legwork in the US to pick up the document, have it translated and notarized here, and then hand deliver it to the the marriage bureau in Moscow. That seemed to be the only obstacle still in the way of having a wedding ceremony take place. (It would be a five-minute civil service that included a vow to bring up any children to serve the Soviet fatherland.)

As soon as I was able to get my visa from the Soviet Embassy, I booked my trip. Once I had the necessary papers in hand, I would fly to Moscow, stay for two weeks, and sometime during that window, the wedding date would occur, and I would be the one representative of the groom's side. Afterwards, I would fly to London where I would stay a few days with my cousin and her British husband, and then fly home to Washington. 

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. After the birth certificate was duly produced, there was some new stumbling block that emerged. Another signed document needed, this time from department head in the office where the bride-to-be worked. But the boss thought it looked bad for his section to have an employee marry an American. So there were more palms to be greased. And more waiting, during which there was always the risk that some other monkey wrench would be thrown into the works.

They did eventually overcome all the obstacles and get a date set. But it was to take place early in August, about a week after the expiration of my tourist visa, which was not extendable -- and so I had no choice but to fly out toward the end of July. I arrived in London on a Aeroflot plane that upon touchdown at Heathrow spontaneously drew a hearty round of applause from the passengers who were grateful to be safely back in the Free World. 

I climbed into the back of one of those big black London taxis and gave the driver my cousin’s address in Islington, then a rather shabby, unfashionable section of London. (Now most of those old, rundown rowhouses have been renovated and are in high demand and very, very pricey!) The cabbie wanted to know if I had come for the wedding, and I think I needed to be reminded whose wedding he was talking about. I think he might have been a bit put off that I scarcely knew who Lady Di was and hadn’t been following the couple’s every move.

Neither my cousin nor her husband cared much about the event either. Still, they switched on the telly, like practically everyone else in Britain, except for those who were there in person. After the ceremony, we took a train out to the suburb of Pinner to visit some other relatives. The entire town of Pinner was decorated in Union Jack banners in preparation for an outdoor party open to all. There were tables set up in the blocked- off main street for the free luncheon buffet. The kids got free balloons. There was a bicycle decorating contest with a prize to the child with the most creatively festooned bike. It was lots of fun and by the time it ended I was starting to feel in the Windsor-wedding spirit of the day. So I got hold of an old friend who lived in Greenwich, on the south bank of the Thames, and arranged to go with him to the fireworks to be held that evening in Hyde Park.

The park was already packed when we got there. People had been arriving all day, picnicking, staking out a spot with a good view of the sky. And they kept on coming, so that by the time the fireworks were underway, there was standing room only. The whole park was so tightly packed with bodies, there was no room to move, hardly room even to breathe. Though I love fireworks, I was already regretting having come. It wasn't just the physical sense of being pressed in upon by countless bodies. What really made me uneasy was the look of the people all around me. They were young (well, so was I back then), but odd, with their orange-streaked spikey hair, their spiked collars, leather jackets, and hobnailed boots.  And so many were tattooed all over, with multiple facial piercings. I couldn’t help thinking about soccer hooligans and riots that had broken out after matches in England and abroad. These looked like the same people I’d seen on the news. And not good news. 

Then the fireworks were over and it was time to go home. Hyde Park on an ordinary day feels like a spacious open field but I suddenly became aware of how closed off it is, how far and few are the openings in its surrounding iron fence. The vast numbers of people who had entered all throughout the day now wanted to leave all at the same time. I couldn’t even see how to get to an open gate. The pressure of the crowd had me worried that at any time it could suddenly lurch forward, trampling anything in its path. I was bracing for the worst.

Then something most unexpected happened. I heard the boys and girls around me, face-pierced and chain-draped though they were, saying, “Oh, pardon me” and "Sorry, love" as they gently and patiently made their way toward the edges of the park. I moved along with the waves of people and all were unfailingly polite. As we reached the iron fence, I saw that the stronger ones had formed a human pyramid and that helpers on the ground were assisting people, one at a time, to climb onto the shoulders of the man on the top of the pyramid, who would then make sure each got over safely. On the other side there were more helpers to catch each one as he or she came down. I was grateful to accept the steady grip of strangers who guided me up and over and down to a soft landing, safely outside the park.

It was close to midnight by the time my friend and I emerged onto a London street, but that wasn’t the end of the wedding day story. The tube had stopped running and so had the buses. Of course, all the cabs were taken. We first thought we'd pass an hour or two in a pub until the bulk of the crowd had gone and perhaps some cabs would be available again, but then we remembered that British pubs have their last call at 11 pm. There seemed to be nothing to do but start walking.  And so we did for at least a couple of miles. We caught a cab for the last five minutes' drive to my cousin’s house in Islington, where, around 2 a.m., we crashed on her living room rug.

Now to bring you up to date on where everyone is now, on this new royal wedding day. The marriage didn’t last. I’m not talking about Charles and Di (we all know how that ended up). I’m talking about my brother and his Russian wife. They tried to make it work but after about five years both were ready to go their separate ways.  Still, neither one has ever regretted having taken the chance on the other. They remain friends to this day. My brother remarried not long afterward, and that couple recently celebrated their 25th anniversary.

My cousin and her British husband moved back to the US. They were married for more than 30 years, and then their marriage broke down in a way that did not allow them to remain friends. Still, they behaved civilly to each other at the wedding of their daughter, which took place in Austin, Texas last summer.

I do hope Kate and Wills fare better. And I hope the London transportation authorities have the sense to keep the trains and buses running tonight, after this evening’s festivities are over, to serve the departing celebrants. And I am very, very glad that I am not among them!

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