Italian weddings: a beginner’s guide

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“There are going to be more than 250 guests at the wedding,” I told my student. “250!”

“In Calabria,” he said, “you sometimes get 600 guests. At one there were 1,200. They had to book multiple restaurants.”

Italian weddings are a big deal. The day might last for more than 12 hours, the guest count reach hundreds, the total cost tens of thousands euros.

I recently had my introduction to the Big Italian Wedding. Lorenzo (Valeriano’s friend) and Celia recently got married in Puglia, and Valentina (Valeriano’s sister) and Alessio in Cassino. A quick summary of of the days:

Lorenzo and Celia – 3pm – traditional Catholic ceremony (with some parts translated into English for the benefit of the bride’s guests) at a church near Monopoli, a quick aperitivo outside the church, then a drive to Castello Marchione for the reception. Another, fancier aperitivo, then buffet style antipasti, then a multiple course formal dinner. After dinner there was the wedding cake, then drinks, dancing, and ice cream and a chocolate fountain for anyone who wasn’t stuffed. The night was over by about 3am.

Valentina and Alessio – 9am – a kind of breakfast aperitivo at the flat (Valentina’s father’s home), then on to the church at 11am for a traditional ceremony. We then drove to the restaurant Il Vernacolo, located just outside of Cassino, where lunch began with buffet style antipasti outside, then continued inside for about 7 hours, with a live band and dancing. Then outside for the wedding cake, fruit and more dessert, fireworks, drinks and cigars. As family of the bride, we were some of the last to leave at around midnight.

Both the weddings were a lot of fun for the guests, but the brides and grooms clearly enjoyed themselves too, and the length of the events meant that we got to see a lot of each other, compared to shorter weddings where the couple spend so much time being photographed that they hardly get to talk to their guests. It was wonderful to be a part of their big day, and to see them looking so happy (and the brides looking so beautiful).

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(Valentina and her father leaving home on the morning of the wedding)

I have limited experience of weddings in general, so it’s hard for me to make big proclamations about differences between British weddings and Italian weddings. Every wedding is different, after all. But a few things worth noting…

Gifts

Italian weddings pay for themselves. These days, guests are generally expected to bring a busta (envelope) with cash or a cheque to the wedding, or make the transfer beforehand, rather than giving a present. My understanding is that the minimum you can give is about 100 euros (any less and you’re not even covering the cost of your presence), and that the fancier the wedding, the more you should give. I heard of a wedding where a relative of the groom gave a burnt 50 note (don’t ask me why), which obviously didn’t go down well.

The benefit of this system is that the bride and groom can actually stand to make a profit. Even if you have to fork out 30,000 beforehand, depending on the generosity of your guests, you can expect to have several thousands of euros leftover at the end.

Food

The food isn’t that important at British weddings. It’s on the list, but probably somewhere below alcohol and the floral arrangements. At Italian weddings, however, the food is everything.

I’m not going to lie. As much as I love the food here, the prospect of a meal lasting 6-7 hours filled me with dread. I can’t eat that much! Who can eat that much? But is it rude not to eat everything? Am I going to collapse in a carbohydrate-induced coma a few hours into the meal?

The quantity (and quality) of food didn’t disappoint. Both weddings had an incredible array of antipasti, including fancy canapès, oysters, mussels, insalata di mare, mozzarella, meat, fritti…I had to remind myself not to keep going back for more, as this was just the beginning.

This was the menu at Valentina and Alessio’s wedding:

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Believe it or not, it is possible to eat everything – to have some of all the dishes, at least, even if you don’t finish your plate. The food is spread out over such a long period that you never feel unpleasantly stuffed.

Then there’s this tip from a source who shall remain anonymous. If you want to make the most of the wedding meal and eat everything (it’s all delicious, after all), don’t go to the toilet the morning of the wedding. Then, halfway through the meal, head to the bathroom and, er, make room. That way you can go back to the table and enjoy your secondo secondo with gusto.

(Needless to say, no one touches the bread)

Music

Both the weddings I went to had a live band, and one had an X Factor star, Santino Cardamone. There were a few English language songs, but mostly Italian classics like Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano and Un Emozione da Poco. There was also one of my favourites, Gianna Nannini’s America, which got all the relatives dancing and singing along, despite the inappropriate lyrics.

The week before Valentina and Alessio’s wedding there was the serenata; traditionally this involves the groom serenading the bride outside her home, but this serenata was a huge garden party at Alessio’s family’s house in the country, and the focus was definitely more on the food than the music. But there was some music and dancing, and karaoke to the usual Italian repertoire, including Franco Califano’s Tutto il resto e’ noia, which seems even more inappropriate than “America”, yet is inexplicably popular as a wedding song. I mean, it’s a great song, but it’s literally about love being boring and disappointing:

La prima sera devi dimostrare
che al mondo solo tu sai far l’amore
si, d’accordo ma poi.
Tutto il resto è noia

(The first evening you have to show
that in the world only you know how to make love
yes, okay, but then
all the rest is boredom)

Is its wedding popularity ironic? Italians don’t really do irony. Not like the British, anyway. The British are definitely better at both irony and drinking to excess. Which brings us on to…

Alcohol

I drank a lot at both weddings, but somehow I didn’t really get drunk. Very few guests got truly drunk. Why? The length of the day, I suppose – it’s hard to get drunk when the drinking is staggered over 12 hours, and you’re eating pretty much every hour. Also, getting off-your-face drunk in British style is frowned upon in Italy. It’s not that people don’t get drunk – they do – but it’s less acceptable to be visibly, embarrassingly drunk. Especially for women – I’ve never seen an Italian woman drunk in the way that British women get drunk.

At the Cassino wedding some of the younger male guests were drinking heavily, but they managed to keep it together. Some of them were about to throw up when they caught sight of Valeriano (brother of the bride) and restrained themselves.

People also got drunk at the serenata but behaved themselves, with the exception of one guy, who apparently poured a bowl of spaghetti over his head. I don’t know if that was alcohol related though, or if that’s just what he does at parties.

Clothes

Everyone I saw was wearing typical formal clothes –  nothing different from what you would see at weddings in other countries. The British (and American?) rule that you can’t wear black at weddings certainly isn’t the case here, as I saw quite a few women in black dresses, including the groom’s mother. That’s about the only difference. Oh, and no hats/fascinators.

Confetti

Confetti is not what you think it is. In English, “confetti” is the bits of paper you throw at weddings, or blast from cannons at concerts. In Italian, “confetti” are sweets you give to your guests at weddings or christenings, usually made with almonds. The English “confetti” is the Italian “coriandoli”. The Italian “confetti” has no exact translation in English, because they don’t exist.

It’s a bit like the whole chip confusion (British chips are American French fries, American chips are British crisps).

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Etiquette

It’s fine to leave the table during the meal, and go off for a wander/phone call/nap. It’s fine to pop out of the church during the service if you’re bored or need some air or a cigarette, apparently. It’s not fine to be on Whatsapp while the bride and groom are exchanging rings (what’s wrong with you?)

I may have made a few blunders. On the morning of Valentina and Alessio’s wedding people kept saying auguri to me, and I was unsure whether this was just because I was sort of family (no one said auguri at the other wedding), and if I was supposed to say it back. I was also awkward during conversations with elderly relatives because I knew I should be using the formal lei instead of tu and I’m just not used to it.

My worst faux pas, however, was with a nun. It didn’t happen at the wedding, but when we met at Fiumicino while awaiting the arrival of some other family members, who were flying in for the wedding. I was introduced to the nun, who’s related to Valeriano somehow, and she seemed enchanted with me, stroking my arm and calling me a capolavoro. Later she was complaining about how much work she had to do at the convent, and I asked innocently, “Ah, che tipo di lavoro?” She looked flustered and then made some more vague references to the amount of work, and the fact she was in charge of the convent, so, you know…

Apparently I wasn’t supposed to ask what work she did, but merely express sympathy when she complained. The exact nature of the work of senior nuns in Rome remains a mystery…

To conclude, my advice for stranieri who find themselves invited to a Big Italian Wedding:

  • Get a good night’s sleep beforehand
  • Be prepared for lots of small talk in Italian
  • Also lots of cheek kissing. I lost count of the cheeks I kissed
  • Wear comfortable shoes, or at least bring a change of shoes
  • Eat everything and start your diet tomorrow
  • Drink but don’t embarrass yourself
  • Be generous with your gift
  • You can eat the confetti
  • Don’t ask nuns what they do
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