Part 1: Before July 16, 2021.
Petar and I met during a lull in the pandemic. It was August, and the UK had been emerging from full lockdown in stages since June of 2020. Cafes were open, and the month was marked with uncanny bouts of sunny weather. I was in the very final stages of my PhD: during the lockdown, I had finalized and submitted my doctoral dissertation, and the defense examination, known in the UK as the viva voce, was scheduled for August 19th. Already drained, I attempted preparations for the exam, expecting an aggressive grilling from the two examiners, experienced professors that I had never met, and I mentally prepared myself for the worst: major corrections, or even a resubmission.
We met at a café near the Bristol harborside, close to the statue of John Cabot. I was early; his train from Bath, where he lived at the time, was late. We sat at a saffron yellow table and somehow, three hours disappeared in a moment. I learned he was Bulgarian and he worked for a British tech company as a software engineer. He was a year younger (nine months!, he says emphatically) than me, and he had initially studied architecture and worked in the field for a few years, then moved to the Netherlands, then to Germany, and then the UK, taking on the challenging, underpaid, and often demoralizing work that Eastern European EU migrants often do – positions which underestimate their qualifications, education, and intelligence. He talked about a program where he worked on a 17th century boat from the Dutch golden age of sailing, a boat that brought the first settlers to Australia (though by accident). At the end of the date, as we walked toward his bus stop, I mentioned that my doctoral defense was later that week, and he wished me good luck. I met friends afterward and at that point, I knew, something was very different. Petar texted me later that week to wish me luck for my exam, and we set up another date. And another. And another.
Our relationship began as a sort of timer started for me: after successfully finishing the doctorate, I was eligible to extend my visa for a year, which would allow me time to look for a job that would provide longer-term visa stability. Perhaps in earlier years, this year would have looked generous, but in COVID-era, with massive government budget cuts to the field where I worked, and universities tightening their budgets and relying even more heavily on short-term contract labor, my job outlook was bleak. So Petar watched as I applied to jobs, celebrated with me when I got back requests for interviews, and comforted me when those possibilities, with the hours of preparation and practice, faded into nothing with three-line rejection responses. I applied again and again and again, along with way working more than full-time on short-term contracts and consultancies, and he was always there to listen, comfort, and encourage.
In May, it became very clear that, for me to stay in the UK, and for us to stay together, we would need to get married. It’s not the most romantic reason to get married, but it is the pragmatic one, and maybe the pragmatic one is the romantic one: I can’t imagine my life without him, and if we don’t get married, then we won’t be able to be together – I’ll go back to the U.S., where I haven’t lived for seven years, and we will be separated by diplomatic walls and literal sea ones. I can’t explain the kind of anxiety and stress that this kind of situation brings. The idea that my life – the world that I had constructed for myself, with Petar, my career network, and my tight, caring friendship circle, all in a place that I had called home for five years, the longest single period of my complicated, irregular adult life – might evaporate simply because I could not find a ‘real’ job was a form of existential dread that I’ve not otherwise experienced. He is a part of me now, and I can’t lose him.
At that time, I couldn’t help but feel bitter: I looked at the relationship trajectories of friends and family members, whose weddings were planned and carried out long before COVID-19, and I envied the amount of control that they were able to wield. On top of the unprecedented uncertainty of the environment we inhabited, our situation was further complicated by our citizenship: I was a foreigner in the UK, currently on a visa with a rapidly-approaching expiry date. Petar was also a foreigner, but he had been in the UK long enough to have semi-permanent status under the agreements signed when the U.K. left the EU. Being married to him, then, would provide equivalent status to being married to a U.K. citizen, and I would be able to apply for a two-year family visa, which could then be renewed. I would be allowed to continue to work, either in a full-time position or continued contract roles. We are citizens of two different countries who are living, working, and abiding within the regulations of a third.
Actually getting married is more complicated than it appears. In the U.K., since I was on a doctoral extension visa, I needed permission from the government to get married. When I first came across that line in the immigration documentation, I read it five times in shock. It made sense to me that a relationship might be investigated when a foreign spouse is applying for a visa through the citizen, but for the relationship to come under scrutiny just to get married? And, it got worse from there: to even start that process, we needed an appointment with the Bristol city council: with multiple months of lockdown and semi-lockdown, the council was swamped with requests and we weren’t going to get an appointment until late July – and that appointment would only start the immigration review, which could take weeks – and, we would still need to again apply for an additional appointment to actually carry out the marriage itself. Our best – and perhaps only option – was to get married abroad. For the U.S., Petar would need a visa: though Bulgaria is part of the EU, it is not part of the visa waiver program which would allow him 90 days without a visa. Instead, we looked at Bulgaria: like me, Petar hadn’t been home since before the start of the pandemic in early 2020. I started the first of a dozen checklists for the paperwork, appointments, and tests that we would need from both U.S. and Bulgarian authorities in order to be able to have the marriage there, with an eye on the ever-changing regulations that both the U.K. and Bulgaria instituted for international travel with COVID regulations.
May and June were impossibly difficult months, attempting to get all of the information and plan for any COVID contingencies. All the while, I continued applying to jobs, and Petar and I both worked full time in our remote positions. But there were bright spots: he surprised me with a sapphire engagement ring and a proposal, stating that we needed to do at least one thing the ‘correct’ way. My friends threw me a wonderful, loving pre-wedding hen party, complete with a flamingo theme and an inflatable hot tub in my dear friend Claire’s Cotswold garden. The paperwork chase continued in Bulgaria, where I juggled meeting my new family with a last-minute job interview and my ongoing work projects. And it all still seemed uncertain: up until a week before the wedding itself, I was still not sure that it would happen. We would be missing some stamp on some paperwork, or a last-minute COVID case spike would close the municipal office. But on the final check-in before the wedding, one week before the scheduled event, the officer took our clutch of paperwork, noted each and every essential stamp, checked each one off the list, examined our passports, and declared that it was all complete: all that was left was to return on July 16th at 2pm, when the ceremony would be held. Finally, I exhaled.
Part 2: July 16, 2021.
That week, in Plovdiv, temperatures topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit (30+ in Celsius). I grew up in summers with that kind of heat, but I lost my acclimation to it after five years of humid, mild English summers. As we all waited in the bright, open foyer of the municipal building, Petar’s mother Violetta flapped a folding fan in my face, trying to help me keep cool. I was wearing a tea-length cream dress, one I bought back in the UK that seemed ‘perfect’ for a summer wedding, but I now wished I was in one of those voluminous Saharan-desert caftans. Petar, handsome and polished in his dark navy suit, had to be a hundred times hotter, but only a few beads of sweat registered on his head. It was (finally) our wedding day.
Plovdiv, a city with Roman roots, is a 90-minute drive from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Petar doesn’t like Sofia: it’s a big, bustling capital city. When the plane began the descent into the city, I could see the halo of smog and dust, not unlike my own hometown in California’s Sacramento Valley – but Sofia lacks the Delta breezes, which cool the nights and circulate the pollution there. To me, Sofia was a hot European capital, with wide boulevards and a center crowded with more than two thousand years of layered history alongside shiny (heat-reflecting) glass structures. There were building-sized billboards advertising sports betting and cigarettes; in all, it reminded me of Moscow and Warsaw and London and Rome. Each of those cities contrasts with a nearby smaller, calmer hub, those younger siblings of the older, more serious capital: Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s Krakow or Bristol or Florence. A city with history, an arts scene, a cooler, perhaps younger vibe. Plus – and this is a very big plus – Petar’s sister Jenny, who got married herself several years ago, lives in Plovdiv. When we were still in the UK, she was Petar’s eyes and ears on the ground, visiting offices, making appointments, and helping him know what we needed to do and get.
The municipal building is a prime example of mid-century Soviet architecture, revamped for the 21st century. We – Petar and I, his mother and father, Jenny and her husband and her mother-in-law, and several of Petar’s friends, including the Best Man and Best Woman – stand in a marble-lined foyer with a soaring ceiling and a wide, brass chandelier. A picturesque set of red-carpeted stairs lead to the second floor landing, where wood-paneled doors open to the room where marriage ceremonies are held. We watch another wedding party come down the stairs and patiently wait our turn. The Best Man (kum or кум in Bulgarian), Hristo, Petar’s close friend and roommate from university, chatted to me in English along with his wife Ralitsa, the Best Woman (kuma or кумa), who was seven months pregnant. Their two daughters, kitted out in matching dresses and headbands, entertain themselves by playing some sort of hot-lava game on the foyer tiles. In Bulgarian culture, the role of the Best Man and Woman is to guide the bride and groom in their marital life, providing help and support when needed. I met their sweet family a week before, when we all took a hike up one of the tepe – hills – in Plovidiv, called Младежки хълм or ‘Youth Hill’.
We had initially began wedding planning with the assumption that it would be small and quick – Petar initially joked about wearing shorts and a T-shirt. But it slowly became something else: I got a dress, he got a suit, and his friends and family members were invited along. Jenny kindly arranged for my hair and makeup to be done and we ordered a bouquet, an assortment of peonies, roses, and hydrangea from a florist that Jenny knew. Petar had a small white orchid tucked into the buttonhole of his suit, and a burgundy pocket square that matched his tie. I had on pale purple peep-toe satin heels, and a small dispensary’s worth of Band-aids to cushion all angles of feet, having gone at least a year without wearing high heels of any kind.
We are called up the red-carpeted stairs, and we go into a room, again paneled in the gray swirled marble tile from downstairs. We enter and I immediately laugh: on one wall was a massive, four-television display of the room itself; it was like watching yourself on CCTV. The girls quickly locate the camera at the top of the wall in the front of the room and mugged goofily, watching themselves on the screen. At the front of the room, on a sort of tiled stage area, is a dark wooden table, carved with elegant reliefs. Behind the table, a large version of the Plovdiv city symbol is hung on the wall, flanked with Bulgarian and EU flags. On the table, Jenny has placed some of the essentials of a Bulgarian wedding: the large, circle-shaped bread called pikta (питка) glazed with honey (the lifeblood of every Bulgarian), a bottle of champagne decorated with ribbon and silk flowers, and crystal champagne glasses, tied together with a long mauve ribbon. We step up onto the stage, careful that we are a pace from the edge to prevent falling backwards, with Hristo to my right and Ralitsa to Petar’s left. We hand over our identification documents (in case we had tried to switch out one of the players at the last minute, I assume), and then we wait for the municipal officer to return for the ceremony. Now, writing this weeks later, I struggle to remember the exact pieces of the ceremony that happened next. The photographs help with remembering the order, but I can recall little of the contents. It goes without saying that experiencing a cultural rite like getting married, while in another country and in a language that you do not understand, is a surreal experience.
The officiant returns, wearing a sash with the white, green, and red of the Bulgarian flag, and, standing in front of the seal, launches into a speech. Hristo leans over every so often to whisper some of what she was saying, something about marriage and two becoming one – writing this, I can’t recall what it was. I know that I recognized my name and Petar’s, and suddenly, she stops speaking and looks at me expectantly. I look to Hristo: “this is where you say yes.” So, I did: “да” (da). The officiant smiles at me and then goes on to Petar, where the process is less complicated. She brings over the rings, placed in a small velvet-lined basket. Petar picks up my ring – the delicate, Russian rose-gold ring with a little crown and tiny crystal in the center. The rings belonged to his parents: his father bought the crown ring in Volgograd, a city in Russia, on his way back from military exercises in Kazakhstan, early in the 1980s when he was a military officer and Bulgaria was a key member of the Warsaw Pact. Petar’s ring is much more simple: a gold band.
We are beckoned to the table to sign the paperwork, and the officiant points to the line where my signature will go. I look again to see my name written in Cyrillics: I still struggle with reminding my brain of the sound attached to each Cyrillic letter, but it is becoming easier, and silently, in my head, I sound out my own name. Лиан. Petar signs and then Hristo and Ralitsa. And then, the declaration: we are married, and now we kiss.
Somewhere in all of this, Hristo leans over to me and whispers urgently, “step on his foot!” “What?” I whisper back. “Just do it! Step on his food, hard!” Being the obedient girl that I am, I slam my left foot – not too hard – onto the suede of his right shoe. Immediately, our little audience of onlookers bursts into laughter and Petar looks immediately taken aback but then grins. “What did I just do?” I ask Hristo. “The first person to step on the other one is the one who will wear the pants in the relationship,” he tells me, laughing.
The officiant comes to shake our hands and brings over the pitka. Ahead of the wedding, when Petar mentioned that we would need to bring pitka with honey, I imagined a sort of pita bread and dip, not this car-tire sized delicacy. And, for the ceremony, no one warned me about the next part: we each take hold of one side of the pitka and tear; I end up with the much larger chunk, which, again, triggers laughter in our little audience. Apparently, this is another sign of relationship dominance – or just that I’m hungry at that point, and my hands are now sticky with honey. Petar’s parents come over and feed us each a piece of the bread: Damien, Petar’s father, puts a piece in my mouth, like formal communion in the Catholic church.
Finally, we are handed the champagne glasses, filled with just a small measure of champagne. As we hold the glasses, the ribbon curls downward, connecting the two of us as we drink. And then, the many congratulations begin: from Hristo and Ralitsa, then Violetta and Damien, and the others come up in progression to smile, hug, shake hands, and take photographs with us.
At some point, Petar and I leave the room, hand-in-hand. At the top of the stairs, one of Petar’s friends stands with a silver tray of small cupcakes, each with a little decoration on the top, and she passes them to each of the guests. The congratulations and photos continue until it’s time to leave, making room for the next couple’s marriage ceremony. The photographer races ahead of us and Petar holds tight to my hand as we descend the stairs and I watch each step, wary of my satin heels.
And that, quick as it was, was our Bulgarian marriage ceremony. Usually, it proceed is be followed by a religious ceremony within an Orthodox church, like one of the cool, heavily-decorated sanctuaries that we have visited in the previous days. And there would be other marriage customs as well, ones that make Petar light up when he talks about them: the bargaining and ‘kidnapping’ of the bride, a long night of partying, toasts, and dancing. None of these things are possible in the COVID era, and especially without any of my friends or family present. Before, during, and after the ceremony itself, I feel stirs of sadness, experiencing and witnessing this entire day without anyone who knows me apart from Petar – here, he is my only friend and family member, and even with these new friends and family, I cannot help but feel sad and a little bit alone, standing up by myself. We have agreed to have a proper ceremony in a church next year, once we have sorted our (my) immigration challenges and perhaps when travel will be easier and more people can come to celebrate. Maybe.
After the ceremony, we make our way slowly to the restaurant where all of the guests have gathered, with the photographer calling out poses and snapping along the way. The heat is wilting my bouquet and we stop at our hotel, just next to the restaurant, to dunk the flowers in water, change my shoes, and breathe for a moment in cold, air conditioned quiet. I look at Petar – now, my husband, but he hasn’t seemed to change at all. Now, we are married. I do feel a sense of calm, one that expands and settles over the next few weeks: that I am now part of a couple, that the struggles of one life can now be shared with a dear other. It isn’t just the strain of the visa, or of having a job and somehow the challenge of doctoral studies being ‘worth’ it. I feel a great peace, settling into a life with this man who I adore and adores me – and does not feel, in any way or shape, something foreign.
And now, a little party.