Say “Si” to the Dress

I’ve been married nine months… or maybe seven. I’m never quite sure what to say. My husband and I had a wedding in his hometown in Kenya and another two months later in my hometown in Maryland. Once in awhile, I go looking for something in my closet and see my wedding dress there in a corner in its white garment bag. The bold black letters on the front of the bag- “D’Novias Ceuta”- are faded and half rubbed off, and the bag has grey smudges from the dust and dirt of taxi trunks and bus seats and airplane overhead compartments. The dress itself has plenty of its own smudges, the souvenirs of two outdoor receptions. I’ve wondered now and then if I should get the dress dry cleaned and folded neatly away in a special box with whatever they do to preserve wedding dresses. I went to a dry cleaning shop once and looked into it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It just wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t be mine.

As you probably know if you’re reading this, my husband and I spent our entire engagement on different continents. Long distance wedding planning was surprisingly easy. We browsed photographers’ blogs and DJs’ websites and skyped with our favorites before making a choice. We skyped our way through premarital counseling sessions with our officiant. Registering online was a breeze. There was one thing I was worried about, though. Moroccan brides wear ornate, colorful kaftans at their weddings, and though I think Moroccan wedding dresses are beautiful, I wanted something a little more of the poufy white ball gown variety for my wedding. I didn’t know where I could find such a thing in Morocco.

I described my dilemma to my Arabic tutor, and she helpfully took me on a spontaneous field trip to every kaftan shop within a two-mile radius. But none had my kind of dress for sale. And then I remembered Ceuta, the Spanish exclave not far from where I was living. By google search, I found a store called D’Novias, which sounded promising. On a breezy Saturday morning in January, I climbed into a “grand taxi,” a 70s era Mercedes Benz that regularly carried six passengers plus the driver, handed the driver fifteen dirhams, and I was off on my mission to say yes to a dress.

After a half-hour drive along the gorgeous blue Mediterranean, we stopped just short of the border crossing. I climbed out of the taxi, passport in hand, to walk through the checkpoint on foot.

Crossing from Morocco into Ceuta is always interesting. It feels a bit like the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada. You have this weird feeling that you should still be in Morocco, because you haven’t boarded a plane or crossed an ocean, but your passport is stamped and handed back to you and suddenly there’s a big blue sign that says “Espana” and you have to exchange your dirhams for euros and you can drink wine in cafes and wear short sleeves without being stared at.

That morning, for some unexplained reason, the typical pedestrian window was closed and everyone entering Ceuta on foot had to walk up to the drive-through window. There were a good fifty people in line, mostly Moroccan women in colorful hijabs on their way to jobs or shopping excursions, and in typical Morocco fashion, no one was standing in a straight line one behind the other, but rather in more of a blob. In the middle of the road, with car horns honking and border officers trying to direct cars and pedestrians to somehow get through the same line. It was a mess, but I eagerly joined the blob because I had an appointment at D’Novias at 11 and there was no way I was missing this chance.

I could barely breathe or move my arms in the crowd. I asked a woman ahead of me in line to hand me one of the forms Morocco makes you fill out any time you enter or exit the country. She did and asked me for a pen. I fished two pens out of my bag, handed one to her– the crowd pushed and shoved each other forward but had a weird sense of camaraderie at the same time– and filled in my name, nationality, profession, and address in Morocco.

“That’s my wife,” a man behind me told me in Arabic, pointing at a young woman in a red coat, who was almost to the window. The man was moustached and at least in his fifties; the woman was my age. I obligingly started to step aside, but a woman beside me in a pink hijab screamed, “No!” and gave the man the dirty look any scheming would-be line-cutter deserves. That wasn’t his wife.

Then the woman in the pink hijab tried to sweet-talk me. “Please, let my friend go ahead of you. She’s late for work,” she said to me in Spanish. I’d been waiting in that line for a good half hour at that point, I was going to be late to my own appointment, and I had just almost let a man get away with cutting in front of me and this woman in the pink hijab seemed like a nice person but I wasn’t about to let that happen again.

“I have to work too,” I said.

She looked down at my American passport very skeptically. “You have to work?”

Okay, busted. But I still wasn’t giving up my place in line. “I have an appointment at eleven,” I said. At least that was true.

She looked at the clock. It was ten till eleven. She begrudgingly shrugged and let me keep my place in line.

I finally made it to D’Novias and apologized in broken Spanish, trying to describe the craziness of this morning’s border crossing. The young woman working that morning was kind and I was the only customer. I looked through a binder of the store’s dress selections and zeroed in on the 2013 dresses on sale for 500 euros. I couldn’t afford a brand new dress from D’Novias, and how much do wedding dresses really change in two years anyway? I wasn’t looking for anything fresh off the runway. I just needed a wedding dress.

I tried on four dresses while the D’Novias lady snapped pictures with my phone and I texted them to my friends. The first was a billowing ivory monstrosity that drowned me in a sea of ruffles. Nope. The second was form-fitting and my weight fluctuated too much during my year of traveling for me to take a risk with that. The third looked great on the rack but not so great on my figure.

I had mixed feelings about Dress Four when I saw it on the hanger. It was strapless and I didn’t think I wanted a strapless dress. I was in love with lace cap sleeves. But this dress had a beautiful, intricate beaded bodice and a skirt that I couldn’t look away from- creamy tiered chiffon ruffles. I tried it on and the skirt swayed gracefully when I walked and I felt like a Disney princess. I didn’t want to take it off.

Half an hour later, I was walking back across the border with Dress Four in a giant white garment bag almost as big as I was. “This is my wedding dress,” I told a taxi driver proudly as I carefully arranged it in the trunk of his taxi and crammed myself into the car with the usual six other people.

There was one glitch though. The Dress was five sizes too big. I knew of a good tailor in Tetouan, but I couldn’t just walk right in there. I had to mentally prepare myself for this. Because I would have to do this in Arabic, and that was scary.

It took me three months to find the courage, but in April, I finally walked into that tailor shop. I greeted the tailor, a middle-aged woman with kind eyes, in Arabic. “I have a wedding dress,” I told her. “It’s too big, and I want to change it. I want it to be smaller. Can you help me? The dress is at my house right now. When can I bring it here?”

“Of course, of course. You can bring it any time today. I’ll be here. I’ve altered lots of wedding dresses before, and made dresses too. I used to work in a bridal shop in France.”

So much relief and happiness. She understood me! And she could alter my dress! AND SHE SPOKE FRENCH!

I was back twenty minutes later, giant white garment bag in hand. And then there were pins and tape measures and billowing white chiffon and ooohs and ahhhs from the tailor’s mother, a sweet little Moroccan grandma on a chair in the corner. I was speaking French with the tailor and Grandma was making comments about me in Arabic- “She’s a tiny little thing. She needs to eat more. She’s pretty though. Does she live here? Where’s she from?” When I looked up and told her in Arabic that I did live here and I was from America, she gasped. “You speak Darija?”

Two weeks later, the dress was my size and had the delicate lace cap sleeves I’d dreamed of. On to the next challenge: getting it to Kenya and then to the States.

In July, I bought two bus tickets to Rabat. One for myself, and one for The Dress. I wasn’t going to let it out of my sight. “Going to the chapel” played in my head as the bus wheels turned and Tetouan slipped away out of sight for the last time.

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I arrived in Rabat five hours later and struggled with my two heavy suitcases, backpack, and wedding dress, pushing and shoving and lugging everything out of the train station and toward a taxi. The taxi driver looked skeptically at all my stuff and gestured at the two people already in his taxi.

“I don’t have room for your luggage, but my friend, that guy over there, he can take you.” Before I could say anything, my bags were being loaded onto……

… This.

2015-06-28 16.24.52
Whatever. Sounded okay to me. I gave the driver the name of a friend’s neighborhood in Rabat and asked how much he’d charge me. He named his price. I said I’d pay him exactly half of that and not a dirham more. He said okay.

I kept looking back during the drive, at the white garment bag bouncing around on top of my suitcases. The driver assured me it would be fine. “I’m a good driver. There’s no problem. Your things are okay. Don’t worry.”

“I know, I know. But that’s my wedding dress.”

“Congratulations!”

“Thanks!”

“Do you have children?”

“No, not yet. I think I should get married first.”

“Yes yes, but right after the wedding you need to have children. How old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five. That’s a good age. Yes, get married and then have children. Congratulations.”

After a night in Rabat, I woke up early and loaded The Dress and everything else into a taxi to Casablanca. The Emirates flight attendants congratulated me and told me that my dress would be riding first class. The placed it carefully into a locker near the front of the plane. I love flying Emirates.

I argued with an airport security officer in Dubai because I didn’t want to cram my dress through the x-ray machine. He insisted that it could not be inspected by hand, but apparently they have another, special, bigger x-ray machine, and he put my dress through that.

Sleepy and jetlagged in Nairobi, I paid for my visa, garment bag in hand, and picked up my luggage. A customs officer stopped me. “What is that?”

“My wedding dress.” I unzipped the garment bag halfway and he peered inside.

“How much did you pay for it?”

“Not much… I don’t remember, I’ve had it a long time, maybe like 200 dollars.”

“Oh, okay. Go ahead.”

Heck no, you’re not going to make me bribe you to bring my own wedding dress into Kenya. No way, Mister.

That dress survived the winding, bumpy four-or-five-hour car ride from Nairobi to Eldoret, a nervous walk down a church aisle, a joyful walk down a dusty road surrounded by women singing, welcoming me, and many hours of dancing in the grass with my husband and my family and my brand new family and what must have been half the town. It survived the car ride back to Nairobi and another twenty hours on an airplane. In September, when I boarded another flight to bring the dress to Maryland, I asked about where to store it and the flight attendant told me the overhead compartment was my only option. I thought about it for a moment, shrugged, folded the garment bag, and stuffed it up there. After all this dress has been through, what’s one more wrinkle?

In one of my favorite pictures from my American wedding, I’m lifting up the hem of my dress to walk, revealing my coral shoes. My husband is playfully holding out my bouquet to me. It was a candid picture and I love it. We’re laughing and being our goofy selves. In that picture, the hem of my dress has visible dirt and grass stains on it. In some of our other pictures- from both weddings- my dress has clearly visible wrinkles. I don’t care. Those wrinkles and grass stains and dirt smudges tell a story. A story of a fifteen thousand mile bus, train, taxi, miniature-truck-thingy, and airplane journey to happily ever after.

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On our honeymoon in Kenya!
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