As the world gets smaller, men and women from different countries and continents find themselves falling in love and getting married. We talked to three local brides, who married men from Europe and Africa, about how they honored both cultures on their wedding days and negotiated differences in tradition and backgrounds in their married life.
A Common Passion
Laura Jordan expected her 2007 trip to Rwanda to volunteer with Youth With a Mission (YWAM), a nonprofit organization, to be short term. She planned to return to the United States seven months later to be a history teacher. Romance was not in her plans.
But during her first month in Africa, she met Robert Agaba while they were washing dishes in the community dining hall. Robert's sister and her husband established YWAM Rwanda in 1994 to minister to communities fractured by years of political wars and genocide.
"Both of us did not want to be in a relationship," Laura says. With a smile, she adds, "Within a week and a half, we were both sure that we wanted to seriously date and would probably get married."
And yet the couple could not be more different. Both 25, Laura was raised in Gig Harbor, Washington, and Robert grew up as the youngest of 10 children in Africa.
"I grew up as the daughter of a doctor … 10,000 miles away from Rwanda, and he grew up in a village in Uganda," Laura says. "He herded cows and goats, and I had princess birthday parties."
Laura, who graduated from the University of Richmond in 2007, says their differences can be both a challenge and a source of strength. "We cannot reminisce about [our] childhoods, but we both love God, have passions to care for children. We both are really social, and we have a lot of fun together."
Her father, who flew to Rwanda to meet Robert, was extremely encouraging; her sister made a trip to Africa, as well.
After Laura's stint in Africa, Robert came to the United States, and on Dec. 18, 2009, he proposed at her family's annual Christmas party with about 130 people present. During the wedding planning process, Laura says their differences provoked humor at times.
"In Rwanda, they put out the word, and anyone who wants to comes [to the wedding]." Also, in Rwanda they don't celebrate with a first dance, but Robert was glad to have one for Laura's sake.
And there was one thing in particular that Robert liked about the American wedding planning process. "He enjoyed the cake tasting!" Laura says with a laugh.
Laura, who is named after her mom's University of Richmond roommate, decided the college's Cannon Memorial Chapel would be a perfect spot for their wedding on July 24, 2010.
At the rehearsal, Laura and her nine bridesmaids wore dresses or skirts made from cloth Laura had purchased at a market in Rwanda. The entire rehearsal — from the food to the accessories Laura wore — was Rwandan-themed.
"We wanted to make it not just a hint of Rwanda, but so many Rwandan [touches] because so much of our life is there," she says. "I wanted it to be very much a mixture of two cultures."
During their 5 p.m. ceremony, they sang the hymn "How Great Thou Art," with one verse in English followed by a verse in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda.
Currently, the couple lives in Richmond, allowing Robert to pursue a college degree here. They both hope to return to Rwanda permanently within five years.
"We both have a huge heart for street children in Rwanda," Laura says. "We have a heart for family education, for child raising and for the education system in Rwanda. There are just a lot of things we want to do."
Saying "I Do" Twice
When Martin Bacher proposed to Sara Burns late last summer by a lake in Midlothian, Sara was sure she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.
She'd been taken with him since they met in 2006 at the Salisbury Country Club. She was working as a waitress, and Martin, a native of Slovakia, was working as a waiter through an international student work program.
"I was 17, and he was 23," Sara says. With a laugh, she adds, "He thought Midlothian sounded so cool because it sounded like something from Lord of the Rings."
Sara, now 21, says their engagement was particularly meaningful because it ended up taking her from the dining rooms of a country club to his home in Slovakia to the lake where he proposed. "It was a beautiful ring, but it was way too big… a size nine," Sara says, laughing and explaining that it slid right off her finger.
After the engagement, the couple's main goal was "him getting to America as quickly as possible, as permanently as possible," Sara says. So they decided to have a first, legal ceremony in Slovakia and a second, more formal wedding in Richmond, after Martin had relocated here. Since the Slovakian wedding was supposed to be a simple event, Sara purchased a sweater dress.
"[It was] nothing fancy — I thought," Sara says with an amused smile. "Four weeks before I left, I thought to ask him — ‘What does a legal ceremony mean?' Surprise! It is just like a wedding in a church." Sara ordered a wedding dress online, which arrived promptly and didn't need alterations.
On Nov. 7, 2009, the couple was married in a short ceremony in Prešov, Slovakia. Sara says one of the most memorable moments came right after the ceremony ended.
"Every single person is forming a line behind us," she says. "Everybody hands me flowers and kisses me on both cheeks and Martin's. We ended up with this huge mound of flowers."
The evening reception in a lodge outside Prešov included many unexpected moments, Sara says. Martin had not prepared her for the Slovakian traditions, which included sweeping up a broken plate and serving her husband soup.
"You just have to smile and enjoy it," she says. "I love experiencing different cultures… It was the best of both worlds because it was my wedding … and I loved seeing everyone in their element."
In January, the couple took an eight-day honeymoon in Egypt, where Sara celebrated her 21st birthday. Afterward, Martin was not able to return to Richmond because he didn't have the appropriate visa. Finally, on May 30, 2010, after Martin had gotten his papers in order, Sara picked up her husband at Dulles International Airport.
On July 16, they celebrated a second wedding in Richmond. She's the fourth of eight children, and all were present. The ceremony was held at Bon Air Christian Church, a little white chapel where her grandparents are members.
"A part of me feels like we are farther ahead than the average couple because of our cultural differences," Sara says. Martin is fluent in English, and Sara is starting to pick up Martin's language. She even catches herself using Slovak phrases while at work.
A Happily Mixed Marriage
Richmond native Teresa Rios found that her own story ended up embodying the theme of her master's thesis for graduate school. Always drawn to Ireland, she chose to research "mixed marriages in Northern Ireland and abroad," never guessing the academic project would turn personal.
A 26-year-old paralegal at a Richmond law firm, Teresa moved to the small town of Derry, Northern Ireland, in the fall of 2006 to get her master's degree. There she met Paul McCartney — the 23-year-old version. "No, it's not a joke!" she says with a laugh.
"In America, a Protestant marrying a Catholic would not be a mixed marriage, but there it would," Teresa says. "If I had been born in Northern Ireland, it would have been more of a problem."
After a few months of dating, she and Paul were confident about their future together. "We just knew that we were going to get married and have babies, and that's it," Teresa says.
But their wedding, held in Richmond, was not nearly as simple.
"I could give you a whole list of the advantages and disadvantages of a cross-cultural relationship," Teresa says. "One of the big disadvantages is that not a lot of people are able to come [to the wedding]."
Before the wedding, the couple endured a long separation while Paul worked to move to the United States. About a year after Teresa returned to Richmond, Paul finally received his visa following two trips to London, which cost more than $1,000.
"We joked that we were in an arranged marriage, because the year leading up to the wedding we had to be apart," she says.
For their June 2010 wedding, the couple wanted to incorporate not just two but three cultures. Teresa's father, a native of La Paz, Bolivia, moved to Ohio during high school. He met Teresa's mother when they were both at James Madison University.
"He was her Spanish tutor," Teresa explains.
She points at the ring on her right hand — a silver design of two hands wrapped around a heart with a small crown on top. It is the Irish claddagh, Teresa says, "the Irish symbol for love, friendship and loyalty."
On June 26 — a day that Teresa says was "hot, hot!" — she and Paul got married at Tuckahoe Plantation. She wore a gardenia in her hair. Paul wore a boutonniere of gardenias. Guests received gift bags with Virginia peanuts.
The reception included a cultural, musical medley — Irish melodies, salsa, and country music, a favorite of her mother's. Teresa says the Madonna tune, "La Isla Bonita," inspired both sides of the aisle to dance.
Now, she and Paul often enjoy dates at Richmond's Irish pubs — Siné and McCormack's.
"It's never the same, but he's happy if he can get a good pint of Guinness," Teresa says with a laugh.