Coronavirus puts damper on Albania's blowout wedding tradition
Elona Demollari does not know when her big day will come, but she is trying on wedding gowns anyway as Albanians yearn for the return of the big, brash weddings that are a cornerstone of social life in the poor Balkan country.
Albanian nuptials traditionally bring together hundreds of guests for lavish feasts and all-night dancing, with families often taking years to scrape together enough money to afford them.
Yet because of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of couples are unable to say their vows with the fanfare they dream of, and the new health restrictions have brought a multi-million euro industry to its knees.
Small gatherings are permitted, but such a ceremony is out of the question for Demollari, a 31-year-old prison director who wants a big blowout with more than 300 guests.
In any case, the bride-to-be also has no choice but to wait as the pandemic has stranded her fiance, a construction engineer, in Italy for the past three months.
Her sister, meanwhile, is marooned in Canada.
So she is taking her time with the preparations, seizing on the recent reopening of the Geraldina Sposa wedding salon in Tirana to try on some gowns.
"Despite the pandemic, I haven't given up. It's a challenge," she said.
The average salary in Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, is around 400 euros ($450) a month.
But money is often no object when it comes to wedding bashes, with a price tag that can mount to tens of thousands of euros.
Often both families throw celebrations, with village festivities that can last for days.
"It is a tradition in Albanian society. We spend beyond our means for the wedding day. We like to look good even if we can't afford it," said Marcela Lati, who runs the Geraldina Sposa salon with her husband.
- Superstition -
Couples who set their wedding dates before the virus arrived in Albania, where it has claimed some 35 lives, must also contend with local superstition.
"Changing the date of a wedding is bad luck, which is one of the reasons we decided to keep it," said Erion Mucollari, a 30-year-old computer engineer.
She and her partner had planned to invite 400 people but settled for a small house party, complete with protective masks and gloves, in April while the country was under lockdown.
Those who do decide to wait may also put off moving in together, as sharing a roof before marriage is still not "widely accepted by traditional families", said Elsa Ballauri, a human rights activist.
In Albania's strongly family-oriented society, marriage is "a very important institution because it perpetuates family ties," said Aferdita Onuzi, an anthropologist.
It is also a "matter of honour" for parents, she said.
Instead of toasting "to your health", Albanians will often wish a youth: "to your marriage!"
For now, party spaces are quiet while dresses hang idly at wedding shops.
"Brides should be wearing them, dancing beautifully surrounded by 200 people," laments shop owner Armanda Toska, who also produces a reality TV show centred on weddings.
She says the coronavirus is the enemy of a wedding's most important element -- atmosphere.
"We Albanians are very energetic people, we like to celebrate, we like music, to party loudly with a large number of guests."