Marrying Greek and Armenian Traditions in a Long-Awaited Ceremony


By Tammy La Gorce

NEW YORK (New York Times) — Elena Sarkissian had plenty of time to figure out whether she wanted to marry Demetrios Orfanoudis before their wedding on January 21. First came five years of long-distance dating. Then, just before the wedding itself, came an unexpected stretch of time with nothing to do but sit and think.

“I ended up spending 45 minutes circling the cathedral,” said Sarkissian, 44, a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman in Manhattan. Alone in the back seat of a rented Bentley in her Anna Maier couture wedding gown, with only the car’s driver for company, “I had no phone, and no watch,” she said. “And I knew we were running more and more late for the ceremony. It was such a stress. But we just kept circling.”

Sarkissian was not falling prey to cold feet. What she was experiencing instead was the pandemonium of Manhattan in the grip of the Women’s March, held one day after President Trump’s inauguration, a protest that drew hundreds of thousands, choking the city with traffic.

About 60 of the 150 guests invited to Ms. Sarkissian and Mr. Orfanoudis’s wedding had gotten stuck on a rented bus, inching through the protest to get them to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on East 74th Street for the 4 p.m. wedding. The bus, carrying friends and family, who came from as far as Athens and who were staying at a Midtown hotel, did not make it for 40 minutes or more.

Sarkissian knew she couldn’t start the wedding with nearly half her guests in transit. And so she circled. And as she did, she didn’t feel anything approximating jitters. She felt something else entirely: the kind of eagerness born of waiting for years to seal the deal on a romance in which everything went right.

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“I married my best friend,” Sarkissian said after an hour-long traditional Greek Orthodox ceremony that included chanting, crowns and a priest in robes. Despite the transit chaos and the late start, all the Holy Trinity pews were full, and the mood was buoyant. “It was really stressful and exhausting. But I feel like the luckiest girl alive.”

Sarkissian and Orfanoudis met in September 2011 after a month-long telephone courtship set in motion by a friend of Sarkissian, Dr. Mary Vouyiouklis Kellis.

Kellis, who lives in Cleveland, remembers going out with her soon-to-be husband, Augustine Kellis, and Sarkissian. “Elena said to Augie, ‘I’m really tired of dating the same kind of guy in New York,”’ Kellis said. She asked if he had any solid, intelligent, eligible friends worth meeting.

“He told me all his friends were married,” or else an unprintable word that means not especially nice, Sarkissian said. “And then Mary said to him: ‘What about your cousin Demetri? He’s such a great guy.’”

Demetri was Orfanoudis, 50, a lifelong Washingtonian who is counsel to the Board of Veterans Appeals there.

For Sarkissian, a classic dark-haired beauty who grew up in Michigan and moved to Manhattan when she was 30 after becoming a cancer epidemiologist in Chicago, “a great guy” was starting to mean someone other than the hard-charging finance professionals she had gotten used to dating.

“These types of guys were very driven, and they weren’t ready for anything real,” said Sarkissian, who switched careers from medicine to real estate after several medical school friends enlisted her to help them find apartments to buy. “I don’t think it’s hard to have fun when you’re dating in New York. But I do think it’s hard to find someone you connect with on different levels, in terms of both your everyday enjoyment of your time together and on higher levels that are more important, like values, character, family and your goals for the future.”

Even harder, at least for Orfanoudis and Sarkissian, was finding those higher-level matchups in the same city. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Like Ms. Sarkissian, Mr. Orfanoudis had dated many women in Washington before he found what he called “magic” in New York.

“My parents always wanted me to meet someone I could happily spend my life with,” said Orfanoudis, who, like Sarkissian, was raised Greek Orthodox; he cannot personally rebut the stereotype about traditional Greek families’ obsession with seeing their children settle contentedly into marriage, he said. “I had been hearing some of that for a while. I just never found the right person.”

When he finally traveled to Manhattan to meet Sarkissian, after that month of getting-to-know-you phone calls during the summer of 2011, he knew he had struck romantic gold.

“We just hit it off,” he said. “She has this great smile and huge dimples, and she’s an aggressive, very professional businesswoman, but when you scratch the surface, she turns out to be this superfun person who laughs at my jokes. Which is important.”

Sarkissian felt just as comfortable around the tall and gentle Orfanoudis, though she admitted she was concerned there might be no physical attraction. “He had seen a lot of pictures of me on Facebook, but he had only one or two on there of himself, that were very old,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. And then he sent me a picture of him that was kind of awkward and not very flattering.”

Adding to her unease was the dawning awareness that she had already fallen for him.

“The fact that we had solidified our friendship on the phone before we met actually provided a bit of anxiety,” she added. “You don’t spend a month on the phone with someone you’re not invested in.”

Fortunately, she said: “The attraction was there. He was very warm, and we had this easy exchange that translated from our phone conversations. We just rolled right into the relationship.”

They have been rolling ever since, with Orfanoudis and Sarkissian making the commute from Washington to New York, or vice versa, almost every other weekend. (“I’ve explored every method of transportation,” Orfanoudis said, “but no matter what you do, it takes four hours.”) In addition to savoring the moments together in New York and Washington, they often go farther afield.

“Sometimes it’s just as easy for us to spend the weekend somewhere else, so we’ll go for weekend trips,” Orfanoudis said. “We’ve been to places like the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Miami, Vegas.”

When Orfanoudis proposed to Sarkissian in September, he had recently been admitted to the New York bar, paving the way for him to become a full-time New Yorker and a full-time partner to Sarkissian.

In addition to his love for Sarkissian, his love for his mother, Fotine, propelled him. Months before he met Sarkissian in 2011, his father, George, once the head caterer at the Blair House in Washington, died. And just after he and Sarkissian struck up their long-distance telephone relationship, Mrs. Orfanoudis began showing signs of dementia that have since progressed. She is now 93 and uses a wheelchair — which she took to the wedding.

“I wanted to kind of move things along so she could be a part of everything,” he said.

Sarkissian, who accepted Orfanoudis’s proposal after he traveled to her hometown, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to ask for her parents’ approval, rallied.

“My fiancé had two requests after we were engaged,” she said. “One was that we try to get it done ASAP because his mother was gravely ill. And the other was that he wanted to get married before his 50th birthday, which was February 8. So I had to hustle.”

Sarkissian’s father, Miran, is Armenian. Her mother, Angela, is Greek; they split time between homes in Athens and Bloomfield Hills. Sarkissian calls herself “Greek lite” compared with the more traditional Orfanoudis. But aside from Sarkissian’s modern-leaning decision to have both her parents walk her down the aisle, and the blessings at the altar from an Armenian archbishop, Khajag Barsamian (who flew to a meeting with the pope at the Vatican just afterward), their wedding was a study in traditional Greek Orthodoxy.

Instead of a best man and a maid of honor, a koumbara and koumbaros (ecclesiastical witnesses) flanked the bride and groom before an altar table set with candles, a cup of wine and marriage crowns, or stefana.

Sarkissian’s cousin Lisa Chicouris, of Chicago was the koumbara. In addition to providing an extra set of hands to hold the bridal bouquet of cala lilies and white roses, her responsibilities included interchanging the rings three times after the Rev. John Vlahos blessed them; the triple interchange refers to the holy trinity and represents the couple’s devotion.

Col. Alex Stathopoulos, a longtime friend of Orfanoudis from Washington, was the koumbaros. He exchanged the crowns three times before Father Vlahos placed them on the heads of the bride and groom to symbolize the couple’s intertwined lives and the joining of their souls.

Most of the service was chanted rather than spoken, though much of the chanting was in English instead of the customary Greek. Adding to the drama of the chanting, which at times took on a deep baritone, was the cathedral’s Byzantine mosaics and religious iconography. In keeping with tradition, neither Sarkissian nor Orfanoudis spoke during the service, not even to utter “I do.” Instead, they were led by Father Vlahos in a ceremonial walk around the wedding table three times, symbolizing the circle of eternity and signifying their first steps as husband and wife.

That, perhaps, was the easiest journey they had taken all day.

When the guests and wedding party filed out of Holy Trinity, the same bus that ferried the 60 late arrivals, as well as the Bentley Sarkissian killed time in, were idling outside, waiting to take everyone to the Yale Club.

Sarkissian’s father settled in near a piano player once there and offered a theory on marriage, and of patience.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for Elena to decide to get married,” Sarkissian said. “But our being anxious was not part of the equation for her. It didn’t matter. Waiting a few extra minutes for her wedding didn’t matter, either. What matters is that she came up with the right person.”

There were two bands and two guest musicians at the Yale Club reception. The New York-based Pete Saunders Band played American classics including the first dance, The Way You Look Tonight, and Yianni Papastefanou, known in the Greek community as the King of Kefi (“‘kefi’ means life of the party,” Sarkissian said), played traditional Greek circle dance songs. Alison Burns, Sarkissian’s childhood friend from Michigan, sang Unforgettable, her parents’ first dance of the evening. And Philip Payton, a violinist with the “Kinky Boots” orchestra on Broadway who is also a friend, serenaded the couple with a solo Bach piece.

Jordan almonds, or koufeta, had a place on the wedding table in addition to the crowns, candle and “common cup” of wine. They are offered to guests at the reception in traditional Greek weddings as a symbol of sweetness, abundance and fertility.




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