On the eve of my birthday, as I am about to turn 32, I have come to think about one subject that flattered my mind for a while now: MARRIAGE.
When I went back home for my yearly vacation, a friend of mine told me what my geography teacher said about me: “Oh, poor Natalia… She was such a good student…”
This ascertainment came in the context of a discussion about marriage and it was said in a way that I kind of failed in life because I am not married yet. Not sure what marriage has to do with being an excellent student, but I certainly did not expect this comment from my geography teacher.
I thought about her so many times in all these traveling years… I thought about her classes when she was pointing on that big world map hanged on the chalkboard in front of the classroom; countries and mountains and rivers and seas that I did not even dare to dream to cross, even in my wildest dreams… I thought she would be so proud of me. She would be proud that the little girl from a small Eastern European village, managed to travel the world. She was not.
This was like a slap in my face. At that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder, just like Carrie Bradshaw: are marriage and traveling, units of measurement for success in life?
Before we dive deep into the analysis of this rather rhetorical question, I would like to explore a bit of the cultural differences about the marriage concept between Western and Eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe concept about marriage.
Marriage is EVERYTHING! In Eastern Europe, we live by the concept “Build a house, plant a tree, have a child.” If you are not married, people look at you as a half person. Despite your successful career, despite if you are content with your life… You are not whole! You need someone, the other half, to make you whole. You need to have kids. Better divorced with a child, than never been married. At least you have the kid.
As a consequence of this belief, the age of getting married in Eastern Europe is very early, usually around 22 for the women and 26 for men. I wasn’t surprised when my country appeared to be the first in the statistics of worldatlas.com and Wikipedia when it comes to average age at first marriage in Europe, amongst Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.
“You have to get married when you are young and stupid because if you cross 30 it will be almost impossible to get married (you are smarter and look at life with different eyes)” – I hear it whenever I go home.
After I crossed 30, my relatives stopped asking me if I have someone since I crossed the acceptable age to get married, I’ve seen the world already and my standards are too high. Basically, I am doomed.
Why is getting married so vital in Eastern Europe?
I guess the importance of marriage in Eastern Europe stems from two things:
1. We are mostly poor countries.
It’s a well-known fact that people from poor countries get married at a much younger age. I suppose this comes from the fact that building a decent life would be much easier when you are together. It’s teamwork. Therefore the necessity of marriage is dictated by some sort of economic and social reasons.
2. Family is the most important thing in life.
This is no news either. If you look at the interviews of the celebrities or rich people they all confirm that beyond fame and money, family is what matters the most to them.
I deeply appreciate this part of my culture. I find that, in comparison to Western Europe, families in Eastern Europe are much more united, more emotionally attached, more valued. We gather for lunch and dinners, we visit our grandparents and siblings; we take care of our old parents. And this is so comforting because no matter what you do in life, or who you are as an individual, you will always come back to your family, where you are forever loved and appreciated.
I observe this even on my flights. Russian families always travel with kids and grandmothers who adore taking care of their nephews and nieces. I rarely see this on Western European flights. I also noticed that they are a bit colder when it comes to family ties. They don’t talk to their parents that often as we do. Also, the rate of divorce is much higher in Western Europe. Perhaps, in Eastern Europe the families last longer because “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
Western Europe concept about marriage.
It’s a bit more difficult to speak about marriage in Western Europe since I am not from there, so the following analysis will be based purely on my observations as a traveler and as an habitant of a cosmopolitan city.
According to the websites mentioned above, the first age of getting married in Western Europe for women would be around 30-31 and men around 33-34. In fact, nowadays more and more people opt for partnerships instead of tying the knot. More and more couples choose not to have kids and to live life for themselves. Here come the insatiable travelers and pursuers of hobbies.
I see that people in Western Europe have a richer life in terms of traveling and hobbies. They are sportier, they afford to go to restaurants, they live longer. Family is also important here, but not to the extent given in Eastern Europe. It’s not paramount. Or at least, it doesn’t appear so from my observations.
I feel that people from Western Europe value life from the perspective of experiences, rather than following “the marriage plan”. Therefore they travel much more, they like to explore. They want to learn about the world and different cultures.
Eastern Europeans, have a different style of traveling. They go for all-inclusive packages, preferring to stay in 4-star hotels and chill by the beach. Maybe, do one excursion or two…
I have noticed this reality when I was in Egypt. I did a Nile cruise there in March, that stops at various temples. God, how much I learned about ancient history! What struck me, was that out of all the tourists there, I haven’t seen even one single Russian or other Eastern European country representatives. And the paradox is, that Egypt is one of the top destinations to travel to for people from Moldova and other countries alike. Well, I quickly realized where my people were – chilling on the beaches of Sharm-El-Shiekh and Hurghada. I am not sure whether it’s the language barrier or simply because they travel once or twice a year and the last thing they would want to do, is to learn about temples and pharaohs.
What I know is, traveling is not something that people from my country strive for, although they might dream about it in a way or another. Still, they would rather invest their money in houses, changing fences, big weddings, and other material things.
My concept about marriage.
I grew up in a family where my father always criticized the way our nation, spends money. My Mom called him a Jewish. And still calls him like that. He is very careful with his money. We don’t have two houses, as it’s common in Moldova: a big house, where no one lives (usually for guests and special occasions) and a small house, where the family usually squeezes in two rooms. The trend is changing now, but still, I’m talking from the perspective of general culture.
My father liked and valued travel. Every summer he used to take us to the sea in Ukraine or Romania. Very few people afforded to travel like us from my village, so I was kind of privileged. Little did I know at that time, that one day, I would travel THE world.
When I got this job, my father was so proud of me. I guess in Europe or the US, parents would be disappointed if their child decides to become a flight attendant, but for us, people from third-world countries who don’t even dream do travel, it was such a big achievement.
Or… Maybe not? Time flies, and 7 years later I’m still flying. Not married yet and no family. The big achievement of traveling the world faded remarkably on the background of being single.
My relatives stopped asking me about “anything new in my life” since they lost hope for me. “She changed her views after traveling, she is over 30 and it’s going to be really hard from now on for her to find someone. Yes, it’s nice, that she traveled the world, but she is single. When will she have kids?” – I read in their eyes.
It’s true. I have changed. This job opened the world for me. This job shook my concepts about life and the way we are supposed to live it. Do we have to find the one and get married to be happy? Do we need to have children to validate our existence? Do we have to travel the world to feel accomplished? Or will a successful career make us feel worthy?
And as I no longer live by the proverb: “Build a house, plant a tree, have a child…” I would still love to have a family. I look at my friends back home and I love the sense of security they have in their little families, their stable lives; the unconditional love, and the gatherings with the relatives. But then I look at me and I am proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. Maybe I am not a successful lawyer as I was supposed to be according to my degree, but there is rarely a dull moment in my job. Maybe I don’t have a family, but I’m only 30 and I’ve already seen half of the world. Maybe…I will never have one because I don’t know where life will take me, but will that make me a poor thing?
Getting married, with the probability of becoming an obsolete institution in the modern world, is still the most important decision people make in their lives. So I want to be sure of my choice. I don’t want to rush because my eggs are getting old. I don’t want to feel pressured by the social norms, norms that humanity invented itself.
I understand where the words of my geography teacher come from given our culture, and as much as I was surprised and felt judged, I am not upset or bothered. I feel I’ve lived a life so rich by now, so full of experiences and memories, and encounters. I feel that the world is so big and has so much to offer. Family is everything and it is not. I’ve seen people sacrificing dreams for family, having kids too early and not being able to travel as they would like to and if they had a chance to go back in time they would prefer to live a bit for themselves first, before getting married.
Of course, ideally would be nice to have it all, but if you can’t, make the most of what you have now, be it marriage, career or traveling.
After all… there is no script on how one is supposed to live life to feel successful. Success is relative. And then, there is a dosage of destiny and magic in our lives that we cannot control.
So this is what I am doing now, making the most of my travels. I would love to have a family one day, but this is hardly in my control. This is the part where destiny and magic comes.
Do I have to feel unhappy because I am single? Do I have to have a full agenda of Tinder dates to be that exception that got married out of an online date? Do I have to waste my life waiting for something uncertain? Definitely not. I prefer to live in the present moment and to embrace what I have NOW. I know, once I have a family there will be other priorities and I won’t be able to do what I am doing now. At least not to such extent.
Life is beautiful and the world is big. Be flexible and explore what it has to offer, without obsessing about what people think. Establish your OWN units of measurement for success and do what makes you happy.
I am very happy with my success for the time being. What about you? What units of measurements do you use to define your success?
P.S. I still believe people shouldn’t get married until 30. Better strive to know who you are rather than who to marry… This will come without searching. Without waiting…