Romance Against the Odds | Travel | Smithsonian

Romance Against the Odds

Where marriage is a form of defiance and matchmaking is a game of chance

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Would you attend Europe's biggest singles event? Image courtesy of Flickr user cle0patra

They say that love makes the world go round. I don‘t know if that‘s true, but you sure do find it in surprising places.

For instance, in 1999 when NATO began bombing Belgrade to stop Serbian aggression in Kosovo, the capital rose up in an unusual act of defiance by organizing a mass wedding.

The ensuing years brought peace to Serbia, but that didn’t call a halt to the mass nuptials, now an annual May occasion. Sightseeing in Belgrade a few years ago, I emerged from my hotel to find the wedding procession underway with over 100 couples headed down Prince Mihailo Street on foot and in old-fashioned, horse-drawn carriages to tie the knot at City Hall—some having decided to marry precipitously so they could take part in the celebration. Extended families, witnesses, ring-bearers and flower girls paraded with them. And every bride wore a fancy white gown, though I hoped an ambulance was standing by because bulging stomachs made it abundantly apparent that they weren’t all maidens.

Somewhat more romantic is the Matchmaking Festival held every September in Lisdoonvarna, a village in western Ireland. It grew up the 19th century when local matchmakers gained renown for their skills in marriage arrangement. Women came to the little spa town near the confluence of the Aille and Gowlaun Rivers to take the waters, purportedly a cure for boils, abscesses and rheumatism. In autumn, with the hay in and the turf cut, bachelor-farmers joined them from lonesome country cottages where a woman‘s touch was desperately needed.

There were always more men than women, according to Willie Daly, the last remaining official matchmaker in the county. “All the men are left because all the women have gone off to Dublin or London or America,” he told me. “They’re good-looking, but a little shy. Some of them haven’t put their arms around a woman since their mother died.”

Internet dating sites have lately taken the place of matchmakers. But the festival persists, attracting thousands every year to what is billed as the biggest single’s event in Europe with plenty of Irish music and whisky to make sparks fly.

Another recipe for romance comes from Alaska, where unmarried guys proliferate, originally drawn by construction of the 800-mile oil pipeline in the 1970‘s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 114 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women in America‘s 49th state, way above average.

The statistics weren‘t lost on Susie Carter, who started setting up unattached male friends with women on a casual basis. The need turned out to be so pressing that she launched AlaskaMen magazine, followed by a website, which features candidates with pictures and box numbers so that interested women can write them. To keep things honest, Carter requires the men to inform her when they find matches and updates the list once they’re taken.

It would be just another dating service were it not for the geographical focus. If you’ve ever been to Alaska, you know what I mean. Whales and grizzlies aren’t the only hunks in the Last Frontier. Think fishermen, lumberjacks, dogsled drivers, backcountry homesteaders; even lawyers and accountants have bulging biceps. But a few jaded Alaskan women offered this caveat: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

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