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A Traditional Wedding Brings The Polish Highlands To Chicago

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Last weekend, a quiet block on the northwest side of Chicago appeared to be taken over by villagers from the mountains of southern Poland. That's because a Polish Highlander wedding was getting underway. But even before the couple arrived, there was a lot of pomp, circumstance — and moving of cars.

Any time now the bridal party will be arriving and Andy Zieba — father of the bride — is ringing doorbells, asking neighbors if they can please move their cars.

"Excuse me, ma'am? You don't know who's the Honda belong to?" he asks.

The anxious father needs to make room because five wooden carriages and 12 horses are headed to this block of modest frame bungalows. And one of the carriages is bringing the band.

Andy Zieba and his wife, Stella, are Górale — Highlanders who grew up in the southern, mountainous region of Poland. Some aspects of this wedding celebration will be traditional Polish, other aspects will be specific to Highlanders.

"I was born in a village," Andy Zieba says. "The name is Koniowka — a small village, not big village. Like 150 people."

When Zieba was a boy, food preparation could start days before a wedding.

"Kill the pig, you know, then make a sausage. Everything, everything. The cooking in the home. They don't have a banquet hall at that time," he says.

Life was tough back then and a wedding was a great occasion to kick back and enjoy life. The celebration could last for as long as three days, with hundreds of people coming from near and far.

About 500 guests will attend this two-day wedding.

The guests aren't all here yet, but two men with black hats and broad, colorful sashes draped across their chests have ridden their horses right up to the bottom step of the Ziebas' front porch.

These are the Pytace. In the old days, they'd ride from house to house, spreading the word that a marriage was about to take place. But today their role is more ceremonial. Meanwhile, the band is crammed into the kitchen, where they're singing in strictly Highlander dialect. And Stella Zieba, the mother of the bride, is a blur of motion, demanding that guests taste the Polish sandwiches.

This hustle and bustle is just a prelude for a tradition almost as significant as the marriage ceremony itself — the blessing from the parents.

"Well, they might tell them how much they love them and how much they're going to miss them, and wish them the best of luck — and just the best of everything," says Jessica Kulawiak, cousin to the bride. She's jockeying for position, as the big moment arrives.

As guests are asked to silence their phones, the couple, now in place, kneels before their parents, who each murmur a private blessing.

Then, a Highlander musician steps forward with his own prayer.

After the blessing, it's time for church. The bride loads into one carriage with her family, and the groom's entourage into another.

There are fewer than a dozen of these full-tilt Highlander weddings in Chicago each year. So, it's no wonder that neighbors like Elvis Delgado and Diane McMahon are gathered on their front lawns, cameras in hand.

"It's like we're all in the wedding," Delgado says.

"It's beautiful, it's magnificent," says McMahon. "And we've known these kids since they were little girls, so it's even better to see them grown up and getting married."

The carriages pull off, horses clopping, down the street.

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