Street Life Samotechny Lane, Moscow: For teenaged Russians, love conquers all

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OVER THE years, some of the children of Samotechny Lane have come to call me Tyotya Lena or Aunt Helen.

One boy, Dima, whom I have known since he was 10, is 19 now And in the army. He has been going out with a girl called Tanya, one year his junior. The other week they invited me to their wedding.

I was touched, and at the same time uncertain; I knew the wedding was likely to be a tense affair as Dima's parents had recently been involved in a bitter divorce. But he said he wanted me to be there, so I accepted.

There is a popular Russian folk song in which a young girl begs her mother to wait awhile before sewing her a red dress - in other words to delay a little longer before giving her away in marriage.

Most Russians still marry at what seems a terribly early age. Partly, this is because of the housing shortage. Young people simply do not have anywhere to have sex, so they marry to be able to sleep with each other under their parents' roofs.

Separately, both Dima's mother and father had advised him not to rush into marrying Tanya. Her parents had told her the same thing. This was another source of tension but the young people said they loved each other.

The ceremony was set for 3.30pm but Dima and Tanya, being inexperienced, had not known that the first thing a marrying couple must do when they arrive at the office is to hand over their passports for registration. They had waited shyly on the pavement while other couples in the queue had overtaken them. Their wedding was reset for 5.30pm.

At last, Mendelssohn's Wedding March sounded for Dima and Tanya and they made their vows before the registrar, who managed to put remarkable feeling into words she pronounces over and over each day.

Afterwards, we repaired to Tanya's grandmother's for the reception. Tanya's grandma is one of the hero babushki of Russia. In a one-room flat in the suburb of Pechatniki, she had managed to put together a spread for 30 guests. We were packed in like sardines for the feast of red fish and Russian salads, drenched in mayonnaise and washed down with vodka.

First, though, two traditions had to be observed. Tanya's mother had to welcome the newlyweds with bread and salt, the symbols of hospitality. Mum stood at the door of the flat, thinking the couple would come up, while Dima and Tanya waited outside at the entrance to the building. Finally, Mum descended in one lift while, in the other, the couple rode up to the 12th floor. For a quarter of an hour, the bread and salt in one lift and the meringue and liquorice in the other kept going up and down and missing each other.

After that, the guests all had to shout "gorko, gorko" (it is bitter) to encourage the pair to sweeten the occasion by kissing. Then we could all attack the food. Dima's parents were put at opposite ends of the table where they could not do much damage to each other or spoil the fun. One after another, those who had made messes of their own marriages stood up and gave toasts that amounted to moral lectures. When it was my inescapable turn to speak, I just said: "Dima and Tanya, you're very brave. I wish you luck."

Four days after the wedding, Dima had to go back to the army. Tanya must now wait for him for another year and a half. If the adults stop nagging them, maybe they will find a way to survive.