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Real bride: Why I decided to elope

Real bride and groom Jo and Ben decided a big white wedding wasn't their cup of tea. So they packed their bags and eloped with an intimate ceremony in Italy.

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Just because a wedding is tiny doesn’t mean it can’t be spectacular, argues author Jo Usmar…

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“Will you two ever get married?” “Ooh, not married yet, huh?” “Still waiting for a miracle are you, love?”

The longer my boyfriend Ben and I were together (clocking on for ten years), the ruder the questions would get – and the more adamant I’d feel that marriage was nobody’s business but ours.

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Yes, I believed in the emotional and legal security that comes with getting hitched. But what I couldn’t get my head around was the expectation, pressure, organisation, politics and drama (not to mention eye-watering sums of money) it seemed to involve. It blew my tiny petrified mind.

That’s not to say I didn’t relish a big wedding. The drinking! The dancing! The food! The drinking again! But that enjoyment was wholly dependent on my being a guest, not the main event. With the average wedding taking 250 hours to plan and costing over £20,000, Ben and I couldn’t even begin to think about it. The conversation never got off the ground. It simply wasn’t for us. The idea of declaring our love for each other in front of everyone we knew brought on cold sweats. And cold sweats are gross.

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So, as we saw it, our only options would be to either never get married…or to elope.

Our talk about it went something like this: “Imagine: you, me, some fizz and a couple of great big bloody steaks. And that’s it.” “But we couldn’t actually, could we?” “I don’t know. Could we?” “Well, maybe.” “Actually, why not?”

And the ‘why not?’ struck the loudest chord. No one could accuse us of suffering from a dose of the whirlwinds seeing as we’d been together for a decade. And, anyone who knew us – really knew us – would accept that this was the only way we could do it. I’d totally understand if folk got upset about missing out on a big shindig, but we were never going to have a big shindig. They’d be upset about an imaginary event happening sometime in the made-up future. Given that, they’d have to concede we’d had the best wedding for us. Right? RIGHT? 

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Decision made, we set about planning. First up, we decided it had to be kept absolutely secret. We wouldn’t officially get engaged because that would open a big can of confetti-worms. As soon as you climb aboard the public wedding train, you can’t get off without people getting sad or furious. People can feel very possessive and entitled around weddings – that they’re somehow owed a chance to buy a new hat. Announcing you’re engaged, getting everyone excited, allowing them to browse the John Lewis hat selection, and then running away is a recipe for disaster. So we kept schtum.

Next – where should we go? Turns out there aren’t that many places where you can legally get hitched in Europe as a foreigner. Many people get married in the UK first and have blessings in other countries, but for us it had to be legal. What would be the point in having two secret weddings?

We settled on Puglia, Italy. You can legally get married in Italy as a UK citizen (unlike in Spain or France) and it’s one of the most beautiful, unspoiled spots in the Med.

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Then we found a wedding planner. Yes, really. We had no idea what we were doing and a wedding planner screamed “stress-free!” – our mantra throughout. We discovered Anna Calzolaio via her website. She ticked all our boxes: she was Italian but based in the UK, one of the loveliest people ever and specialised in Puglia-based weddings. Best of all though, she totally ‘got’ what we were doing. While she usually works on much bigger weddings, she loved the romance of an elopement. She helped with the paperwork, suggested a gorgeous laid-back boutique hotel for us to stay in, a seventeenth century palace-turned-Town Hall for the ceremony, a local interpreter (a legal requirement) and a brilliant restaurant to end the night in.

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She also found us the perfect photographer: Francesco Gravina. We wanted a brilliant snapper because hey, if we weren’t inviting anyone the least we could do was provide amazing pictures. Francesco was not only charming, sweet and insanely talented, but he loved the bravado and uniqueness of our plan. He also took our kind of pictures: natural and beautiful, but with a sense of fun.

With everything in place and a month to go I had my first and only freak-out. While trying on my wedding dress – alone – I suddenly realised that this was a big deal. A really big deal. Did we honestly want to do this on our tods? What about witnesses – would we really pick some Italian dudes off the street to watch us say ‘I do’? I spoke to Ben and he agreed we should ask my sister and her husband to come with us. They were totally chuffed and agreed to keep quiet.

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The four of us travelled to Italy in May having told everyone we were off on holiday (wedging a wedding dress in an overhead locker of a budget airline and screaming whenever anyone went near it was as fun for me as it was for all the other passengers).

The day itself was blissful, 30 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. We spent the morning sipping champagne in the pool before getting ready. Francesco and his assistant, Andrea Antohi, arrived, upping the numbers in our party by a third. Then we headed to Martina Franca Town Hall. A magical place with peeling frescos on the walls, gorgeous grand ceilings and a real sense of history.

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It was when the councillor who married us became quite emotional, saying she’d never officiated such a small wedding that was just about “two people in love” that I had a little cry. It so perfectly captured how we felt. That this was about us and our relationship, not where to sit Gropey Uncle Ed or who was picking up Long-Lost Cousin Sue on the way to the ceremony.

When we walked through the whitewashed-walled streets the locals all shouted, “Auguri, auguri!” (congrats) and applauded. Some even wanted to have their pictures taken with us. And when we entered the restaurant the other customers gave us a standing ovation. The whole day was utterly wonderful. So intimate, so personal, so relaxed, so perfect.

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And then we came home…

And everyone, without exception, was…thrilled for us. Surprised, sure, but happy. Some were sad they hadn’t been there, but they understood why. And the fact we decided to throw a huge party afterwards definitely softened the blow. People called us ‘brave’ like we’d broken a big taboo, but many more contacted me quietly to ask how we’d done it and whether I thought they could do it too. “Yes!” I bellowed (over email). A tiny wedding can be just as spectacular as a big one. We’d do it all over again if we could. In secret, of course.

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You can find more of Jo’s writing and info on her books at www.jousmar.com