It was a good idea at the time.
I write this through the haze of a now two-day-old hangover resulting from consumption, or rather overconsumption, of alcohol. Okay, I have an excuse: my best friend got hitched. I was thrilled to see her marry a great guy. I was arguably more thrilled that my job as maid of honor and ersatz wedding planner was, at long last, done.
As it turns out, planning a unique, conscientious wedding in Princeton is a bit trickier than one might expect. It ought to be mentioned that I have no business anywhere near a wedding, let alone planning one. Somehow, though, I wound up the J-Lo to my best friend’s Bridget Wilson. Well, that doesn’t really work. I would like the record to show that I did NOT wind up with a groom. Maybe I was the anti-J-Lo? Put it this way, no teeth were whitened in preparation for this event. No headsets were worn. Not a yard of tulle was employed. If you are missing the reference to “The Wedding Planner” here, you clearly do not watch enough Saturday afternoon TBS. Get on that.
Now that I can finally take a step back and survey the damage, it occurs to me that it is actually possible to plan and host an entire wedding just by starting on one end of Nassau Street and walking to the other. All of the vendors you need are literally just a side street away if not on Nassau proper. In the interest of full disclosure, we used a few outside vendors, but that was just because we were crunched for time and didn’t have the chance to shop around. So now it makes a tiny bit of sense that I’m writing an article about planning a wedding in Princeton.
Okay, fine, I just wanted an excuse to put on a wedding gown and stand on Nassau Street (see cover). There were no takers, by the way. Here’s how it went down:
2007: Bride-to-be, Alexa Rosenberg — daughter of Lawrenceville residents Leon Rosenberg, a professor in the department of molecular biology at Princeton University, and Diane Drobnis, chief operating officer of Meadowgate Farm Alpacas — meets groom-to-be, Mbegane Diouf, a Senegal native. He works at Wild Oats; she is loyal to the Whole Earth Center. Sparks fly.
March 1, 2009: We’re getting married!
March 2, 2009: To my surprise, an endless stream of E-mails containing links to different wedding gowns bounces between bride-to-be’s inbox and mine. I didn’t expect my best friend to go for the whole white gown thing and, I’m not going to lie, I ate it up. It’s not so much that I love weddings as much as it is that I love dresses, party planning, food, music, and open bars. The title Maid of Honor was a good title for me. Birthday party clown would also be a good title for me. Let’s just say that I tried (and failed) to find a way to incorporate balloons into the decor.
April 1, 2009: A June, 2010, wedding on her parents’ farm in Lawrenceville is the plan. We’ll have a tent, nay, two tents with flooring, lighting, cupcakes from the Bent Spoon, and all the magic of a midsummer evening. We’ll use mason jars for summery beverages and plant flowers instead of buying cut stems. It will be down to earth yet elegant and Main Street will cater. Everyone is on board — bride, groom and parents. Easy peasy!
September 26, 2009: A beautiful, slinky, old Hollywood-style gown is chosen from a tiny, creaky-floored shop in the East Village. Angelo Lambrou’s dresses are custom designs made from luxurious fabrics and are quite reasonably priced as far as wedding gowns go. The moment we set foot in his shop he and his assistant, Laura, achieved the ultimate in retail interactions: they made us feel cool. There was zero pressure to purchase — at most, there was pressure to keep browsing other stores in order to be sure about the decision. We were back by the end of the day armed with a credit card.
Manhattan is hard to compete with when it comes to the greatest selection of gowns, but it wasn’t the opportunity to slip in and out of yards of differently configured organza that sold us on the final choice. The key factor was the shop — Angelo and Laura had the uncanny ability to behave like human beings.
I know! Amazing! At the risk of sounding new age-y, it was their energy that made my usually shopping-shy best friend able to look at herself and see a bride instead of feeling like a 13-year-old playing dress up.
It was a stroke of luck that we visited this shop early in the planning process because they taught me a key lesson: know and genuinely like your vendors. Be willing to have a beer with them. (I later actually did force the florist to have a beer with me, and I’d love to have had five beers with the photographer, but that’s another story.) If you don’t feel comfortable with the person who is dressing you, photographing you, or arranging your tables you will never feel at ease. Instead, you will feel as if you are visiting someone else’s event as the guest of honor and, frankly, that would make anyone uneasy.
Until this past weekend, traveling out of downtown Princeton would have been your only option to find a wedding gown but, thanks to a recent relocation, gowns can be your first stop on Nassau (and will likely be your first stop in planning, too). Thurin Atelier has been hiding on Route 206 among office spaces and car dealerships for the past three years. They have just opened at the corner of Moore and Nassau streets and offer custom designs and the opportunity to work closely with the designer who is downright nice and genuinely unpretentious. This, as it turns out, could be a real advantage if you, like my best friend, are human and every now and then are caught off guard.
November 1, 2009. Ring ring ring goes the cell phone.
“You sound a little serious.”
“I think we may have to rethink the logistics of the wedding.”
We had been patting ourselves on the back for weeks over how agreeable everyone was being, how easy it was to find a dress, and how much time we had to plan and execute this thing. Now, as always is the case, we got our glitch — there’s always a glitch when you’re planning a wedding — and the wedding was to be much sooner. The big-time hustle began. Saturday, February 20, was to be the new date. Two and a half months to invite everyone, decide on a place, hire all the vendors, and try not to kill each other in the process.
Location, location, location, and no, not that location.
Because the bride and groom both live in Washington, D.C. (she is a presidential fellow at the department of Housing and Urban Development, he is a chef at Whole Foods), I was not only maid of honor but also the bride’s proxy as far as Princeton-based decisions went. It ought to be mentioned that this bride was just about the most easygoing bride imaginable. Erase all of the TLC, Style Network, and MTV mini-documentaries from your mind. (You watch those too, right? Oh.) She and her fiance had one request: that the wedding resemble them in some way. That’s about as specific as they got. I knew exactly what they meant. This wedding would not be a hotel.
Let’s clarify something right now. A hotel is an ideal location for a traditional wedding. It was, however, without a shadow of a doubt the wrong location for this wedding. They wanted a space that had its own character as opposed to a blank slate that could house a party. Turns out, such a place is, at best, difficult to find in Princeton. The Arts Council wasn’t big enough, the library is full of books (I know!), so we shifted our focus to restaurants.
While the couple’s desires made perfect sense to me, it was extraordinarily difficult to convey their idea to her parents in terms that made any kind of pragmatic sense. Frankly, I can’t blame them for their skepticism. We knew just what we didn’t want: a wedding pulled from a template complete with hulking centerpieces, garter “flossing” (yes, that’s when the groom removes the bride’s garter with his teeth), and a drunken riot over a tossed bouquet. The goal was to do this without putting on airs. They wanted everyone to dance. They wanted everyone to feel as happy as they felt. It was very hard to explain why these desires meant that the convenience of a hotel/banquet hall wouldn’t be acceptable for this shindig.
Two hundred people were invited, which meant that most restaurants in town wouldn’t do. Though I will say if an in-town, intimate, indoor wedding is your thing, then holy moly do you have options. Look at a restaurant you love with an eye for renting it out: Mediterra is a gorgeous space, Theresa’s is tiny but could be great for an intimate affair, Witherspoon Grill has great character and Eno Terra is a lovely, earthy space that is elegant and warm at the same time (it is also probably the largest capacity of the aforementioned.) Oh, and I would run over someone to rent out One53 in Rocky Hill for the evening. That’s more of a rehearsal dinner-sized space but, well, you get the picture; I love that place.
The idea here is to pick a space you love and that already has an element of style to it. It cuts down costs later with decor, and you will feel instantly comfortable when you walk through the door. Most restaurants will offer a buyout and provide dinner, drinks, and service for the entire evening. It ain’t cheap, but it also isn’t too much more expensive than hiring a caterer, renting tables, erecting tents, hiring staff, buying booze, and then waking up the next morning to a trashed backyard and no one to clean it.
The mother of the bride and I had a number of delicious lunches in search of the perfect spot but couldn’t find a restaurant that seemed quite big enough. We were running out of ideas and frustrations were starting to take over the process. That’s when the fondant really hit the fan. And, if you are planning a wedding, trust me, something will hit some fan at some point. I promise.
We looked at the Chauncey Hotel and Conference Center on the campus of Educational Testing Services on Carter Road. Here’s what the mother of the bride loved: Everything. Here’s what I loved: Nothing. The place was a conference center.
To be fair, I withheld any judgment (really, I did!) and made an appointment with the wedding coordinator to take a peek. Everything would be done for us: the ceremony would be downstairs just next to the lobby, the upstairs dining space would provide dinner and, of course, the guests could all stay on the property. It was a one-stop shop. No real need for decor as the vaulted ceilings and massive windows made a statement all on their own and would dwarf anything we could bring in anyway. The building was designed with an eye on the natural world and has large windows, wood beam ceilings and a terrace off of almost every guest room. In addition, it is located on an admittedly beautiful swath of land complete with a pond, weeping willows and, for your convenience, Educational Testing Services a stone’s throw away. You know, just in case you need a refresher on how to handle a number two pencil.
So, you see, I concede that the Chauncey Center has a certain unique appeal as far as hotels go. It wasn’t a Hyatt. This appeal did not, however, override the fact that it was, well, a hotel. It was the dreaded “wedding factory.” Put it this way: the dining room is fully carpeted. To the bride’s parents, it was a lovely space that provided convenience while still being unique and, most importantly, there was nothing to raise an eyebrow at. To the bride and me, it felt outdated and well, just not right. Wedding central, we have a problem.
There will be blood.
This brings me to an important lesson that might just help with your blood pressure as you plan your event. (I’m confident that everyone reading this article is, in fact, currently planning a wedding. Who isn’t?) There will be blood if there is not compromise. Unless you are funding this thing all on your own, you’re going to have to trust me on this. We love to tell ourselves that weddings are all about the bride. Yes, a lot of attention is rightfully directed to her. I mean, she is wearing the most expensive outfit in the room, but it’s a little antiquated to say that she is somehow the most important element. We’re not exchanging women as currency anymore, so we can shift our focus a little, can’t we?
Here’s what I learned: a wedding is many things. A wedding is an expression of the bride and groom, it is a joining of two families, it is a gathering of friends and relatives from near and far and, when done at all traditionally, it is a really, really freaking expensive party. If parents are, indeed, hosting the event (aka, the purse strings) then no matter how modern and untraditional you think your sources of DNA are, you will smack into one another with a difference of opinion at some point. Take a deep breath, and choose your battles wisely.
The bride and groom didn’t care remotely about having a wedding cake. To them, it was just an extra expense and a silly tradition. We had planned for cupcakes from the Bent Spoon originally. With so much of the wedding having changed, though, it became very important to the bride’s mother that we have a traditional cake. Instead of a battle of wills, Chez Alice become one of our stops just off Nassau Street on Palmer Square. It didn’t hurt anyone to have the option of cake, and it was one less thing to negotiate. Little bits of compromise go a long way toward making people you love feel included.
Oh, right, we still have no location. Thanks for reminding me.
By the time Thanksgiving had come and gone we were in a rather frantic race to find a venue. I suggested (and loved) the Prallsville Mill in Stockton. It was unavailable. Team Parents countered with the Hollyhedge Estate in New Hope, PA. Closer, but still a wedding factory. I began literally driving around the area looking for cool buildings that might make a unique space for a wedding.
I stumbled upon Hopewell Valley Vineyards and thought I had really hit on something. Though there was just a whisper of Olive Garden decor, it had huge potential, and the manager happened to be a friend of the bride and groom. Parents didn’t go for it. Sigh. An old factory in Trenton was explored. Too much work needed to make it hospitable in the cold.
And then, one day, the bride (who isn’t much of a drinker to begin with and is marrying a man who has never been a drinker) said to me, “What about Triumph? Isn’t that big enough?” Triumph? Really? Really.
It was settled. The ceremony would be at Prospect House on the university campus — we had an in since Alexa’s father, Leon Rosenberg, is a professor at the university — and the guests would then walk over to Triumph for dinner and dancing. It was kind of the ultimate compromise. Team Parents got something rather traditional and elegant, and Team Modern Wedding got something edgy with a lot of space to dance. PHEW. So, we’re done, right? Um, no.
Got flowers? I met with Eric Roberts at Jardiniere (on Nassau Street, just across the street from Thurin Atelier) one snowy afternoon in January, and I knew only one thing for certain: I needed a florist to pull off a wedding with no flowers. Yes, that’s right. No flowers. The bride just wasn’t into the idea of shipping blooms from far and wide to adorn her wedding for one night.
I asked him to build me a tree for Triumph. He looked right at me, and instead of protesting or trying to change my mind, he walked over to the window, picked up a branch and said, “oh, you mean something like this, but bigger?” “Yes!” I got the idea from David Birkett, the architecture teacher at Princeton Day School; it was supposed to have been a real, potted tree but the ground was frozen so we had to improvise.
We decided to decorate both Prospect House and Triumph with paper lanterns. Eric built a beautiful chuppa for the ceremony and used moss and curly willow along with white and ivory lanterns at Prospect House. Triumph was to be an explosion of color with huge orange, blue, and pink lanterns hanging from both the “tree” Eric would create to set on the bar and from all the railings
I ordered beautiful paper lanterns from lunabaazar.com and spent a fraction of what I could have spent on the amount of flowers it would have taken to have had an impact in such a large space. Not once did Eric try to up-sell me or express dismay at our relatively modest budget. Again, know and like your vendors.
The next task was meeting with the man who would become known as “the other Eric,”Eric Nutt, sales and marketing manager at Triumph. Frankly, I was worried he wouldn’t be cool. It seemed like it was about time for our luck to run out, and there’s always an air of control freakishness that takes over people who are working on a wedding. My worries were unfounded. He was flexible, relaxed, and ready to help with anything we wanted. Double Phew — pH-balanced just for the anti-J Lo. Triumph had lots of options to offer — two private rooms for 20 to 70 guests; the entire upstairs for up to 140 guests; or the entire restuarant for over 140 guests. Well, we were at 200 so that was a no-brainer. It’s true, taking over the space is “more flexibly priced” on a Sunday afternoon, for example, but we really wanted a Saturday night.
About six weeks before the wedding the bride called to see if we should do programs, something she had initially decided against. “Just something short and simple?” We had gone through an online source to do the invitations simply because it was so much easier to send ideas back and forth from a distance if we were shopping online, and I had been planning on making the escort cards and place cards myself (though I admittedly had no clue how I was going to execute such a project as I have historically had trouble with tasks like coloring inside the lines).
Reluctantly, I visited Joy Cards at 6 Chambers Street (I’m still on my Nassau Street and just off Nassau Street plan). I am going to admit right now that I am the enemy of small, local shops. I know. Strike me dead. It’s not because I have anything against them, it’s more that I dissolve into a state of panic if I go in, poke around, and find nothing to buy. I’d rather just avoid them than risk disappointing anyone if I don’t actually buy something. I have no excuse except for being a little insane
Lucky for me, I swallowed my insanity and stepped inside. Joy Chen may as well have had a halo floating above her head as she calmly emerged from behind a shelf of brightly colored papers and asked if she could help. I admitted I was there to steal ideas and get a price point on potential work. I nervously spewed a bunch of dates and aesthetic preferences at her and told her I was trying to save money by doing a lot of this stuff myself. She ignored the beads of sweat running down my forehead and calmly asked if I had ever been to Paper Source. (Visions of “Miracle on 34th Street” danced in my head: it’s Macy’s sending customers to Gimbel’s!)
I had never even noticed Paper Source, likely because it is next to Iano’s Pizza (which will always be Victor’s to me), which is just about the most distracting thing on the planet to this wedding planner. Paper Source, as it turns out, is sort of like an edgy, witty arts and crafts store. You will find something you must have everywhere you turn. Trust me. (My college roommate, a totally sane woman, who helped pull off the final preparations, left one excursion to Paper Source with a pencil sharpener shaped like a nose. You need one, too, you just don’t realize it.)
Here’s how Paper Source works: in addition to scads of pre-made cards, wrapping paper, and pencil sharpeners shaped like anatomy, they have a room in the back of the store that contains everything you need for a pretty simple DIY wedding project. Organized by color, the shelves are stocked with blank cards, tri-folds, table tents, envelopes, and anything else you never imagined you would need until you decided to plan your best friend’s wedding. Karen Kucowski, the manager, guided me through options, helped me pick a design, and taught me how, with a little time and effort, I could make some pretty awesome- looking stuff for this fiesta. Huzzah for Paper Source! (They, by the way, are a national chain, though they really, really don’t look like one. Visit www.paper-source.com.)
I could do it all myself! No problemo! About three weeks before the wedding, the bride sent me a pamphlet outlining Jewish wedding traditions. This pamphlet was to be the “short and simple” program. I put on extra deodorant and went back to Joy Cards. She listened carefully, came up with great idea, and was willing to skip a few steps in order to let me finish the programs myself and save some money. I would stamp the covers and tie ribbons and she would do the rest. She would also do them in a huge rush. They were stunningly beautiful. And I was really happy that I could actually buy something from her.
We were down the home stretch. Valentine’s weekend was spent ever so ironically with my college roommate/recruited right-hand gal, alphabetizing, embossing, and tying. I have to say; we did a damn good job. So did the wine.
Wait, I have to wear a dress too? After Christmas, I went with my brother of all people and pilfered the sale racks. I’m proud to say I found a $450 Diane von Furstenberg marked down to $160. The only criteria was that it be a bright color, and since we had used fuschia in the invitations, I chose that for the dress — and for the wedding programs.
As the weekend of the wedding loomed on the horizon it seemed, inexplicably, that everything was in place. Relatives began to arrive, the marriage license was picked up, the rehearsal dinner went off without a hitch and, by some stroke of unimaginable luck, Saturday was the first sunny day in weeks. Okay, one hitch: I realized on Friday that my dress needed alternation. It’s a long story that I have only one thing to say about: oops.
There is also only one solution to such a mistake: Mrs. Lee at Rocky Hill Cleaners. Let’s put it this way, I almost got in a fight with her trying to make her charge me more than she wanted to, what with the rush work and everything — she would have none of it — and less than 24 hours later, my dress fit perfectly. She is a genius.
With all dresses accounted for, the first official job on Saturday fell to Theresa Eun of Cosmo Bleu Salon (again, Nassau Street!) who arrived at the house at noon with everything she needed to do a whole mess of hair — the bride, her sister, the flower girl (the bride’s niece), and me. There had never been any doubt that she would do the girly stuff for us. She’s known us since La Jolie cut a fashion mullet onto my poor teenaged head in 1998. Remember the gigantic photo of the little boy standing in a horse stall with two girls in the window of La Jolie? Yeah. That little boy was me. Theresa found a way to fix that mullet as it grew out, thus gaining lifetime loyalty from this little boy.
Next to arrive were the photographers. Jordan Matter (jordanmatter.com), a New York City import, did my headshots back when I was doing whatever it is one needs headshots for, and all I could remember was that he was a blast to be around, and I looked damned sexy in the resulting photos. Again, know and like your vendors. I knew that I liked him. He brought an equally charming assistant, Jeremy Saladyga, and they instantly became part of the fun. Arguably, they brought the fun. However, since we’re trying to stay local in this story, I recommend Sybil Holland, who has a great energy and wonderful eye. You can see her work at sybilholland.com and at the upcoming Mercer Oaks Wedding Expo on Sunday, March 21.
The dresses were on, my sidekick college roommate was in place at Prospect House making sure everything was going smoothly, and it was time to wed. I had hired a group of student musicians from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North (thanks, U.S. 1 anniversary party, for the tip) to play for the ceremony and the cocktail reception. Under the direction of John Enz, the group plays for an incredibly modest fee which, happily, goes to a fund to send them on off on various trips to compete. We had a nonet (that’s nine fabulous musicians) for four hours and not only did we pay a fraction of what a comparable ensemble would have charged, it was really neat to have some pretty awesome teenagers contributing to the event.
The rest of the evening became a blur — mostly because I cried though a lot of it. Triumph was extraordinarily hospitable; a friend and I were even given a really awesome impromptu tour of the inner workings of the brewery by Doug, the head honcho. “The other Eric” was there making sure everything went smoothly and, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a hiccup in the entire evening. They even let a drunken maid of honor force a few bartenders onto the dance floor in the wee hours. (Sorry, guys!)
I never got to see the cake, though I hear it came out beautifully and sat at the back of the bar under a light surrounded by other desserts provided by Triumph. The bride actually didn’t care much about the cake because she is allergic to gluten. I hear it (and the brownies) were delicious, but since we didn’t do a formal cutting I missed it all. (I did get a taste the next morning, and it was delicious.) We boarded the last shuttle for the Hyatt around 2 a.m. and persuaded the driver to stop at Hoagie Haven (yes, Nassau Street!) on the way. Okay, we paid him to stop there.
Sunday morning found a few lingering relatives but, for the most part, everything and everyone had disappeared. Those who had contributed and collaborated had vanished, and the event we been working toward for three tough months had instantly become a memory. Here’s where the most important point comes in — and this is where my dear friends got it right from the very beginning: no matter what happens, have fun. Enjoy the people who love you. Details and special touches are lovely but no detail should be more important than what’s really going on. Be flexible. Be happy. You’re getting married!
Alright, enough sappy stuff. I’m going to the Ivy.
For More Planning Tips:
Mercer Oaks Wedding Showcase, Sunday, March 21, 1 to 4 p.m., 725 Village Road West, West Windsor. Full cocktail reception, couture fashion show, musical entertainment, expert wedding professionals, and giveaways. Co-presented with the Bridal Suite of Hamilton. Free. 609-275-9260.
Nassau Inn’s Annual Bridal Show, Sunday, Apri 18, 1 to 3:30 p.m. Bridal exhibits, door prizes, special offers, hair and makeup demonstrations, floral arrangements, table displays, and bouquets. Hors d’oeuvres and wedding cake provided by the Nassau Inn and Chez Alice. Free. 609-688-2639.