GRUDE E RE, Dec 1 – "I love you’s" scribbled on their hands in a language they don’t understand, Vidan and Djana pledge themselves in marriage and commit to a new life together.
Never mind their nations’ history of conflict and suspicion, or the 18-year age gap, Vidan Mitrovic’s long search for a bride has taken him from a hamlet in southwest Serbia across the border to northern Albania.
Their countries, ethnically and religiously poles apart, have sparred for generations, notably over Kosovo, and suspicions still linger.
Now, shy and blushing with the emotion of the occasion, 24-year-old Djana Isufi is preparing to leave her home in the Albanian village of Grude e Re.
Vidan, 42, takes her hand and writes "I love you" in pen on it in the only words of Albanian he knows.
She, in turn, writes the same message on the palm of his hand, this time in Serbian, a language she does not otherwise know either.
That doesn’t worry him. He says he’s sure they will be able to communicate "with eyes, with hands and with heart. The other words will come later."
Some of Vidan’s relatives have made the trip also, and the families of the two fiances meet at the house.
In front of their loved ones, Vidan and Djana exchange the rings and cross themselves, he in the Serb Orthodox tradition, she in the Catholic one.
The official wedding ceremony would take place a day later in the western Serbian town of Uzice, but Djana can already wear her wedding dress.
"Young men leave Albania to emigrate," says Djana’s father Kanto.
"Albanian girls are not extravagant. They are honest, very modest in their needs. Vidan told us that all Serbian girls want to leave for the West. They don’t want to stay at home and take care of a family."
Vidan found Djana through a marriage agency. This kind of Serbian-Albanian marriage is not rare, and there are several associations officially registered with authorities that organise such unions.
Gezim Gjoka, who works for a marriage agency in the northern Albanian town of Shkodra, said at least 86 young Albanian women had married Serbs over the last two years.
"Four children were born of these unions. I did not record any divorce," he added proudly. He said the demand came from across Serbia, not just the south which has been hit by a rural exodus.
Pavlo Jaku, a lawyer who represents Serbian and Montenegrin minorities in Albania, said there were at least 8,000 outstanding demands by young Serbian men to marry Albanian women.
— Is he happy? "I think so" —
Several weeks have passed. In the hamlet of Ruda Bukva, close to the border with Bosnia and reachable only along a dirt track, Vidan Mitrovic savours life with his new bride.
"Of course, I tried to find a wife here, but it didn’t work," he explains, as a smiling Djana prepares coffee.
"I decided nevertheless to stay in the village and to continue to produce rakija (traditional Serbian brandy), like my father."
Their abode is simple, but hospitable. Serbo-Albanian dictionaries lie on the kitchen table beside manuals on how to learn the languages.
"I am happy to see that she has accustomed herself here. There have been 25 or 26 years since the last time the village had a bride," Vidan adds.
"Nothing is worse than solitude."
The hamlet is a cluster of just about 20 houses and barely 100 people. The population has dropped as the young leave for a better life elsewhere.
Vidan said that in Djana’s village in Albania, it was the men who left.
"Most of them leave as early as they turn 18, looking for a better life in Austria, Italy or elsewhere."
Djana says she was "well received and with respect" by the inhabitants of Ruda Bukva and Vidan’s family, although her few words of Serbian often trigger hilarious laughter.
She is in regular telephone touch with her family, communicates with other Albanian women married to Serbs and enjoys watching Vidan appreciate the meat dishes with cabbages and pancakes she prepares for him.
Though discreet, her eyes shine. She gives the impression she feels at home here, and often looks over affectionately at her husband.
So is Vidan happy? Djana doesn’t hesitate to reply: "I think so."