Five Things that Make Planning a Spanish-American Wedding a Logistical Nightmare

I’m going to admit it – my upcoming wedding is bringing out the worst in me. There’s the stress of planning from abroad, coupled with my body changing with the coming of the Second Puberty (otherwise known as turning 30), the bickering and tension with trying to keep both families happy and me in the middle, plus the logistics and the blind faith of letting other people decide details for someone who doesn’t know how to delegate.

Everyone said weddings are work, and I’m realizing that, yeah, that’s an understatement if I ever heard one!

Planning a Spanish American Wedding

I’m officially down to six months until the sí, quiero. When I chose a date and venue and bought a dress in late July of 2014, August 2015 seemed forever away. So I went about my merry Spanish life, eating jamón and indulging in siestas (kidding, not my real life, and the only difference post-pedido is one more thing in my agenda to do each day).

And then when my sister got engaged at Christmas and started eating a bit healthier, I felt like August was right around the corner, waiting to stick out its leg, trip me and laugh as I picked myself off the floor.

Can I just say that my wedding may kill me?

I keep reminding myself that no one will really remember what they ate (unless it’s terrible or exceptional) or what music the DJ played (unless it’s terrible or exceptional or I convince the Novio to dance sevillanas with me). The most important thing is that we’re there, we’re happy and we’re ready for what comes after the party.

But we’ve still got to get there.


By far the biggest challenge to the wedding madness is the distance – I’m living in Seville and planning a wedding in Chicago (6,731 kilometers away, in case you were wondering).

Weddings at Meson Sabika

I’m a control freak having to cope with letting someone else decide a lot of the details, though giving up said control means does I’m not obsessing over every detail. This has worked out nicely for my mother and her sweet tooth, as it’s them who will be deciding on our wedding cake, and my Travel Ninja dad is working on the logistics, transportation rentals and hotels for our out-of-town guests.

So, planning. Last summer, I spent hours pouring over wedding magazines, calling vendors and venues, and beginning to work out plans for the big day. I was never one of those girls who dreamed about getting married one day, so I was literally staring with zero ideas, except knowing who I was going to marry. On the way home from the airport in July 2014, we stopped at Jewel and Nancy bought my three wedding magazines. I fell asleep on top of them – THAT was how I felt at that point.

Slowly, plans came together, even if I did do a few things backwards, and when I left for Spain six weeks later, I’d hammered out the big plans, leaving my mom to do the flowers (I sent her a pinterest board with some ideas, and I hate myself for ever typing that) and address US-bound invitations, my dad the tuxedos, and my sister to supervise.

Planning for a wedding abroad

When I chose vendors, I immediately eliminated a few who rolled their eyes when I told them where I lived. Flexibility and email skills were important, as the time difference with Chicago would be killer. One such contact is proving to be less likely to answer me within two weeks (ahem, the church), and I will have to sometimes cancel plans to take a Skype call after work.

Thankfully, I have five weeks of summer vacation to smooth out all of the last-minute details, RSVPs and seating charts. My sister-in-law is in charge of wrangling the Spaniards up and getting them where they need to go on time. Hopefully the day will be enough of a blur that I can ignore the small problems and concentrate on remembering to breathe, eat and smile.

Last Name and Paperwork

Surprise! My last name is not pronounced “gaaaah” but “gay.” Imagine being the new kid in middle school and having your teachers ask you to repeat it time and time again in middle school so they’d get it right.

Yes, that happened, and I couldn’t wait to get married and change my name when I was younger. In fact, my mother told my father on their first blind date that she’s never marry him because of his surname. Thirty-some years on, I’m convinced that she got over that quickly.

mom and dad wedding

Aww, my parents on their wedding day in 1983

Nearly two decades later, who am I to scoff at sexist Bible readings for the ceremony and then go ahead and change my name? I’m not an ultra feminist, but have taken that argument to heart. It’s mine, so why should I have to give it up for tradition’s sake? Not like we’re a normal couple anyway.

In many Hispanic countries, everyone has two last names: first their father’s, and then their mother’s. So if your name is María de Dolores de la Cruz García, de la Cruz is your father’s first last name, García is your mother’s. Imagine trying to write all of that at the top of a standardized test.

I’d gotten so used to using my middle name to fill out paperwork that when signing up for things like bank accounts and supermarket discount cards, I’d put my middle name as my first last name. My name was wrong on my paycheck stub for an entire year, despite my pleas to change it, lest I lose years towards retirement.

The whole name change thing makes my head spin. Apart from changing my email nick, I’d have to change my US-issued passport, driver’s license, social security as a start. In Spain, it’s about the same, though the process is bound to be arduous.


photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

At the moment, I’ve decided to stick with Gaa and bring a whole new generation of guiri descendants to Spain. I do have to renew my NIE, passport and US license within eight months of another, so I could change my mind. Regardless, my middle name and the Novio’s surname begin with the same letter, and Catherine M Gaa could totally pass for both.

The Novio’s solution is simple: convert my surname back to its original Dutch form, lost and subsequently butchered when my ancestors immigrated to America: Van Gaal.

Priest and Traditions

When I first arrived to Chicago, my first order of business should have been contacting the church where I did my confirmation to check availability and book a date. I went ahead and scheduled appointments to see venues and find a wedding dress first because, priorities (and my sister was in town from Texas).

I was hesitant about whether or not to get married in a church – not because of religion, but because one usually be a part of the congregation. What saved me from questions was that I’d done a sacrament and that my dad is active at Saint Mike’s, and August 2015 was wide open.

orange and blue wedding flowers

As Catholics, we’re required to complete a pre-marriage course called a pre-cana. In the archdiocese that my church belongs to, this is a weekend-long event to the tune of $250, plus subsequent sessions and attendance at mass. But Father Dan gave us the go ahead to do the course in Spain since we live here and communicate in Spanish – in fact, he even offered to do the course over Skype with us! I assured him we’d find a course in Seville, and he told us we’d just need to present a certificate of completion and the Novio’s birth certificate.

Bonus: the curso preboda is free in Spain and less of a time commitment!

With that figured out, we could focus on the ceremony and reception. But first, a primer: while Spanish weddings and their American counterparts are largely the same, there are a few big differences, and they’re causing confusion to the Spaniards (and usually the ones who pleaded that I have a big, fat, Hollywood-style wedding).

If I have to repeat, “There are no rules to what you wear to American weddings” one more time, I may throw up. If someone asks me “por favor can you find a way to smuggle in jamón,” I will break down into tears. Attire and timetables are proving to be more meddlesome than I excepted.

Spanish women wear short dresses and fascinators at day weddings, and long dresses to night ceremonies, so imagine the confusion with the ceremony at 2:30pm and the reception at 5:30. I don’t care, so long as you don’t come in jeans. This is also appropriate:

Spain's Duchess of Alba Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva dances flamenco beside her husband Alfonso Diez at the entrance of Las Duenas Palace after their wedding in Seville

And when will the Spaniards eat?! I may be up the night before my wedding making ham bocadillos for them to chow on between the ceremony and reception, and because we’re getting kicked out at 11pm, we had to look for a place for an after party and serve more food to soak up the liquor from the open bar. Because of this, we’ll be buying our own alcohol based on estimates from the caterer, yet one more pre-wedding task (but one that means I’m not stuck drinking Michelob). Our menu is pretty American, but with a few Andalusian twists. Y punto. No 12-hour gorge fest. 

We’ve also opted for a wedding party, so I’m coordinating tuxedos with the three Spanish groomsmen living in three different cities. My American bridesmaids are all set to go and will even be sporting a few Spanish fashions, but not having the mother of the groom as the official witness did mean some feelings got hurt. The solution is letting her accompany the groom to the altar.

The matter of a registry was also a pain. In Spain, most couples receive money, either to a joint bank account before the wedding or in an envelope between dinner courses. While my family scoffed at the idea of giving us money, it’s what we prefer because we’ll be making our home in Spain and don’t want to cart gifts back on an airplane. In the end, we decided to do ZankYou, which is an online registry available in both languages, and where we can choose to buy the items or pocket the money. Our house has the basics, but we’d rather not jump the gun and buy something we don’t want.

The ceremony has yet to take shape. Unfortunately, Catholic tradition is pretty rigid, so we’re still unsure about how much wiggle room we’ll have. I’d have loved our exit song to be a heavy metal ballad played on strings, or something a bit more nosotros, but we picked our readings blindly and happened to agree on them. Also an easy decision? No mass!


I learned Spanish for many reasons, and one of those was love. The Novio and I speak about 90% of the time in Spanish, with occasional English words mixed in, like, “Estoy muy sleepy.”

How, then, do you plan a ceremony, speeches and the like in two different languages? The reception has a decidedly Spanish theme, between azulejo tiles and oranges, but there was no way I’d make two sets of save-the-dates, two sets of programs and two sets of invitations.

Bilingual Save the Dates

Our wedding web is currently in two languages, and the save-the-dates play on easy Spanish words. My bridesmaids also got tiny packets of saffron with a cut-out Osborne bull that said, “Help me with the wedding BULLshit. Will you be my bridesmaid?”

But I’m still puzzled as to what to do for the church programs and have decided that menu cards are totally unnecessary – you choose your entrée people! The tricky part could be the reception cards that will need to come back.

In Spain, invitations are handed out in person just a few weeks before the big day, and everyone is served the same food. This means that all of the extra stuff – the reception card, the RSVP and the extra, self-addressed envelope – is useless and even confusing to a Spaniard. People considered our save-the-dates to be the actual invitation, as a matter of fact!

Bilingual Wedding Invitations

For this reason, we’ll be sticking a few extra pieces of paper into the envelopes going to Spaniards to explain that they have to return the reply card and to give them our bank information.

The ceremony will likely have one reading in English and one in Spanish, and we’re hoping to speak to a Spanish priest about the verses and refrains used here. I want to have a balance so that the Spaniards don’t feel left out during the service – because you know I’ll have tons of crappy Spanish pop songs and sevillanas at the reception! Speeches are not common at Spanish weddings, though we may ask a groomsmen to do one. We’ve also decided to splurge on a videographer so that family and friends who aren’t able to make the trip can share in our big day.

I’m almost relieved that the church won’t allows us to make up our own vows, because that would open a whole new can of worms. I know my family would like me to do the votos in English, and the Novio’s family in Spanish. My goal? To fill in the language gap with laughter and love. Oh dios was that cheesy.


For me, there was no argument about when to get married – I’d need to work around my work schedule, even though I am entitled by law to 15 days off. Looking at a calendar, we had four Saturdays: July 25th, August 1st, August 8th or August 15th. The 15th was off the table – it’s my 30th birthday.

I had a few things to consider: When could he come? When would be convenient for the Spaniards with their holiday time? What about fares from Madrid to Chicago? And, considering how much I’d have to do before the wedding, which date would give me the most time to prepare before the big day?


photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

We chose August 8th, as all of the pieces just seemed to line up, both with holiday time and vendor availability. This, of course, caused uproar because of pricey flights from Europe. The Novio gave me good advice: those who want to come will make the effort. Those who don’t – that’s one less person to coordinate. I rejoice that my partner is so pragmatic, particularly when I get carried away.

I also headed home over the holidays to meet with a florist, have my dress fitted and do a hair and makeup trial, and I’ll be jetting back for a month before the wedding to take care of the last details, including having a shower of sorts and a bachelorette party (bonus! I get one in Spain, too!). July and August have been insane months for the last three years, and 2015 will keep pace.

We’re opting not to take a honeymoon just yet because of other expenses (clearly not my choice!). Japan and Cuba are the top choices, and hopefully a minimoon just before returning to Spain to begin married life.

The Countdown

While many people enjoy the planning process of a wedding, I don’t feel like I’m much a part of the whole thing. The Novio’s been out of town on business for four of the last six months, and I’m not stuffing envelopes with my bridesmaids. The light at the end of the tunnel is being husband and wife and able to share our love and future with our más queridos. So for every headache, there is something to look forward to in the future.


photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

People have asked me if I’m nervous to get married or to stay in Spain for life. The Novio and I have been pretty serious since we first met, so the answer is no. We also did the very Spanish thing of dating for a bajillion years before getting engaged, so his feeling on the matter is, “I’ve learned to live with your caprichitos, and I’m old enough to know what I want and who I want.”

So glad we’re sticking to traditional vows! 

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. You’re lucky you’re not doing it twice!!! The American one was pretty much all me, by myself, with Lute still in Spain. I ended up writing the ceremony and having our officiant perform it in both English and Spanish… with the invitations, web site, program, etc all in two languages!!! Such a pain!
    We ended up doing the Catholic ceremony in Spain, and it was really helpful that our priest allowed Lute to do the pre-cana there without me while he as still in Spain and I was back living in America (yeah, I got out of it) and actually didn’t meet the priest until the week of the wedding!
    In the end both days were so different and both had their stresses attached to leading up to it… but I would definitely say that the American wedding had much more stress because of all the details… in Spain you pick a few things off a set “menu” and call it a day… here you worry about all sorts of things.
    Good luck with everything and I know it will be a special day and everyone will remember it!!!!

    • I have to laugh at my friend getting married here whose biggest worry is the dress she’s going to pick (laugh as a jaded bride, of course!). American weddings have SO MANY FREAKING DETAILS! I would have loved to come to your Spanish wedding – it must have been gorgeous!

  2. I remember being quite stressed too! I even wrote this entry about how we visited our friends’ puppies, and the puppy therapy really worked!

    But anyway, mucho ánimo, and I’m sure everything will SALIR BIEN. (I only speak in Spanglish nowadays.)
    Kaley recently posted..Traveling through Ibiza by MotorbikeMy Profile

  3. Oh, this brings back memories! I haven’t met a bride yet that says, “OH I love planning.” I got married in California, and had the Spaniards come…planning them to come was waaay stressful! They had so many questions and also wanted to fit in all this West Coast sightseeing. The pre-cana thing was a breeze for my husband, he just had to do his separately. But pretty much anything in print was bilingual. In the end…we had the funnest wedding! The Spaniards love seeing all the American traditions (throwing the bouquet, seeing the bridesmaids, the limo, etc.), and they STILL reminisce about how much fun it was. That’s the important thing! But you know what’s more stressful, Cat? Kids! I know you can’t see it yet…but you’ll almost forget the stress you feel now. Oh, and I kept my last name too! Hugs!
    Justine recently posted..Carmona: The Most Charming Town of the DeadMy Profile

    • I’m trying to do lots of pre-planning for the people wanting to do trips afterwards, and I do have a helper for the Spaniards in my sister-in-law! Glad to know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – mil pero mil milliones de gracias!

  4. ¡Qué rollo! I knew wedding planning in America was stressful as it is—but getting ready for a cross-cultural, bilingual one on the other side of the ocean? As they say here…bua. I need to lie down after just reading all of this! Regardless, I wish you all the best for Novio’s and your big day this August…it sounds like it will be a really special ceremony that mixes the best of American and Spanish traditions :)
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..Photo Post: Mondoñedo, a Galician Ghost TownMy Profile

    • Thanks, Trevor! It’s been hectic, and it seems to come in waves! I can’t wait to be my fat, lazy self come August 9th!

  5. Your be-my-bridesmaid invite is hilarious, and also manages to be Iberian-appropriate. LOVE!

    Also, I couldn’t help but smile when I noticed the beer in the second photo (behind all of the color swatches). Prioridades, people! With this down-to-earth approach to wedding planning, I can’t wait to hear your take on the actual event!
    Cassandra recently posted..Fill in the Blanks: Winter EditionMy Profile

  6. This does seem very stressful, but also really exciting! I’m happy for you too and can’t wait to hear how things progress as the wedding gets closer. I’m looking forward to meeting you guys in person sometime too!
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..5 Myths About Teaching English in SpainMy Profile

  7. before you get married i already te felicito….enhorabuena y espero que todo salga bien, te lo mereces!

    well the name change or surname change is something that shocks me or amazes me….why should a woman change her surnames and replace them? i do not get it at all… looks to me as if the woman has not got any pride, looking fragile, like being behind her husband, etc

    and may i add that children belong to both the woman and the man, so any child must have his parents’ surnames, whether the first one is his father’s first one or nor, for now the first surname of the child can be the mum’s first one if both parents agree.

    i think Cat that you should keep your maiden whole name after getting married, just my opinion.

    • Thanks, Pedro…but with a last name like Gaa?!

      • yes Cat, i do not see any problem with Gaa at least from my Spanish point of view….is Gaa a bad word or slang there in the US?

        in Spanish language we do have terrible and cruel surnames like Cabezon, Barriga, Caravaca, Cabeza de Vaca and many more, but i am not sure if such a thing happens in English language

  8. One piece of advice my cousin passed on to everyone who got married after him….”something will go wrong, it is just life. Take it with a grain of salt and enjoy the day because in the end, it won’t matter and it is all about the love of two people and the wonderful family and friends that share that love with you.”
    Pretty wise from the kid I used to beat up. ha ha
    Seriously, it will all come together. Congrats! so happy for you.

  9. Wow, it sounds absolutely nuts trying to plan this all from overseas! But I love how the wedding is shaping up so far (all the Andalucían flourishes, the stunning engagement photos), and I can’t wait to see photos once it’s done!
    Kirstie recently posted..7 Fascinating Maps about Spain to Geek out OverMy Profile

  10. How exciting! And so very happy for you!
    Wandering Educators recently posted..#StudyAbroadBecause it is Unforgettable and IrreplaceableMy Profile

  11. Ah breath and it will happen effortlessly, if not there’s hopefully a whole bottle of champagne for you….I have less than a month away from my wedding with one months planning, its going to be scary!
    noel recently posted..Meteora: first impressions for Travel Photo MondayMy Profile

  12. First of all, congratulations!! And I absolutely love the post, though it also makes me a little nervous! I am not engaged, but I do have a Spanish novio and I live with him in Spain and if one day we decide to get married. Wheeere should we do it OMG
    But the best of luck with your preparations and I am sure you are going to have a beautiful day!
    Linda recently posted..Spain: 10 things I hate about youMy Profile

    • Thanks, Linda! There was no question as to where the big wedding would be, but hopefully everything will iron itself out! I’d love to do something here to be able to include those who can’t make the trip to the US, too.

  13. Oh my, it all sounds so complicated! I hope you’re hanging in there despite it all! I can’t imagine having to figure out the ceremony/vows/invites/etc in English vs Spanish. But all of your hard work will be worth it in the end – and I can’t wait to see pictures and hear more about what kind of Spanish twists you’ve included!
    Courtney recently posted..5 Reasons to Visit Madrid This SpringMy Profile

    • Thanks, chiki! It’s all coming together, but I had to chuckle when the music guy at my church suggested Noche de Paz because it was in Spanish. We had a good laugh when he realized it was silent night!

  14. I can’t imagine planning your wedding from abroad and only being able to go home about two or three times before the wedding to check in on details! My mom had to do the same thing with her husband in France (they weren’t living in the same country at that point) and this was before the age of the Internet! American weddings seem so complicated because of the amount of detail–the color scheme, the dress, the caterer, the dinner, the cake, the bridesmaid dresses, the invitations, the photographer, the venue, the DJ/band… and I am sure there are way more details I am forgetting. I hope everything goes off mostly without a hitch (there’s always something unforeseen that seems to happen but I’m sure everything will be fine). Congrats on your upcoming nuptials!
    amelie88 recently posted..How to Talk Safely about Sex in the Spanish ClassroomMy Profile

    • We’ve just had our first snag with the hotel, but thankfully I started far enough out to not have had anyone book there yet! You’re right in that the details are overwhelming, but hopefully it will all come together. You know, because once we get the married stuff done with, it’s paperwork time!

  15. Wait, you’re a Van Gaal? Interesting. Such a candid post, Cat. Thanks for letting us into your life.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..Five fave Gran Canaria rural retreatsMy Profile

  16. So exciting! And yet — wedding planning is stressful, the world over, though certainly more so in a bicultural relationship. Good luck, and know that marriage is worth it!
    Lillie recently posted..A Perfect First Day of Ireland Travel: Bunratty CastleMy Profile

  17. Slow down, take some time out and remember what your wedding day is all about- you and the person you love. I know it seems all consuming now, but really the details don’t matter.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..ENGLAND: Exploring The London Wetland CentreMy Profile

  18. In latino america the wedding is not that aaaas expensive but I was so shocked when I learned that american wedding receptions didn’t go on til after midnight. Here in France, midnight’s the time you’d eat dessert.
    Uvraylights recently posted..Event Planners Can Book Venues Again With New TechnologyMy Profile


  1. […] on Seville – I’ve simply had too many other things to write about, and planning a Spanish-American wedding can get consuming. In fact, I was a downright Scrooge about my holidays, as other commitments had […]

  2. […] I knew about the loopholes for getting an Irish passport (my dad was not listed on the Foreign Birth Registry, so that was out). There was a difficult-to-attain freelancer visa that I would have had to hustle to get – and I was still on I could get married, but that seemed like an awkward conversation to a Spanish boyfriend who proudly proclaimed he’d never get married (about that…). […]

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