Valerie Durollari and Ken Biberaj
| E Premte, 10.04.2009, 11:01 AM |

RUSSIAN TEA ROOM, MARCH 8 The wedding was in the restaurant, and the couple went riding in Bryant Park
RUSSIAN TEA ROOM, MARCH 8 The wedding was in the restaurant, and the couple went riding in Bryant Park

By TEMMA EHRENFELD - New York Times

VALERIE DUROLLARI and Ken Biberaj, children of Albanian immigrants, met at a huge Albanian wedding in late November 2004. But it was Spanish chefs and paella that put them on a trajectory to their own wedding.

They didn’t make much of an impression on each other at first, but both had reason to be distracted. Mr. Biberaj, then the political research director in Florida for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, was worn out and wondering what to do next, and Ms. Durollari, a junior at New York University, was studying creative writing and hadn’t a clue of what was in store after graduation.

Yet they exchanged e-mail messages, and a few months later she asked him for career advice. By then he had moved to New York to join a commercial real estate business in which his family held an interest and which included the Russian Tea Room.

They discovered that they both had grown up in extended families, she in New Jersey and he in Virginia. And that each spoke almost daily to their parents. “Family is a huge priority,” Ms. Durollari said.

Both were known among friends to be outgoing, but Becca Grossman, a classmate of Ms. Durollari’s at N.Y.U., said she has an ethereal and introspective air.

That proved to be an interesting counterpoint to Mr. Biberaj, who was “focused on career,” he said, and kept to the strict schedule punched into his BlackBerry.

In March 2005, everything abruptly halted — almost — when Mr. Biberaj began night classes in real estate at N.Y.U. and made plans to continue working while beginning his studies at New York Law School.

“I thought Val was beautiful, fun and very smart, but I was not ready for the commitment,” said Mr. Biberaj, now 29.

“We e-mailed and had dinner two or three times a month” said Ms. Durollari, now 24. “It was very casual.” And yet Ms. Durollari, who liked to sleep late, began rising at 6 a.m. to go in-line skating with him.

Casual or not, their outings became competitions to see who knew the most about New York. She had taken him to a storytelling performance at the Moth on the Lower East Side; he took her to Carnegie Hall.

After Ms. Durollari graduated in 2006, Mr. Biberaj encouraged her to take a job as a paralegal at an immigration law firm. When the firm obtained visas for some Spanish chefs, she snapped up passes to a paella festival in Central Park and invited Mr. Biberaj.

They spent five hours at the event, taking in the music, food and drink and reading to each other. “It was effortless,” Ms. Durollari recalled. The rivalry had dissolved.

“When I first met him, he was amusing,” she said. “When we were dating, he became hilarious. He has an edge, not mean. He always laughs at my jokes, too.”

Mr. Biberaj also began to see their relationship in a clearer light.

“Val is very calming,” he said. “She has the ability to get me to slow down, to enjoy and appreciate everything around me.” In an e-mail message he observed: “By the paella festival, it was no longer about being ready, because it became clear to me that she was the one. I didn’t feel like waiting any more.”

It was not easy for him to slow his pace. Once, on a trip to Washington, where his father directs the Eurasia division of the Voice of America, Mr. Biberaj scheduled the couple’s weekend in tightly timed segments. After being allotted only 20 minutes to shower and dress for ballroom events, “I told him, never again,” Ms. Durollari said.

His micromanaging aside, she saw Mr. Biberaj as someone who gave her direction. Again with his encouragement, she applied to law school. “I make so much more sense with him in my life,” said Ms. Durollari, now in her second year at Brooklyn Law School.

Last April, with finals looming for both of them, Mr. Biberaj, who had also become the vice president of and spokesman for RTR Funding Group, which owns the Russian Tea Room, devised a ruse to take her to the top floor of the ornate restaurant. The space was empty, but the fireplace glowed, Champagne chilled in an ice bucket and there, beneath her napkin, was a small blue Tiffany box.

So on March 8 their married life began at another huge Albanian wedding — this one with 10 bridesmaids in lavender at the Tea Room, where the Rev. Dr. Mel Hawthorne, an ecumenical minister, officiated.

Then the party moved to a country club in West Paterson, N.J., with 560 guests. An admiring friend brought up a short story the bride had written in which a woman showers in cold water as her fiancé shaves, so she won’t steam up the mirror. When asked if the detail was autobiographical, the bride lowered her voice and said with a Mona Lisa smile, “It’s something she does that he doesn’t know she does for him.”

The bridegroom looked at her in amazement: "My mirror isn’t steamy," he said.


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