This one's for you, Dad.
My dad calls me every Sunday night to talk about my week, family news, philosophical realizations, and the like. I happened to mention that I was planning to keep my birthday on Monday a secret from my colleagues (as the last birthday celebration included two bottles of vodka, a bottle of wine and a variety of homemade salads and finger foods), but my father would have none of it. "They'll find out eventually and then probably be mad that you didn't tell them in the first place." Of course he was right, but how could I commemorate my birthday, now that I had seen a workplace birthday celebration live and in-person, in a way that would be somehow equivalent to what I assumed to be the standard birthday routine at the institute? "Just bring in some donuts. Spread a little American culture. That's what we do at the office, anyway. They'll understand." Donuts? Of course! How could I have already forgotten that donuts can help smooth over virtually any seemingly awkward situation? Had Krispy Kreme been so easily erased from my taste bud memory? Good thing my Dad was there to remind me. I felt that a weight had been lifted, and that my first Ukrainian birthday might not be so bad after all. I thanked my Dad for his always sound advice and got ready for my last night's sleep as a 25 year-old, assured that tomorrow would at least be bearable, if not even a little bit pleasant.
I woke up the next morning and made my way to the bathroom, as per usual. About twenty seconds after I had returned to my bedroom to start readying for the day, I heard a knock at the door. "Da?" In rushed my host dad and sister, with a beautiful cake (pictures forthcoming) and some very exotic-looking flowers in hand, singing the one English song everyone seems to know the world over: Happy Birthday (although "Hotel California" is a close second). I thanked them, assured them this was the finest-looking cake I had ever been given (the thing was awesome), and decided my birthday would be just fine.
I was a little nervous at the supermarket that morning picking out pastries (donuts have yet to be introduced to Ukraine - there's an investment idea, grandpa! - but cream-filled concoctions are a-plenty), but I went for the most recognizable-looking things in the shiny glass case. I still think I may have inadvertently bought day-old pastries, but, alas, when given the option, I will always choose the items I don't have to ask for and can instead just pick up and take directly to the cashier. I arrived a little early to the institute and started unpacking my treats. My coordinator walked in as I was arranging everything on her desk (did I mention I don't have my own desk at the institute? slowly starting to really annoy me.), and I explained, "Today is my birthday. I didn't know what to do, so, I bought some pastries. I hope it's OK." I translated this into Russian (or attempted to, anyway) for the other methodologists and looked at them with wide, hopeful eyes. "Of course it's OK!" said Lyudmila (my coordinator), who proceeded to tell everyone as they came in that today was my birthday. This was all well and good, but, still, no one had touched the pastries. After a few minutes, Lyudmila suggested that we put the pastries away until our lunch break, as then we could share them with everyone (everyone arrives at different times depending on their scheule for that day). "Oh, sure. Whatever is best," I said, being my most accomodating self.
Naively, I thought that the pastries would become nothing more than a lunch time snack - a happy little dessert tacked onto the end of a mid-day meal. Then I noticed that two of the ladies stepped out of the office for a while, returning with large bags full of groceries. I wasn't sure, but I thought I saw a wine bottle being stashed under a desk. Then, 1 o'clock (the lunching hour) rolled around, and the preparations began. My coordinator had to run out - not saying where she was going but that she would be back shortly. The other ladies started opening the cans of what I found out were sardines (not whole, like on a pizza, but shredded, like a can of tuna fish) and making the traditional celebratory meal - sardine salad (basically tuna salad but with sardines instead of tuna) on bread, carrot salad (shredded carrots with some spices...actually quite tasty), and some other unidentified side dishes involving cabbage and possibly peppers. So, ok, maybe we're just going to have a nice little meal and THEN have some pastries. But, alas, it seems a birthday celebration is more or less incomplete without a little alcohol, no matter that the celebration is taking place in the middle of the day at work. The vodka and wine were set out just as my coordinator came running in with flowers and gift in hand. (So, THAT's where she had run off too. I hadn't even thought of it.) After about five minutes of failed attempts to open the bottle of wine with everything from a butter knife to a pair of scissors, I assured everyone that I would drink vodka (they had more or less bought the wine for me, as I had chosen it in the past over vodka), not wanting to be the weak little American. So, we ate and made toasts to my health, happiness, love life, acquisition of large amounts of money and, last but not least, to my parents. I thought of my father, of course (and you too, Mom! and Traci, I made them say to "machexa" as well, which means "stepmom"), and his fantastic donut idea. It had all started out so innocently.
In the end, it was a pretty good birthday. It was snowing outside (and still is), so the vodka warmed me up for my walk to the marshrutka stop. Once I got home, my host family laughed (and groaned) when I told them about my day at work. And, unlike many Ukrainian cakes, my birthday cake not only looked amazing (it was a picture of a globe that charted my flight from the US to Ukraine and included most of my important stops on the way - Philadelphia, Georgia, Wisconsin, New York, Kyiv and Simferopol), but was also quite delicious. Though my family is always assuring me that not all Ukrainians are as celebratory (?) as the ladies I work with, my host dad still made me drink a shot of cognac with him at dinner (something about not being able to go down in alocohol levels when you drink). Ah, Ukraine.
I have some plans in the works to have a karaoke birthday party in the next few weeks (How?, you ask? I have my ways.). I'll keep you posted as any other news rolls in. Until then, dear readers. Dasvedanye.