Birthdays in Russia… (written sometime back in March)

After that emotional drainage as well as most of my homework, it is now PAST midnight, and I have to be up promptly at 0710 for class. But for some reason (and this honestly puzzles me) I am not tired.

The reason this puzzles me is because for the last two days I have been privy to a holiday often portrayed in movies or TV shows made in/set in/about Russia: the Russian birthday party. The funny part is that March 22 (Friday) was my younger sisters birthday, and Saturday (the 23rd) was Tatiana’s. Parties all around!

Being a part of hosting a birthday party in Russia reminded me in so many ways of hosting a party back home. You wake up earlier than you’d like, clean literally everything, and start the cooking several hours before your appointed army of helpers joins the fight. Snapshot: Tatiana and I in our Russian dressing gowns (She got me one as a gift for Women’s Day. I am now officially Russian.) carrying the kitchen table into her bedroom which we have magically transformed into a banquet hall, while attempting to kick off our tapochki before walking onto the freshly-vacuumed rug.

But before I begin, I’m going to need ot organize my thoughts. Life here often reminds me of a cartoon I once saw referencing high school, claiming there were “too many characters, and not enough plot.” So to avoid that I’ll start with our cast of characters, move on to activities (including toasts, singing, and TV watching), and then come back and see what I missed.

There was Vladimir Vasilich, her father whom I’d already met several times. Her daughter Anya and granddaughter Liza also appeared, finally! I say finally because in the placement email I received before arriving in Russia, it mentioned that Tatiana’s daugher and young granddaughter came to visit often. Thus, I brought gifts for them too, and was thrilled at the prospect of a semi-extended family. However, I had until Saturday only come across Anya once, when she dropped something off here, and passed her and Liza in the building doorway once without realizing it. Finally, my little-little sister had arrived! But let’s remember: she IS five years old. I think the fact that I don’t really understand Russian 100% and she isn’t speaking English is the only reason I don’t find her entirely obnoxious. But as that’s how it is, we got along swimmingly.

After her initial fear of strangers was overcome (within about 10 minutes) she bequeathed to me several new hairclips with instructions on how they were best worn. Then she helped me pick out an outfit to wear for the party, and we both donned our prettiest princess dresses. Which of course meant I ended up in a clubbing dress that I wouldn’t have put forward for a family party, not to mention four coats of mascara and no less than 3 separate eye shadow colors. But what can you do.

As fun as playing princesses was, it became exhausting after so many demands of “Read! Read! I don’t know how yet! No, THAT one!” This is taxing because while my spoken Russian is passable (occasionally even “good,” depending on how many drinks I’ve had), bedtime stories in rhyme scheme are the stuff they test me on in Phonetics class. Ouch.

Interspersed with all this was meeting all of the other relatives: Tatiana’s “sister,” Irina (who is actually an aunt, I believe, but they call each other sister because they are approximately the same age); Irina’s husband Seryozha; their boys Artyum and Daneel, who are around my age; a pair of professors from her days at university, Nikolai Sergeiich and Katerina Romanovna; another Seryozha, who’s exact relation I couldn’t quite place but I assume is a cousin (Hession family equivalent: Stilwell’s Uncle Mark); and of course her mother, whom we all simply called ‘pro-baba.’ This swirl of Russian should have left me thoroughly drained. And while it has, it’s also invigorating.

After initial introductions I either was helping the women in the kitchen (most of whom had come early, so I had become comfortable with their speech patterns) or sat listening for whatever I could catch while eating.

The topics at the table ranged from politics, to finances – these matters often involved asking my opinion – to how Russia and America are different. This question is so broad it continually stumps me. Honestly, the weather in South Bend is pretty comparable to that of Vladimir, so no trouble there. The food is usually my biggest pet peeve. PIZZA. People, GET IT TOGETHER. Among other things Russia lacks are bagels and good (and by that I mean crappy-American-style) Mexican food. Russians on the whole eat more dairy products (which I already explained, ad nauseam), and fish is much more popular here.

I always forget that many Americans my age don’t like fish, so when Uncle Seryozha asked me if I had tried the fish, and I reached for a piece, he looked confused. I explained that my dad made salmon like this all the time. “Well then you’re already Russian!” I can’t tell you how welcoming it felt to hear that. After hearing that title given to our resident year-long student, whose skills I have continuously envied this entire semester, it seems that maybe I might be making some progress. Baby steps.

Of course, any sort of get-together involves copious amounts of alcohol. So between topics – and sometimes inspired by them – were various toasts, all to Tatiana and her wonderful life, spirit, daughter, health, etc. These toasts were some of my first clues to her single parenthoods beginning, and hearing the testaments of how hard it had been for her made me tear up at times. I think that’s when the family – mainly the women, of course – started to realize just how much I can actually understand. By the time it was my turn to toast it was really tough to focus on declining words correctly while attempting not to cry, so there were just a lot of “thank you’s” as far as I can remember, and by the end she and I were hugging and drinking, she her cognac and I my vodka. Successful Russian toast: completed.

After dinner was basically finished and the cards and gifts were distributed (of course it was almost all cards, as the “jubilee years” of 50, 60, 70, etc are marked by large sums of money typically) the drinking continued, but this time the men set to singing. Out of the four or five songs they sang I knew only one, the Russian birthday song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB5TEJfdmRs), which I obviously joined in for. The rest I asked about, when they were finished singing, and learned that they were Khazak songs that they had sung as children in Khazakstan, before they all immigrated back to Russia. Crazy. But cool.

After the singing and drinking wound down, the only entertainment to be found was the TV. What were we so raptly watching while sipping tea you ask? Sumo wrestling. Totally casual. I assume there’s some sort of respect between the cultures because sumo traditionally started with tea before the matches began, but I can’t be sure…

I’m sure there are things I’m leaving out, as I started this in March and its now May… in any case, just a small piece of my mind. And I’m not promising St. Petersburg or Moscow anymore. And all the photos from Sochi will be on Facebook. (A picture’s worth a thousand words! 🙂 )

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