Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ziua mea de Naştere, or: my Moldovan Birthday

I love having a September birthday.  Being a nerd, it has always struck me as appropriate that my birthday comes just as classes are starting, and happens to fall in my favorite season (punny, right?).  My birthday also is perfectly spaced during the run-up to my favorite set of holidays: Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Throw in Christmas and New Years and September 19th basically becomes the kickoff to a whole holiday season.

September has also, however, tended to be my month of settling into new homes, which has made birthday celebrations a constant unknown.  Take, for example, my first year in college, when nobody even knew it was my birthday.  (This was pre-Facebook, kids…)  But I learned my lesson that year, and since then, have never shied away from making sure people know ahead of time my exact moment of birth.

This year was no exception: having only arrived at my permanent site at the end of August, and with my birthday falling on a Sunday, I knew any celebration would depend on my Moldovan hosts.  Well, never again will I doubt their party-planning capacities.  They delivered with a full-scale Moldovan style birthday bash.  From the top!

The weekend started Friday night, when my host parents’ daughter and boyfriend Rodica and Adrien arrived from Chişinău. 
There aren’t a lot of people my own age in the village, so it was nice to have another couple twenty-somethings in the house.  Plus, they came laden with gifts.  For me, there was a recipe book, so that I can take notes on all the Moldovan cooking I learn here.  Yup, they already know me that well!  There was also a sparkly golden umbrella – because the previous flowery umbrella I was using was “too feminine”.  Better yet, it matches the sparkly golden day planner the school gave me at the First Bell ceremony.  For the house, Rodica and Adrien brought a glistening new microwave.  This provided an evening of entertainment, basking in the warm radioactive magnificence and practicing various settings on a cup of water.

Saturday was a day of work.  Typically, my family is content to let me work at my desk inside while they go about the various chores, so I generally have to be pretty persistent to get in on the work.  Today we were painting the house’s trim, and I just wasn’t going to take no for an answer.  When my host mom, Ana, came home from work and saw her husband, daughter’s boyfriend, and host son, all standing on scaffolding shoulder to shoulder and painting, she doubled over right there in the road and it took her five minutes to stop laughing.

Sunday, of course, was the main event.  Waking up without the harassment of an alarm is a rare gift, and then I grabbed a cup of coffee and mulled it over while writing a blog post.  Mornings are generally my most productive time, but it’s unusual to be able to devote them to activities of my choosing.  There are few things more enjoyable than listening to the village awaken, enjoying a cup of coffee, and pouring a little creativity into a satisfying piece of writing.

By 10:00, the house had come alive, and I could hold out no longer.  My host mom brought in a full vase of roses, and then pulled me to the kitchen, where there was a big breakfast and big congratulations to go with.  Around the table, there was the general air of a holiday, that untouchable sense of excitement and joy that hangs in the air on the mornings of days that will felicitously be devoted to guilt-free relaxation and festivity.

Birthday Masa: round 1.
After breakfast, preparations got underway for the main event: the birthday masa.  A masa is a general term for any celebratory meal, and they generally err on the side of a feast.  There are birthday masas and holiday masas and funeral masas and masas simply for the sake of a masa.  Already, there was a good deal of food laid out, including răcituri, a special Moldovan dish of rooster in a gelatinous gravy.

Having purchased Mexican and Asian ingredients in Chişinău the weekend before, my chore for the masa was to contribute an international flair.  Ana, in particular, had been asking me to make Mexican since the day I arrived, the request always posed with an excited glimmer in her eyes.  Having no tortillas, I improvised, and eventually we ended up with lime fried pork, fajita vegetables, and refried-esque beans.  We just heaped it all together on a plate.  It may not have passed as one of the normal dishes at a Mexican restaurant, but luckily when one brings a whole new style of cooking to a place, it comes with a certain amount of freedom.  In any case, the Moldovans couldn’t know that, and the flavors were about right. 

Congratulatory phone calls, emails, and bday cards all started rolling in the week before, but they picked up with a vengeance Sunday morning with the Facebook notes, such that after I started cooking, every time I ducked into my room to take a break for the rest of the day there were another 10 or 15 notes and ecards to read.  Thank you everyone!

Finally, the masa got underway, a number of relatives coming from all over to ensure that there was a proper crowd around the table.  Various German host parents have never much cared for the Southwest palette of flavors, so I was skeptical about Mexican, but it turned out to be a smash.  For my own part, răcituri is one of the foods a lot of volunteers draw the line at, but I found it surprisingly delicious.  The meal was filled with lots of house wine, house champagne, and toasts.  The most memorable was the “third son” toast, when my host parents officially promoted me to the level of one of their own children.  (The first two sons are their two daughters’ longtime boyfriends.)  I followed this by a second parents toast, which may have lacked some of the linguistic beauty of their short speech, but nevertheless came across as touching.  As the party went on, so did the toasts, eventually gaining that special boozy sentimentality I’d only previously observed at weddings.

Shannon really like the kitten playing
with the chicken so she took a pic.
As the day wound on, new guests arrived, and old ones left.  Birthday masas, in particular, tend to take on the quality of an evolving set of meals in this country.  A particularly special appearance was put in by Shannon, a volunteer from a village in my district, and providing just a little bit of America for the day.

We snuck away for a short while under the pretense of discussing a project we’re working on, but in reality, we just needed a reason to stop eating for a few minutes.  The break didn’t last long, however, with new relatives arriving and the second round of eating commencing simultaneously.  (The eating doesn’t ever really stop, but can generally be divided into “rounds,” each round bringing a whole new set of untouched dishes with it, which Moldovans seem capable of conjuring at will.)

Round two included barbecue, and finding common ground between America and Moldova, it was declared that barbecue couldn’t be eaten without beer.  I stayed and skewered the meet.

Finally, as the sun set, we said our goodbyes, and piled five people into the Lada to drive Shannon home (yes, somebody actually stayed sober in order to accomplish this).  Shannon lives next to the River Nistru, and as we left town under cover of dark, we could see the lights of Ukraine twinkling just a kilometer away.

Exhausted, we arrive home, capable only of relaxing in the living room by this point.  Ready for bed, Bill – who was still working diligently at 8pm on a Sunday night in Budapest – nevertheless insisted on taking a homework break so that we could skype.

Finally, crawling into bed that night, I felt more at home than ever before in Moldova.  Over the next two days, my partner teachers presented me with gifts and my students brought flowers.  Without a doubt, it was a wonderful birthday, and there’s nothing like a wonderful birthday hosted by new friends to make one feel welcome in a place.

Also: everything tastes better when the medical officers say you shouldn’t eat it.


One Pilgrim, One Student said...

Oh Zach!! Congrats on a lovely birthday and another year. We miss and love you!

Mimi said...

Great description.....I felt I was there getting sloshed and eating barbecue along with you.

KimberlyKs said...

Yay! What a memorable birthday!