It might be a little late for an addendum to my baby book, but I’ve had another first: ushering in a year in a foreign land. My birthday was yesterday & to be honest I was planning on being a very reluctant reveler. As recently as Thursday in fact, I intended to boycott my birthday all together & even change the date on facebook to avoid birthday wishes. I wasn’t particularly interested in turning 23 (the year that will not include standing on American soil) & really didn’t see much cause for celebration without you all. I have been spoiled rotten by my family & friends in the past with elaborate birthday cupcakes, Hello Dave concerts, decorated lockers, my favorite meals, & freedom to use ‘It’s my birfday!’ as a valid excuse for pretty much anything on May 15, so you can probably understand my hesitance to celebrate any other way. Friday changed things.
I woke up at 6am & was doing my morning reading when I received an uncharacteristically early call from Olha which was particularly peculiar as I knew she was en route to Poland for a week-long conference. She (& many other teachers & students) speaks English very well but it’s still a foreign language so our conversations sometimes require flexibility in interpretation & willingness to fill in the blanks of seemingly cryptic messages. This was one such conversation that begs repeating. “Hello Aleychka (little Alei). Will you be here Saturday?” “Umm…yes?” “Good, the museum (the people I knit with) would like to invite you to the woods. Will you go?” “To the woods?” “Yes, it will be in a small village 30 km from here all night & there will be singing & food & your birthday” “Oh, um, that sounds…fun” “Yes, do you have a sleeping bag?” “Yes, I do” “So bring it to the museum at 4:45 & they will be waiting for you.” “[Pause while I weigh my options]…OK, thank you so much” “It is nothing. I will call you tomorrow to congratulate you on your birthday. Goodbye!”
Now normally I wouldn’t commit to going into the forest with people I’ve met a total of 4 times whose language I don’t speak, but the combination of knowing that pretty much every good experience in Yampil has been directly related to Olha & not wanting to spend my birthday alone in my apartment seemed to be just the ticket for a less than calculated response. So off I headed to school happy to have plans. As my 5th formers filtered in & started cleaning the chalkboard (cuties) one of the little darlings came up to me and asked in Ukrainian something to the effect of ‘Can student go out of the room & come back in?’. He’s quite a trip, borders on the mischievous side & has a tendency to speak Ukrainian in class that often prompts a ‘Serhiy, which lesson is this?” response, but he’s hilarious & thus gets away with it. Thinking he had asked to go get his book from their homeroom & I said yes & then watched in wonder/horror as every single student crowded out of the room & shut the door leaving me alone in the classroom to ponder exactly what I had just permitted. Luckily I didn’t have too much time to plot my recovery before the door opened & they marched in single file singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in their cute accents. I’ve never been so happy to be kind of a pushover. After school I made a trip to the museum to see if I could glean any more details about Saturday’s plans. They were friendly but nonchalant & the only new development I got was hearing the word ‘discoteque’ thrown around. Intrigue. The kindness continued when I made my weekly trip to the post office & was greeted with yet another care package & spent the rest of the evening savoring rice cakes & catching up with the kind sender, Ashley, & my family on Skype.
Saturday started by waking up without an alarm (always a good feeling) & hearing a knock on my door a few minutes later from Dasha (Olha’s daughter) showering me with birthday wishes, a cake her grandma had made for me, & kind words about how lucky she is to have me here. After eating birthday cake with Nutella from America for breakfast & talking to my host family, I took advantage of the beautiful weather & headed to the river. On the way a little girl on a bike who I had honestly never seen before passed by & wished me ‘Happy Birthday’. I got some sun & talked on the phone to my PC friends before heading home to chat with my parents again & then attempting to pack for the mysterious outing. I gathered from the sleeping bag comment that it was an overnight affair so I brought my contact case, toothbrush & hoodie as a defense against against the bugs-in-ear horror that I equate with camping. In true Ukrainian fashion I also remembered not to go anywhere without enough food to feed 5 & thus packed a shoebox full of bananas & my birthday cake. I arrived at the museum & saw four of the ladies I knit with & their whole families piled into a big white van. They beckoned me over & I boarded the van & headed off into the unknown. Half an hour later we pulled into a beautiful historic village/community deep in the hills. After stopping to fill up bottles with water right from the spring by a creek, we made our way to a big field that was open save for a little stage decorated with traditional scarves and a huge pile of sticks. The kids took to wandering the scenic area, the dads took vodka shots in the van & the moms started setting up what looked like a craft fair booth only on the grass instead of on the table. I soon came to realize that we were at an annual festival celebrating traditional Ukrainian culture & handicrafts in particular, hence the group from the museum
representing Yampil. We spent a few hours talking to people (many of whom resembled hippies…who knew) & then were treated to a concert where along with Ukrainian song & dance numbers by kids this happened…
The concert lasted until about dusk (8ish) & was followed by tug of war & games for the kids while the parents packed up their display. Alona (the director of the museum & organizer of this event) & her husband (the van owner) drove to the opposite side of the field while the rest of us…I kid you not…joined hands and ran around the huge bonfire in a circle until they called our group over for a picnic feast. I was very glad to have a contribution (however small) & felt a little bit like I belonged as we all unpacked our wares. I went off for a bit to photograph the scene from afar & when I returned I found everyone waiting with shot glasses filled and raised in my direction. Alona made a beautiful toast wishing me health, happiness, & a long life before giving me another necklace that they made, an embroidered napkin & a bouquet of beautiful Lantana flowers. In some miraculous feat I managed not to cry despite being incredibly touched & stumbled through a response in Ukrainian about how I was very scared to have a birthday without my friends, but was so glad that they were my new Ukrainian friends & were generous enough to invite me. We commenced the feasting & in another accidental but perfect orchestration of details I was within arms reach of the raw cucumbers & very far away from the mayonnaisey cabbage salad. It really, truly blew me away that these people who I hardly knew were so accepting & welcoming & we spent a memorable hour talking and laughing as the sun set. When it got too dark we used the car engine hood light as a spotlight & then the real fun started. First they treated me to the Russian equivalent of the ‘Birthday Song’ (there’s no Ukrainian version).
As if that weren’t enough we followed it up by blasting old Ukrainian music & having a full out disco in the field in complete darkness save for the van flashing its hazard lights in lieu of a strobe. The kids shockingly wanted no part so it was mostly the parents & I who, while just as enthusiastic, favor a different style of spaz dancing that looked similar to an Irish jig but much less regimented a.k.a. more chaotic. It was a crazy melee of jumping, skipping & kicking & again words cannot to justice to how much fun it was. As I laughed hysterically while galloping around in another linked-arm circle listening to them make those high pitched ‘ay-ay-ay’ shrieks that I thought were more characteristic of other exotic cultures I was able to take in the whole picture & realize how incredibly blessed I am to experience something like this. Twirling around in a cornfield with people determined to give a strange American girl a fabulous birthday was not how I thought my day would go, but I was pleased to find that when they asked me “You’re not sad/missing home?” I was able to respond quite honestly “Not right now”. I felt a lot yesterday- confused,intimidated, excited, terrified (when a festival-goer dangled his toddler over the edge of a tall tower a la Michael Jackson), incredulous, happy, accepted, nostalgic & extremely grateful but one thing I didn’t feel was sad.
We grudgingly packed up & headed for home when it started to rain but I was able to summon enough Ukrainian to thank them excessively for a birthday that I would never forget. Even the rain was a welcome birthday gift as it meant that I got to sleep in my spider-free (I hope) bed & provided a very fitting end to the day: talking to my college roommate Nicole who I’ve spent the last 3 birthdays with, on Skype for the first time ever & reading over the abundant birthday wishes from all of my friends & family at home (thank you!). As you can probably tell by the size of this post, it was a wonderful, memorable day & yet another reminder that I’m loved & far from alone on this crazy adventure. I’m still definitely looking forward to celebrating the big 2-5 with you at home in a few years but in the mean time, this works too 🙂