Friday, May 19, 2006

La Multi Ani

A year ago, I threw a party in my Boston apartment for about 50 people to celebrate my birthday, my friends' graduation from Boston University and the rapidly approaching beginning of my Peace Corps service in some far-off country called Moldova. Pizza and cake were eaten. Alcoholic beverages were served by me, my roommate and any other friend who wanted to take a turn behind our apartment bar. A Russian acquaintance of mine (who informed me he was already in double-digits for shots of vodka that evening) advised me that Moldovans were bad people and that I would be robbed there every day.

That was just a year ago.

Last Friday, May 12th, I celebrated my 23rd birthday and my first in Moldova. Of all the Moldovan traditions, birthdays are possibly my least favorite. No matter what, whether it's for a 70-year-old man or a 13-year-old girl?and I've been to both?a Moldovan birthday party comprises a bunch of people sitting around a table, eating only half of a feast that the birthday woman or the birthday man's wife has spent two days preparing. The Moldovan social pressures of drinking come out in full force, and unless you drove to the party, you are obligated to drink more than you want. At about half of the birthday parties I've been to, people have danced.

Birthdays are even worse at my school where I teach. Every teacher feels compelled to cancel the sixth class of the day and drag his or her colleagues into the faculty lunch room, where I have no choice but to sit, eat, drink and listen to all of the middle-aged women I work with talk about people in the village whom I don't know. It's a waste of my time, especially since I'd much rather be teaching my students.

This was why, weeks before my birthday, I told my host mother, Maria, that I didn't want to do anything at the school. I just wanted to invite the 10 teachers with whom I converse regularly (about half of the faculty) to our house for a few hours one evening. We would serve the traditional Moldovan fare, along with some wine and champagne. Maria said that would be fine and said that she would prepare the food.

The day was approaching. On Wednesday, Maria gave her husband, Dumitru, a list of groceries that he needed to buy in Hincesti, the county seat. They included pork, chicken, all kinds of vegetables, fish, and all sorts of other foods that I can't remember now. I gave Dumitru 400 lei ($30) for everything and left for school.

When I returned, the food filled the kitchen. Dumitru had overspent by 160 lei and had borrowed money from a friend. I gave the family another 200 lei, bringing my total to $46. That means that I spent over a sixth of my monthly salary on food for my birthday party.

Maria and my host sister, Diana, cooked all day on Thursday, fitting it around their other chores. I invited a couple of the teachers on my list, asking them not to talk about it with others, because I wasn't inviting everyone and I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Of course, since I don't know the Romanian phrase for "hurt anyone's feelings," the message was simply, "Don't tell other people because it's a secret."

I left for school Friday morning, with Maria and Diana toiling away in the kitchen. I invited my vice-principal and the school's secretary to my house after the evening's meeting of the Parent-Teacher Association (more on this in another entry). Violeta and Maria revolted, telling me that they didn't feel comfortable going to my host family's house and that very few of the teachers would want to go. They insisted that I celebrate my birthday at the school after the PTA meeting. I said that would be fine, and I called home to tell Maria.

When I went to the PTA meeting that evening, I brought a backpack full of wine, champagne and water. During the meeting, Maria and Diana came into the school's back entrance with the food and set out the masa. As the meeting closed, I grabbed as many teachers as I could, as well as the mayor, and invited them to my party. We went into the faculty cafeteria, a narrow room with several tables set out end-to-end, able to seat 20 people. Every inch of the table was covered with plates of food.

My principal, Maria (do you see the naming trend in Moldova?) was the first to present me with a gift, a green decorative knitting of a face with a long, flowing beard. It's a great gift because it's prototypically Moldovan, it has masculine colors that I can proudly display in my room and it looks like an ent from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A few other teachers gave me flowers and kisses on the cheek.

Slightly overcome with emotion, I wasn't overly articulate:

"Ce pot sa spun? Va multumesc tutoror. Sincer, eu nu am cuvinte acum. Nici nu am bauturi, pentru ca le-am uitat la mine in cabinet. Acus."

"What can I say? Thank you all. Honestly, I don't have any words right now. Nor do I have drinks, since I forgot them in my classroom. One second."

And with that, I left. Three minutes later, I was pouring champagne, although it wasn't a big drinking crowd because Saturday was a make-up school day. It was a Moldovan birthday party, complete with several uncomfortable silences. And although I would have liked it, there was no dancing.

The next day at a faculty meeting, I wanted to apologize to one of the teachers with whom I talk most, Doamna Ecaterina, because I hadn't seen her the night before to invite her. Ecaterina is one of the Romanian teachers at the school, the mother of my best student and the diriginte of one of my worst classes (a diriginte is a sort of homeroom teacher that stays with the same class throughout their years at the school). Because our classrooms are next to one another and three of her students are flunking my class, we have had plenty of occasions to talk. I wanted her to be at my birthday, but simply hadn't seen her after the meeting ended.

"I'm sorry I couldn't find you to invite you to my birthday last night," I said as I sat down next to her.

"It's not a problem," she said. Then she leaned toward me and said in a hushed voice, "I heard it was a secret invitation."

"No!" I denied in a loud voice, showing that I had nothing to hide. I wanted to explain the entire situation to her, but then my principal began talking, cutting short my attempt to mollify her. My American attempt to have a smaller party restricted to the people who I know had backfired; now one of the people I wanted to invite thought that I didn't think highly enough of her to invite her.

There's a lesson to be learned here: In Moldova, and especially in a village, you either celebrate the Moldovan way or not at all. If you're going to celebrate your birthday, you must have a feast at the school and you must invite everyone. You must make your host family slave away in the kitchen for two days and you must spend a ridiculous amount of money. If you're not going to play by their rules, then just don't do it.

This weekend I'll be celebrating my birthday with Americans in Chisinau. My apartment will be rented by the day instead of the month and I won't serve my guests from behind my own bar. But in an apartment full of Americans in their 20s, it'll feel much more like my 22nd birthday, before Moldova changed my definition of what a birthday is supposed to be.


At 1:06 AM, Anonymous Alexander Culiuc said...

I feel your pain. Celebrating your 22nd birthday with a bunch of middle-aged people (of whom 80% are women, I presume) does not sound like much fun.

As always, it's very interesting to look at Moldovan traditions from your perspective.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Peter Myers said...

Actually, it's closer to 90% women. If my 22nd birthday had been 90% young hot co-eds, I wouldn't have complained. But since my 23rd birthday was 90% old wrinkly co-workers, it's officially complaining time.

At 9:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whatever... at least there were ladies present!


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