A Moldovan Birthday

This is a post I wrote for our 365 Days of Peace and Friendship blog for Peace Corps Moldova, and I thought I’d share on my own blog as well.  Happy reading!

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This week, in Moldova, I celebrated my 25th birthday.

I’ve never really been good at celebrating my own birthday.  I like to be with family and friends, and it’s nice to get birthday wishes, but I get uncomfortable being the center of attention, and I really don’t like planning a party for myself.  All that said, I sort of wondered what it would be like to turn 25 in Moldova…and this week, I found out.

My second week at my permanent site, we actually celebrated a colleague’s birthday at work.  And I learned a lot about how birthdays are celebrated in Moldova.  At my previous jobs, we took the birthday person out to a restaurant, paid for their meal, and then maybe shared cake back at the office and presented the person of honor with a card signed by co-workers.  Usually pretty low-key, but a nice gesture.

In Moldova, I learned that, traditionally, the birthday person actually provides the meal and a cake for the rest of the office. This varies from place to place, of course, but the general idea is that the birthday person makes or brings everything.  At first, only knowing the American birthday tradition, this seemed a bit strange to me.  The birthday person does everything? But it’s their birthday, shouldn’t they get the day off?, I thought.  Regardless, as I volunteer here, my goal is to experience Moldova as it is, to embrace Moldovan traditions and be an active participant in Moldovan culture.  So I went home and asked my host family to help me prepare something for my office.  They were such a wonderful help.  And, little did I know, the Moldovan way would blow our American birthday traditions out of the water.

On my birthday, the first birthday wishes I got were from my site mate’s host mother.  She called first thing to wish me many years, and that I might find a life partner (if only I could say “you and me both, sister!” in Romanian…).  But her call was very sweet.  Next, my host sister helped me carry the cake and baked goods she and her mom made to my office.  At work, my first surprise was a beautiful bouquet of roses on my desk.  I think it was the best arrangement of flowers I’ve ever received. That surprise was followed by wonderful birthday wishes from my co-workers all morning.  In Moldova, wishing someone happy birthday is much more than just two words.  You wish them many years, you wish them happiness, success, health, a wonderful family, and you tell them you hope they realize all of their dreams.  They came in my office, and over to my desk, asked me to stand, and wished me all of these wonderful things.  It felt very personal, and very genuine.  I will never wish someone in the states just a lame, two-word “happy birthday” ever again.

About an hour before lunch, I asked a colleague to help me buy food at the magazin (store) next to our office, and we bought an array of meat, cheese, bread, fruit and vegetables.  Back at the office, we prepared the table in traditional Moldovan form—plates of salami, cheese, bread, a spicy carrot dish they like to serve here, bowls of fruit, cucumbers, tomatoes, placinta, wine—it was a true Moldovan feast.  And, like any true Moldovan feast, it started with a toast.  My colleagues, who I had only worked with for a couple of weeks at the time, showered me with wonderfully-worded toasts.  The wished me many years, all the best, success in work, family, life; I almost wish I had taken notes so that I can improve my “toasting” skills in the future. They also presented me with a gift—a beautiful clay pot with the word “Moldova” on it.  It was very kind.

And as we sat around the table enjoying the food, homemade desserts and Moldovan anecdotes, I thought to myself how wonderful it was to be able to treat my Moldovan friends to a big celebratory feast.  It’s sort of like Christmas.  As a kid, Christmas is awesome because you get so many gifts.  But as you grow up, you realize how much more satisfying it is to be able to give gifts to the people you care about and just to spend time together enjoying the company of one another.  And that’s how I felt on my birthday.  I realized what a pleasure it was to be able to give something to my co-workers and enjoy celebrating another year of life together.  And all of the sudden, our American birthday tradition seemed strange to me, and I wondered why we don’t take a more Moldovan approach to birthdays.

So here’s to a successful and satisfying 25th birthday celebration in Moldova!  A sincere note of appreciation to my host family and co-workers for making it a special day.  May we all enjoy happiness, health, long life, success, realization of dreams, life partners, and all the best things life has to offer.

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