A Thing or Two About Life: A Birthday Chronicle

lala bday party 1 - Copy

A photo of the besties in costume for their big performance honoring/teasing my aunt

My aunt turned the big 6-0.

She’ll probably kill me for broadcasting this to the world.  But I think it’s necessary for my purposes.

Mostly because, it’s kind of a big deal.  In Russian, we call this a “circular date.”  A milestone.  Something huge that deservedly requires something grand to mark its presence.

To commemorate, my aunt invited friends and family from our town, other states and other countries.  I’m pretty sure she invited everyone she knew.  Old friends, new friends, relatives I’ve never met and neighbors who treat me like family.

She decided to put aside that whole “shit I’m getting older” situation and decided to have a big damn blow out.

And we applauded her.

And we braced ourselves.

Because we knew this meant a “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” style party, during which we would eat enough food for 30 days and those of us “youth” would stare with mouth agape wondering how it was possible we ever made any friends.

food

One of the tables. It could have fed a 1st world army. Instead it fed 50 of my aunt’s closest friends.

Unfortunately, this post isn’t about my eventful childhood (we’ll save that for later).  It’s about my aunt’s choice to ring in her important birthday with a positive attitude and a hell of a lot of fun.

She always tells me about the parties she and her friends throw together.  The kind of fun they conjure up, seemingly from nothing.  When she phones me to catch up, the conversation inevitably turns to some gathering these friends had and the songs, skits, poems, readings and/or ensembles they put together.

My aunt’s birthday offered me a peek into their traditions.

These weren’t ordinary toasts.  The MC’s main job was passing the microphone around from group of friends to group of friends so they could start on their “prepared piece” in honor of my aunt.

My expressions went from awed shock to laughter.

And at the risk of showing the world the insanity that is a birthday party in “my culture,” I’ve attached the video of one of the performances here – my favorite one.  Where they dressed up in “Ukrainian wear” and sang a Ukrainian folk song in jest to tease my aunt.

You don’t need to watch all 2 minutes and 48 seconds of this video.  I realize it’s a lot to ask.  But should you choose to click on the link below, keep in mind that these women are dentists, lawyers, doctors and engineers by day.  Also – I had no idea they even knew how to speak Ukrainian (my family speaks Russian).  Also – I had no idea our friend the MC could play the accordion.  Or that people still played the accordion.

It was absolutely ridiculous.

But so damn fun.

I’m thinking my aunt and her friends have a thing or 2 figured out.  Maybe they know how real fun is had.

Between catching up with my cousin and family friends, dancing with my boyfriend, my uncle and my dad, stuffing myself with deliciousness, taking hundreds of photos, and watching my family members dance together, I was absolutely caught up and living in the moment.

brother sister

My dad dancing with his sister, the birthday girl.

Admittedly, I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

We laughed.  We danced.  We sang.

What more can a person ask for?

Awesome.

Dating Inside My Culture / Why I’ll Never Date Boris the Hunter

RUSSIAN MAN WITH USHANKA

This post was inspired by an article I read while sitting in the inviting confines of the MRI waiting room.

While I was busy mouthing off to the “doctor” at the orthopedics unit (NO. It’s fine. What? An MRI? NO.), a friend sent me an article to read just in case I needed something to keep me busy.

(For those that are just joining the party: I added excitement to my life a few weeks ago when my wrist took one for the team when I fell on a boat.  I’ve been pretending it’s FINE ever since.)

Friend apparently thought that the best form of therapeutic literary Zen before being sent into the tube to enjoy the rare acoustics of a jack hammer was to have me ponder my dating life (Clearly friendship will be questioned later).

The article, written by Diana Bruk, pushed my primal buttons.

In her account of why “I love (and hate) dating Russian men,” Bruk recounts, in impressive honesty, the ways in which she feels torn between dating her culture’s Russian “patriarchal alpha males” in St. Petersburg and the American egalitarian, no-strings-attached guys.  According to the author, who has split her time between the privileged New York liberal arts school where she attended college and the “crumbling communal building” in St. Petersburg where she moved thereafter to teach English, dating in Eastern Europe is like dating in modern day 1927.

Like the author, I too was born in the Soviet Union.  I also moved to the US at a young age and sure enough… went to a liberal arts school on the east coast where I learned valuable lessons like: your natural beer pong abilities are directly proportional to the caliber of your love life; boys can be judged on their ability to pair a pink Lacoste polo with a Brooks Brothers pant; sneaking onto the President’s lawn post frat party is considered a romantic date.

Unlike the author, I have never been back to the motherland and I’ve committed to my one and only US passport (like a glowing bride).

Until this year, I had never dated a Russian before.  Nothing about a union with a Russian male appealed to me.  I was sure that I had more in common with a Filipino rice farmer.

Most of the reasons why I never dated a Ukrainian/Russian are neatly outlined by Bruk.  In fact, while reading it, I kept gripping my iPhone trying not to yell “NO DUH.”  Not surprisingly, the lack of respect for your independence, chauvinistic sex practices and the inability to digest the word “no” is not absolutely thrilling to a girl who moved to the land of the free and freakishly independent when she was 5 (her. Not me. I was 6.) and then graduated from Liberal Arts University where, let’s be honest, feminism is taught as a first year requirement.

So Yeah.  I’m not running towards Boris the Hunter.  I’m turning around slowly with some swagger and thinking “tool.”

I hadn’t given it too much thought to be honest – this whole Ukrainian/Russian man topic (except for NO thanks) – until this year; when I moved back to the Midwest, reconnected with some of my roots and thought about what I wanted to be when I grow up.

In the past year, my family has taken it upon themselves to casually suggest some Russian dating partners… as if to say OK you’ve had a great deal of fun… time to settle down. Boris the Hunter is waiting for you.  He brought his club.  And some meat.  Swoon.

While I was busy beating Boris the Hunter over the head with his own club, I connected with my roots by way of extended family, family friends and even made some new friends from my culture in my new city (Chicago).

Recently, in fact, I’ve found myself “at home” dating and hanging out with Russians and Ukrainians.  I’ve found a familiarity and understanding I didn’t know would bring fulfillment.  While Boris the Hunter and I still come from different worlds, Boris’ assimilated offspring and I have found some common ground.  They might not tear my clothes into pieces in the heat of passion, but they’ll eat homemade pirogis, engage in broken Russian banter and rock out to Soviet pop hits of the 1970’s that our parents used to love (that we secretly keep on our iPods).

Boris the Hunter Jr. and I connect on a level I never considered before.  The one where you don’t have to explain where you come from.  Or why smearing fried chicken liver on toast is breakfast.  Or why your uncle still dresses himself in the same clothes he’s had since we immigrated to America two decades ago.

I don’t care if your mom immigrated from Zimbabwe, your grandparents came from Venezuela in 1952 or you were born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Everyone has a point of origin that dictates their values and cultural roots.  What I’ve learned is… no matter how far you wander and what new worlds you encounter and assimilate to… something about spending time with those from similar backgrounds strikes a chord of familiarity and gives a taste of home.

Boris… you’re OK.

And that realization is kind of Awesome.

The big 8-0: the Right Way

Me and Gramps*

Me and Gramps*

It’s official.

Gramps turned 80.

It’s been a long awaited affair that started with frantic calls from my brother a little pre-planning, had some tears thrown in (I love family planning) and included a grand finale (we come through in the end!).

We went all out for him.

The original idea was to take him fishing – his favorite activity. As a kid, my family would go up north for a little cabin-living during the summers and gramps would catch the fish that would feed us for weeks.  Days were spent watching Bewitched Re-runs swimming and trying to grab the fishing rod being grandpa’s little helpers.

At the last minute though, the wish to make this big milestone unforgettable took us away from the lake and had us putting on black-tie appropriate attire.

5 days before the big day, my grandma and I engineered a plan that involved live music, pretty dresses, dancing, toasts and mountains of our favorite Ukrainian food.

80, after all, deserves more than a trip to the lake.

Once the night of the big event came, it was time to begin our favorite tradition: toasting the person of honor.

I didn’t know what to expect.  All I knew was that little bro and I were prepared to bestow love on Gramps.

As I’ve mentioned before, my family has been through a good bit.  There have been divorces, re-marriages, riffs, deaths and re-organizations of sorts.  It’s been a long road.  When I’m not busy filming them for my made-for-TV-movie (MTV are you reading this?), I’m sitting around like a cocker spaniel with my head cocked to one side in disbelief.

My life is kind of like Modern Family.  The traditional family unit we are not.  But serious undeniable love there is.

Good thing this band of misfits is really good at pouring it straight from the heart.

My dad was up first (always) and delivered a speech about the make-up of the family unit and that regardless of life’s changes, my grandpa and he will always be family.

Little bro gave a speech inspired by Will Ferrell in Old School during which he yelled “you are a legend” multiple times and pointed at Gramps.  I have no comment.

Uncle began his toast by giving a summary of every major event that occurred around the world in the year 1933.  He ended the toast by likening Gramps to Christopher Columbus and reminding everyone that without Grandpa’s pioneering efforts, we would have never immigrated to America.  According to the story, after Grandpa’s first trip to the U.S., he came back and announced “one can live there,” after which, my immediate family, aunt, uncle, grandparents, great grandparents and cousin colonized the USA in mid-1991 (and subsequently learned to live off the new land by shopping at Kmart, Farmer Jack (R.I.P.) and CVS Pharmacy).

I spoke last.  I reminisced about the forts Gramps and I used to build out of pillows in Kiev, the 8 AM Saturday morning wake-ups during my competitive figure skating years and the adamant stance he takes on loving grandma and making them one unit.  Grandpa was always my hero as a little girl.  I thought he could move mountains.

There were tears.  There was laughter.  There was caviar.  There was love.

Gramps was beaming all night and even stayed up partying past midnight.

Not bad family.

Awesome.

*Note: Clearly I had a momentary awkward stage as a baby before I became this 4-year old beauty.  OK I don’t want to hear anything more about it.

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An Autumn Sail in July

chicago boat

The old saying goes: “it’s all how you look at it.”

Never is this truer than when your oldest friend in the world comes to visit and you plan to bop up and down with a bunch of other boats on Lake Michigan….

And it’s 61 degrees in July.

(Yes, this is a first world problem post)

Let me lay out the significance here.

My friendship with oldest friend was kind of pre-planned in the womb.  Back in Soviet times, when our parents were perfecting the art of homemade vodka distillation well-behaved model Soviet children, their entire high school class started to like one another.  And then married each other.  And then had some babies at the same time (it’s like a backwards Brady Bunch).  And then moved to America around the same time.  And then vacationed every year together.

We were basically destined to be besties.  Mostly because no one else was going to understand the trials and tribulations of having parents who started their life anew in a new country with small children and little knowledge of English … but I digress (I’ll save this enthralling sociological theory for another post).

Back to the significant problem at hand.

Months of preparation, one flight, one taxi, one night of serious dancing and too many hours of hype, we were ready for my promised day out on Lake Michigan (how else was I going to get her to move to Chicago?).

I told her to pack nothing but bathing suits and get ready for pool, beaches and BOATS.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up Saturday morning, felt around for my iPhone, found the weather app while squinting with one eye (daily morning routine) and was told by Yahoo! That it was winter.

I quickly checked the calendar app to make sure I hadn’t slept through July, August and September.

Nope.

It was 61 degrees in Chicago on July 27.

glass half full

The Mother Nature Gods were testing us.

Do we throw in the towel and… see a movie??  Go sight-seeing with sweatshirts and fall scarves??

NO.

We put bikinis on.  Bring hoodies.  Buy snacks.  Go anyway.

After all, having fun is really about whom you’re with and our history shows that we can basically tear it up under any circumstance.  Like when we were 10 and our parents took us to Lake Placid for New Years and we decided to make memory cups by dripping candle wax into wine cups and… set her hair on fire.  We danced all night anyway (tears were brief).

Lucky for our positive attitudes, the friends we were joining (on their boat) were in too.

The ride out to the location of said boat party induced a bit of sea sickness and it was cold but we indulged in the day anyway.

sail

Once anchored and tied to a row of boats (for boat hopping), adrenaline (and beer) took over and we jumped in the water, made friends, played with water toys, took  pictures, laughed, drank, danced and truly vacated.

Most of all, there was a lot of laughter and bonding.  I’m pretty sure that was the whole point anyway.

I’m really glad we got out of bed on July 27 and went out to sea.

It was Awesome.

picstitch (3)

Finding Family Abroad

plaka beach naxos greece

One of the best parts of traveling abroad, for me, has always been tied to the connections you make.

The notion that somewhere across the ocean are people totally different than you and yet absolutely the same perplexes, fascinates and makes me giddy.

The second part of this week, we found ourselves on the Greek Isle Naxos, about a 2 hour ferry ride (cruise) from Ios.

Naxos is a small island known for local wines and a family atmosphere.  We figured that after the insanity of Mykonos, Santorini and Ios, we could use a few relaxing days.

By the time Tuesday came around and it was time to say goodbye to Ios though, we weren’t ready and even considered an extended stay.

After a quick mental pro and con list (over morning cocktails), we decided to press ahead as planned.

Today we’re pretty thrilled we did.

On Naxos we found an authenticity missing from the other more touristy islands.

Naxos isn’t the top beach party destination or the most well-known romantic spot on the Aegean so it draws a smaller crowd.

The old town has old passageways and stone streets with charming character.  The beaches are incredibly beautiful and the hotels, beach bars and restaurants are all family-run.  Food is fresh and goats roam the exterior of our hotel.  Travelers come from all around the world and have a habit of coming back year after year. The greetings between locals and visitors are akin to a family reunion.

Unfortunately for us, this time of year is still considered low season and beaches were largely empty.

It was time to adapt to this new atmosphere and plus…

We wanted in on the family fun.

Within an hour we had located the oldest beach bar and restaurant on Plaka beach and decided to grab a drink.

About 6 hours later we were still there, with local liquor shots, sangria and vodka drinks, laughing with the owners – two brothers -, their extended families and their friends (visitors to the island with whom they now spend every Christmas in England).

We talked and told stories as if we’d known each other for years.

It’s incredible to know that strangers with completely different lives, languages and backgrounds can come together uninhibited and laugh their asses off for an entire afternoon.

Also – the Ukrainian girl inside was thrilled for confirmation: vodka can bring anyone together.

Awesome.

A Birthday At Home

cake

My birthday was last week.

I spent it at home.

In true time honored tradition, I flew to my hometown to see my dad, little sister, grandparents and aunt and uncle to have my cake and eat it too.

It wasn’t your typical shots-at-the-bar fiesta (that came later).

Instead, I asked for a birthday party.

Maybe I was in a reminiscent mood.  Maybe I wanted to celebrate in a grandparent-friendly establishment.  Maybe I had my kick-ass 10th rollerblading birthday at U.S. Blades on my mind or the one that followed when my parents rented out an entire ice arena and I made my friends skate with me (watch me skate).

I wanted cake.  I wanted to wear a dress.  I wanted balloons.  I wanted toasts.

I wanted my home-based family around a table.

My dad made reservations at our favorite Russian restaurant (the only food grandpa said he would eat).  My grandma took me shopping to purchase a new birthday dress.  My little sister spent the morning picking out her most appropriate soon-to-be-a-teen ensemble (sweatpants and over-sized shirt).

The day was everything I hoped it would be.

It was nothing fancy or extreme.  But it was special.

Dad pre-ordered all of my favorite Russian dishes. Each family member took a turn at a toast.  We took pictures.  We laughed.  We reminisced.  We ate cake.

I felt blessed to be celebrating quietly (loudly) with my family (possible sign of oncoming maturity).

Absolutely Awesome.

Living in the Moment (Award)

award

Today I unexpectedly received the following award from Moment Matters:

Awarding the people who live in the moment,
The noble who write and capture the best in life,
The bold who reminded us what really mattered –
Savoring the experience of quality time.

I’m just going to take this moment to be un-sarcastically mushy

This is a pretty humbling mention.

I feel like most of us like the idea of living in the moment and try to attain this fabulous state of being but do find it hard (at least I do).  Living in the moment is something I try to do with this blog and finding the Awesome in daily life makes me get up in the morning wondering what small, exciting or extraordinary event might happen today.

I’ve pasted the rules below as instructed

RULES:

Winners re-post this completely with their acceptance speech. This could be written or video recorded.

Winners have the privilege of awarding the next award! The re-post should include a NEW set of people/blogs worthy of the award; and winners notify them the great news.

I will address said rules with the following bullet points:

  1. There will be no video (let’s not get carried away here)
  2. Acceptance speech: Thank you to my mom, who told me I could do anything.  To my dad, who still finds joy in the little things (like the Bachelor franchise).  To my lil bro, who tells me I’m his best friend everyday (until I don’t do what he wants) and to my grandma, who always felt fulfilled no matter how much or how little she had.
  3. The winner that I’ve chosen ironically made me think about some particular moments in time today: http://tworedtornados.wordpress.com/.  This morning I woke up, logged onto WordPress and came upon this Awesome post called “No More Lies,” in which the writer states:

“We owe it to the young versions of ourselves to fulfill their dreams — those dreams we used to cherish.”

This thought has crossed my mind once or twice before.  When I look at photos of myself when I was really young and I think… this kid has no idea what’s coming, but she’s… pretty thrilled.

Once upon a time I was this girl.  Having my first princess photo shoot (every girl needs one).

I’m going to keep trying to make her proud.

childhood

Wet Saunas, Moscow Mules and the Russian Bath

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Today I went back to my cultural roots.

It was the perfect occasion.

My childhood friend flew in from London to pay me and another pal a visit.  Our friendship started in the 1st grade when her family immigrated to the US from Ukraine, where it was fated that we would meet.  My family had also immigrated from Kiev about a year prior and I was already experiencing the joys of coloring by number without the faintest clue what any of the colors were in English (Stop yelling lady, I have no idea what color G-R-E-E-N is).

This history coupled with her relocation (abandonment) to England meant we needed a real bonding activity to utilize our few days together to the fullest.

The two of us plus the third (non-Russian speaking and scared) leg of this tripod in tow, we settled on the only fitting activity we could come up with:

The Russian Bathhouse.

Quick history lesson.

Everything you’ve heard about a Russian “Banya” is, well, true.  This famed Russian pastime, traditionally enjoyed by men, involves scalding hot saunas, the unique experience of being whacked by various forms of tree branches and the fittingly loud atmosphere of bathers being absurdly social in 200 degree heat after which participants enjoy rounds of salami, herring and an appropriately Russian alcoholic beverage.

A quick search and we found the Red Square Spa – a new establishment that has been getting some buzz in the Chicago area.

It’ll do.

The three of us entered the building, were immediately met with the sight of groups of men in white robes (in what looks like a 5-star restaurant) feasting on chicken, borscht and vodka shots and quickly paid our admission in order to receive a robe and towel (bed sheet) to sit on (lest our butts get burned).

Let’s get the party started.

The next 4 hours were full of relaxation, massages, vodka, new friends and salty fish.

The highlights include:

  • Sipping on Moscow Mules in the sauna
  • Making friends with extremely friendly (inebriated) fellow Eastern European peers
  • An up close and personal deep-tissue massage performed by strong Russian male.  (As someone who usually asks for the “less painful option” in the massage realm, I’m not sure why I chose to have my very first deep-tissue massage  at a Russian bathhouse. Whoever was in the room next to mine might have been scared).
  • Playing the “tell a boy secret” game while sitting in the female-only steam room (Yes. This happened)
  • Forcing non-Russian friend to recite Russian words while in the Sauna (she knows 4)
  • Feasting on dried packages of “Taranka” (super salty, cured and dried Cod-like fish).  I made a request for this favorite snack of mine and it was produced from the back where they keep a few in case they have requests (obviously).  This might have been the highlight of my day.  My mom and I used to devour packs of this fish.

We laughed all day.  We experienced extreme amounts of sweating.  We told boy secrets (if this doesn’t bond you, nothing will).

4 hours later we found ourselves at friend’s place laying on the couch too relaxed to move, oscillating between the rest of the dried fish (clearly, they let me take the entire package home) and 5 boxes of girl scout cookies.

Pretty exceptionally Awesome experience.

I recommend it.

Love

This week marks another year without her.

No words will suffice. There’s no way to explain how much I miss her.

Except to say, simply, I love you. And thank you. For loving me so much.

I’ve chosen to express myself through this week’s fitting WordPress Photo Challenge.

This is Love.

love love

Let the Sun Shine in

skating

Today the sun came out.

Literally and figuratively.

Yes.  It was the coldest day Chicago has seen in 2 years.  And Yes. It felt like hypothermia was upon me after3.4 minutes out the door.

But.  The sun was shining.

So.

I indulged in this mood lifter by having myself a serious me day filled with fitness.

Although January is usually a hard month for me, for some reason, the winter, in particular, this year is hitting me hard.

Given the fact that I was born and raised in Eastern Europe, grew up in Michigan, went to school on a frigid mountain and spent the entirety of my life figure skating (summers too)… you’d think this was all routine by now.

Not this winter.

I’m shocked every time I go outside and it isn’t 70 and I stare at people who are dressed in anything less than Eskimo-wear.  Secretly I’ve been hell-bent on pretending I’ve never experienced cold while plotting to run away to the other side of the equator.

What I needed today was to indulge myself in the kind of days I love most.  The kind of days I used to have during the summers when my coach would pick me up at 5am for a day’s worth of stretching, working out and off-ice and on-ice training.

Today I pushed myself to remember all those moves that muscle memory ingrained for two decades.

I know I’ve written before about going back to the ice.  Today I felt more confident and trained as if I’d never left.

I thought of nothing but the task in front of me.

It. Felt. Great.

After practice I took the train an hour back downtown for some pilates and yoga where I crunched, stretched and zen-ed through the adrenaline I had left.

By the 7th downward dog, I was exhilarated and exhausted all at the same time and felt like I’d found my center.

I ended the day by watching my favorite show with some tea.

And honey.

And some chocolate.

Awesome.