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.

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.

Turquoise Waters, Sand and Heat Lamps

beach

Yesterday morning I found myself in Fort Lauderdale, dining on the boardwalk with my cousin, overlooking the ocean… under a heat lamp.

It was an unexpected turn of cold-er events.

We had tried planning for my visit to South Florida for months and given the fact that I’ve been enduring (complaining) about the Chicago winter for almost as long, I was really looking forward to some 80 degree sun-bathing and PIC (partner-in-crime) – ing with my one and only first cousin.

Family history: cousin and I were born 9 months apart in Kiev, Ukraine. Me first. Her second.  Certain personality traits were immediately evident as I struggled to share and she had trouble sitting still.  We were a handful right from the start and kept our “village” (two great grandmothers, two grandmas, one grandpa and two sets of parents) on their toes.  A few years later, my family moved to the states and hers followed about a year later.  We’ve been marching to the beat of our own drummer ever since.

Cut to present day and our brilliantly-planned rendezvous in Florida.

All was going to plan, except for the fact that we overlooked the weather situation when I impulsively booked a flight about three weeks ago and prompted the celebratory phone calls and emails in anticipation of warm-weather antics.

Not surprisingly, we were mildly taken aback (shockingly angry) upon stepping out of the house and finding our beach day to be a balmy 60-ish degrees.

A couple moments of reflection and we were back in the house.

Two cups of tea later we regrouped and laid out plan B.  I googled things to do in Fort Lauderdale/Miami while cousin did in-depth research on activity ideas in this month’s Cosmo (apparently dating ideas is applicable in all instances).

Some serious fits of laughter and discussion of ideas later, we were regrouped and ready to tackle the weekend.

After all, 60 is better than 20, the sun was shining and we were still hungry.

The last 48 hours consisted of the following:

  • Long walk along the beach (in pants) where we admired those brave enough to jump in
  • “Brunch” of tuna fish and veggie sandwiches (where we attempted to procure breakfast items circa 2pm)
  • Taking advantage of the “couches” on the veranda of the W Hotel (where we pretended we were guests and enjoyed beautiful views and amenities)
  • A visit to the Las Olas Art Fair (where we received unusual bouts of attention with the help of an adorable Pomeranian puppy)
  • Mani/Pedi’s at the spa (and some unfair but ultimately hilarious hostility from the manicurist)
  • Dinner on the boardwalk in South Beach (complete with two mojitos the size of my head)
  • Late night dancing at some Miami night clubs (with new interesting friends and an inspired photo-shoot complete with props found in the Delano hotel lobby)

miami beach

The last 48 hours did not include beach time, but we made the most of it.  We laughed constantly. Caught up on life.  Even made some new friends.

Awesome.

The Art of the Russian Feast

Filled with inspiration and energy from spending two weeks at home, I decided I would love to prepare a feast of my favorite Russian home-cooking for some close friends.

A small dinner party was organized and I set out preparing the menu.

3 days of slave labor (and phone calls at midnight to my family asking for help) later, I had enough food to feed a small army (just like home!) and wasn’t hungry at all (really takes it out of you).

The fact that this kind of table is set for my siblings and me every time we are home and in multiple locations is mind-boggling.

I GREATLY appreciate my mother, father, grandmothers, grandfather, aunt, parents’ best friends, neighbors who are culturally close to Eastern Europe and just random people who spend/have spent time preparing food for my arrival… (and don’t just outright tell me off on the phone when I demand certain foods are made)

Without further delay, I present the menu served:

  • Red caviar on traditional black bread
  • Russian Havarti and “Doctorskaya Kalbasa” plate (type of sausage)
  • Pelmeni with sour cream (hand rolled dough filled with different types of meats)
  • Olivier Salad (type of Russian potato salad that includes egg, potato and bologna among other ingredients and too much mayo.  This is my favorite food by far)
  • Vinegret Salad (Potato, beets, carrot… http://www.ruscuisine.com/recipes/salads-and-dressings/n–603/)
  • Chicken Cutlets (admittedly these were a bit overcooked)
  • Chicken Liver Pate
  • Herring
  • Russian Waffle Cake
  • Russian Chocolate Candy (The favorite candy of my childhood: “mishka and “belachka”)
  • Vodka (“Russian Standard”)
  • Wine (every kind)

We laughed at the sheer amount of food (“what were you thinking about quantity here?!?!”).  We ate until we couldn’t move.  We told stories (Customary).  We planned future get-togethers and laughed until we cried.

Verdict?

Success.

Awesome.

Vodka and Reunion-ing – Jewish Style

On Day 30, I found myself at a Russian rooftop concert wildly dancing in circles and singing along with other Eastern-European vodka-drinking twenty somethings.

Upon first glance, you’d think that I attend these types of events frequently.

Not true.

Although I hailed from the Soviet Union, I rarely find myself gravitating towards the youth of my Ukrainian past.  There are several reasons for this.  One is that I was a small child at the time of our arrival to the Land of the Brave.  Another is that my parents never pushed me to necessarily hang out with other former Russian/Ukrainian children.

Nevertheless, one important lesson was learned here: you can take the girl out of the Russian-Jewish land but you cannot take the Russian-Jew (culturally speaking) out of the girl. There’s nothing I can do (believe me I’ve tried).  The only thing left to do is have a drink and sing along.

I went with it.  I clapped, I abused wine, I swooned at the music of my parents generation (which I still love).  The highlights are as follows:

  • We danced (as previously mentioned) holding hands in circles, kicking our feet up, turning from side to side (let’s be honest, if you’re at a Jewish event and you’re not running around in a circle, you’re lost.  Leave and find the correct address)… if you’ve been to a bar mitzvah, you know what I’m talking about.  All we needed was an MC handing out inflatable toys for best kick and I would’ve been in middle school heaven
  • We drank vodka like it was water (and chased it with watermelon) and made sure to toast to family, friendship and being together …  le’chayim! (means: To Life… Yes, I looked up the spelling)
  • We spontaneously burst into song recalling famous Russian songs and rhymes… one particularly loved one about birthdays.  The band started singing along as well and we all swayed to the music as one bonded group, as if we’d all known each other for years.

There was hilarity, there was wine, there was fruit, there was bonding of sorts, song, dance, laughter and vodka shots.  As we stood there on this rooftop overlooking Manhattan, I felt surprisingly and yet totally predictably… at home.

Awesome.