March 8th is International Women’s Day. What’s that, you’re wondering? Another one of those crazy made-up Russian holidays? Actually, Women’s Day began in the early 1900’s in the United States, inspired by a group of American women who went on strike to demand equal pay and better working conditions. But apparently, the holiday acquired some dreaded SOCIALIST connotations and, thus, completely fell off the map in the US of Capitalist A—less popular than even Talk Like a Pirate Day. The Soviet Union, however, declared March 8th a national holiday, and it remains a big deal in Russia to this day—though, granted, it has strayed far from all the values of women’s rights and equality for which it once stood. Instead of celebrating women’s strength and independence and social and professional progress, Women’s Day has become more of a Mother’s Day + Sweetest Day except no one works. Wives, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and lady coworkers are honored with presents and chocolates and flowers. Chick flicks dominate the television. Sometimes, I hear, the men even help with the cooking and cleaning.
So it’s not exactly what the United Nations deems a day to celebrate “how far [women] have come in their struggle for equality, peace, and development” (www.un.org – I’m in Russia: lazy citations are MORE than sufficient). But I’ll admit that it does feel nice to hear congratulations and well-wishes from every passing man on the street.
Of course, the real holiday this week was my birthday. Though I was 6,000 miles from the place of my birth, my friends, students, and colleagues managed to fill my day with happiness, wonder, and love—making this a birthday to remember.
Birthday preparations began on Wednesday evening, when I went with Darima and Slava to the hip new Capital Mall to stock up on birthday supplies. Really, I could have done this grocery shopping in any given supermarket (or perhaps, in any given combination of two supermarkets to account for inevitable inventorial gaps) without taking Marshrutka Number 30 to the end of the world. But Capital Mall has been on the “Arielle must see” list for a while now—and besides, I had to try out the new 5D movie.
After visiting a very impressive salad counter that offered a vast array of 52 different salads (not one of which contained lettuce) and selecting a dubious “salad” with dill as the first ingredient (closely followed by mayonnaise, corn, and tongue), we had ourselves a nice little mall picnic. Then I was dragged to the 5D Theater. Let me set the record straight: back home, there’s a lot of negativity and “that’s a lame gimmick” sentiment directed toward 3D, but in Russia, more D’s is always better. 3D movies are not offered in 2D format, and they also don’t charge an extra $5 for the extra dimension. And 5D movie/rides are still cool and classy forms of entertainments for grown men and women. So we went on a six-minute ride through five dimensions of Snowy Paradise.
Then it was back to the true reason of our venture out to Capital Mall: shopping. My friends needed to buy lots of Women’s Day presents, and I needed to buy fruits and sandwich materials and chocolates and lots of alcohol for our faculty birthday extravaganza. We just barely made the 9PM deadline for alcohol sales. At that late hour, and with our excessive amount of massive bags of merchandise, the only practical way to get home was by taxi. A good rule of thumb: know an evening is well-spent when you need a taxi to get home.
On the big day, I lugged all my goodies to the Academy (and then I made yet another grocery run for a cake and “fresh” cucumbers and a can of condensed milk for the tea that no one drank). Like a well-oiled machine, my colleagues and I sliced bread, sausage, cheese, cucumbers, and fruit and laid it all out in an aesthetically pleasing arrangement with the cake and chocolates and alcohols. When all was ready and beautiful, I ran around and invited everyone to “come drink tea” (which, in Russia, is code for so, so, so much more—although, to be fair, I had brought tea).
The entire faculty from the Institute of Linguistics and Cross-cultural Communications gathered around. The Chinese students came and delivered a lovely speech of congratulations for Women’s Day and passed out flowers and chocolates. Then the director of the Institute gave a really sweet speech/toast in honor of the birthday girl. Happy birthday, congrats on Georgetown, you’re fluent in Russian, your students love you, we love you, wishes of happiness and success in my professional and personal life, etc. (the “personal life” comments—and the more direct “just find a man already” remarks—could be taken as a jab at my singleness, but I knew not to take it personally because this is Russia, and they’re just worried about this poor 23-year-old American Old Maid). On behalf of the department, she presented me with a beautiful red-with-flowers shawl (perfect for Maslenitsa next week, and I’m dead-set on being a Babushka for Halloween).
We spent the next couple hours in Russia-Celebration Mode, enjoying my feast and good conversation. As a department, we devoured all the little sandwiches and three large bottles of champagne and wine, and picked at the chocolates, fruit, and cake. Thus, I more than fulfilled my Russia Bucket List goal of drinking at work. This great afternoon continued with my students not coming to class, so I didn’t even have to teach (probably for the best). I went home full of happy birthday feelings.
In the evening, I hosted English Club: Birthday Edition. You may think I’m a pretty cruel teacher, forcing my students to celebrate the day of my birth, but I will have you know that this was completely optional. No one is required to come to English Club (just as no one, apparently, is required to come to class). I just happen to be blessed with some of the greatest students on the planet. Just like you’d find at home, after cake and tea was time for. Unlike back home, however, presents are always accompanied by beautiful, touching speeches and well-wishes (I tell you, Russians have perfected the art of well-wishing. It’s always so poetic! Every one of them could put Hallmark out of business). With speeches in English, Russian, and Buryat, I was the happiest, proudest English teacher ever. Amongst other things, I am now the proud owner of a stuffed baby Nerpa, some beautiful Baikal souvenirs, an ice cream bowl, and a t-shirt with a Buryat princess and buuzy. Also, somewhere along the line, I seem to have acquired the status of “Buryat girl.”
After presents and the mandatory photo-shoot, it was game-time, of course. The “Fruits” game was such a hit in the classroom that it has found its way into English Club fun. We played a rather rowdy card game (I wasn’t worried about upsetting the neighbors. The people downstairs probably just thought my neighbor started his raucous nightly laundering a few hours early). And then I introduced Russia to “Go Fish” (which, now that I think about it, requires a surprising amount of honesty and trust for such a competitive game).
It was a lovely conclusion to a lovely day, celebrating the end of a lovely year and the start of the lovely year to come.