Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Birthdays and Toasts!

At my school, birthdays are to be celebrated by all available staff. I'm not a huge fan of work socialization in general; I understand it's important and advances not only your cause in the game of office politics but also the effectiveness of the entire staff, but....c'mon....it's work. I mean, most of the time you're paying me to be here, and now you want me to spend my limited free time with you...for free? Hahaha. Nice try.

My second day of work in Ukraine happened to fall on someone's birthday. The school director said- hey, it's so-and-so's birthday, you should be here at such-and-such a time (such-and-such a time being after I taught a full schedule of classes and was super-exhausted: second day on the job, people!) Oh, and you need to pay this amount of grivna for your colleague's birthday "gift".

I just shrugged my shoulders, politely declined the invite, and forked out the money. At that point I wasn't very interested in my coworkers. The school staff seems nice enough for the most part, but a little standoffish. Now that I've had more time to think about it, I think they're just shy around me, but as a woman I'll tell you this: when there's another woman who's more beautiful than you, wearing nicer clothes, and pointedly not talking to you, we often think of her as a (to be polite) snob. But I don't think that's the case with Ukrainian women. It's certainly not their fault that they've been blessed with superior genes and shop for more fashionable clothes and casually totter around on stilettos all day (and are usually better-educated than Americans to boot!) The thing with Ukrainian women is- they're genuinely kind and welcoming people. Many of the girls at work- I mentioned they're practically all girls, right?- are so sweet and caring and always trying to make me comfortable. There are a couple who just seem to ignore me or look at me sideways- those are the ones I suspected of being mean, but now I think they're just shy or maybe intimidated... although I don't know what there is to be intimidated about! 

Anyways, can you guess where this post is heading? Yes, I've had a change of heart!

So, back to tonight. Originally I was pretty grumpy about being approached for another birthday but I grumbled under my breath and agreed to be there at 9 PM. Showed up at 9:10 PM and was recruited not into a celebration, but into preparations for a celebration, such as olive-spooning, apple-cutting, banana slicing, etc. And the obligatory "present" money was requested, of course. But I saw a glimmer of hope when the champagne bottle appeared. Perhaps not all was lost....

At 9:30 PM a small group had gathered. We began pouring juice (I swear about 1 in every 5 women in Ukraine is pregnant....but most families only have one kid. I can't figure it out!) and champagne, tuning the radio for (very quiet) background music, and standing around the little table. We ate bread, sausage, cheese, apples, tomatoes, and olives and toasted numerous times to every birthday wish you can imagine. Everyone had to take turns saying a toast....and people here don't take toasts lightly! It's a serious matter that requires a little thought, and the more poetic you sound the better. Finally, when all the beautiful and long-winded toasts in Russian had been said, it fell upon me to make a toast. In English, of course, sounding awkward as Americans usually do when we're forced to come up with a toast. I really must memorize something for the next time! I wasn't able to participate much in the entire event- conversation was stilted even amongst the Russian-speakers- but I really do like the birthday girls and towards the end of the event my mood lightened up a bit. In the end, even though this was my "early" night and it got spent (grrrr...) being at work for free, I'm glad I went. If nothing else, it's given me hope of eventually connecting more with certain individuals at work.  And I was glad to represent the "American" contingent of the staff..... for if we all have this attitude and skip these celebrations that are important to the Ukrainians, it's not them being standoffish, it's us!

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