happy birthdays, horilka, and holodets

my birthday morning, i woke up not feeling any older (though definitely a little wiser), and treated myself to a clean pair of socks, shaved armpits, and one of the two cliff bars i brought from america. whoever said ‘it’s the little things that count’ really knew what they were talking about.

i headed off to my ukrainian teacher, katya’s house for my daily dose of 4 hours of language lessons yeeeeea! even though that part wasn’t necessarily fun, it was nice to spend the day with a few american friends. our language teacher directed our class in singing ukrainian happy birthday and pulled (and i mean puuuulled) my ears 24 times to help me grow big and tall (and have abnormally large ears) as is tradition in ukraine, supposedly…

in the evening my host mom and i walked to her father’s house for dinner, who turns out to be my birthday twin (though he was turning 68). not gonna lie…i was a little nervous to go to a house where i was the youngest person by 20 years and no one spoke english. but knowing how welcoming ukrainians have been i figured i could handle it. and it was my birthday so i felt a little fearless.

once we reached his house, on the other side of town, my host mom opened the door letting the slightly out of tune singing billow out of the delicious smelling house. i knew i would be in good company even before i stepped inside. an older man, my host mom’s father (which everyone calls ‘дідусь ’ for grandpa) walked to the front door with open arms and a the biggest grin. as he greeted my host mom, i was trying to recite ‘happy birthday дідусь’ in my head before he addressed me. but before i could even spit out my robotic sounding ukrainian, he grabbed me by the shoulders, pulled me in, and as if in slow motion i saw him pucker coming in for a kiss. on the lips. he gave me four of the biggest, vodka tasting kisses i think i’ve ever gotten…and he probably would have kept going if it wasn’t for my host mom, the referee, pull him away from me. the taste of дідусь and vodka stayed on my lips for a while as i went around and met everyone else (thankfully they went for cheek kisses instead).

i was immediately shuffled into the living room, told to sit on the couch, and had a stack of old photo albums plopped on my lap. as we went page by page through the family photos, дідусь stood up and opened a cabinet to reveal a jug homemade horilka (vodka) to which he funneled into another bottle and took to the table. the long table had every available surface covered with some type of food.

what i excitedly thought was a pink frosted cake with yellow sprinkles, turned out to be a beat and meat ‘cake’ lol. if one thing in the world is true…it’s that ukrainian foods center around their love of mayonnaise, oil, salt, and fatty meats. not necessarily the healthiest diet. so i shouldn’t have been surprised when the bowl in the center of the table that looked like soup turned out to be the infamous ‘holodets’. i’ve only heard stories about it from other peace corps volunteers so i was kind of excited to be sitting right in front of it. holodets aka ‘meat jello’ to americans, is just that. meaty jello. pork bones are cooked in a pot forever till they leave a fatty jelly substance, to which more meet and maybe carrots (to make it healthier) are added. certainly interesting. thank goodness i’m vegetarian and got out of even being offered that.

every five minutes during dinner, in between singing old timey ukrainian songs, дідусь kept pouring horilka. the older women kept insisting he’d had enough horlika. so when he wasn’t looking, one of them secretively poured half of his shot into theirs and gave me an all knowing wink. the longer the night went on, the louder the singing became, and the more it seemed like they were trying to out-sing each other. their sheer volume and alley cat harmony made it really hard not to laugh at some points.

like all ukrainian meals, it lasted late into the night. at which time my host mom explained i still had to go home and write prepare for my lesson plan the next day. we cleared the table that still had mostly full plates of food and went into the kitchen. the бабуся had already starting cleaning the stacks and stacks of dishes, which i tried to help clean, but got a laughing ‘scold’. i told her ‘many many thanks for the delicious food’, received an extra piece of delicious apple cake for the next day, warm hug, and told and invitation to come back soon.

after dodging a goodbye kiss on the lips from deduce, my host mom and i began our thirty minute extremely dimly lit (and not at all lit) walk home. which, for the duration of the walk, i carried on a conversation with my host mom entirely in ukrainian. i’m sure i still sound somewhat like an idiot, but i’m able to actually get some points across which is one of the greatest feelings. i was so proud of myself. i guess the 4 hours of language lessons 5 times a week are proving themselves effective. ; )

one birthday down…two more to go.

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