This past Wednesday was Oksana’s birthday—the first, of course, since we’ve been back. It was an interesting day and provides a bit of a window for understanding more of Russian culture and our experience here, so I decided to let my readers in on it.

The day began well for me. For some time I have had pain in my neck—literally. I went to a chiropractor in S.C before we moved and got relief. There are far fewer chiropractors in Russia, however, and none in Luga. Roman has back problems, and through his visits we discovered a medical doctor who does focus on joint and skeletal issues. My x-rays revealed some alignment problems in the discs in my neck and a slight herniation. Oddly enough, Oksana’s neck has also been giving her trouble. The x-rays showed three fused discs from birth. So we both go for treatments once a week, as does Roman. It’s less than $8.50 a treatment each, so it is not a financial strain really.

Wednesday was my first day going by myself. Oksana had always served as interpreter through my first two visits, but her appointments have to be at a different time. So I admit to being nervous about the language part. I went over some medical vocabulary before I went, of course. When he started I decided to “dive in” and start speaking Russian and hoped we could communicate. He understood pretty much all I said. After a bit he told me in English that he had studied medical English at his University and medical school years ago. I guess he decided that since I was willing to speak Russian, he would speak English. So we conversed for the rest of the time (the appointment last about 40 minutes) with him speaking English while I spoke Russian. There was this “comaraderie” of having someone who was also struggling, but when he reverted to Russian he spoke slowly for me. He ended up telling me about his experiences in Libya years ago, and how he actually had met Gaddafi. He had to speak in Russian for the non-medical part, but since he spoke slowly I understood.

We have noticed that some Russians who will not speak any English when Oksana is with me, try to speak English with me when she is not there. I guess it’s just easier to use her if she is there, but my hunch (based on their comments) is that they are a bit afraid of speaking English in front of her because she is so fluent. Since they know I am struggling with my Russian, they don’t mind struggling with their English!

After my appointment I went by the market and bought some dairy products from our friend there. I love going there because her family has this dairy farm in a nearby village called Mezhozyorny. They sell wonderful milk, cheeses, sour cream, etc. And I’ve been going there by myself long enough now that she is accustomed to my speech. We were able to chat just a bit. I went home feeling very good. My “solo trip” went well!

Poor Oksana had so much to do Wednesday! Then there is the cultural difference that greatly impacts a woman’s ability to enjoy her birthday unless you are really into this aspect of Russian culture. In Russia, as I have mentioned, you are expected to prepare for your own birthday. I had decided that with all Oksana had on her right now, we would not have family and friends over and make her do all that cooking, plus the stress of three semi-lazy males having to help clean. We would take her parents and another couple out to eat. (Yes, the birthday family has to pay!) We would reserve a small room at a nearby restaurant. Her folks believed the kids should go, however. How can children not be present for mom’s birthday meal! The problem was our kids know that big “official” Russian meals take forever. They don’t just bring everything out, and you eat it. You start with a salad. And then another salad of a different kind; then another. One may be fruit, the next more vegetables, then the other some mixture of meat. Then there is the soup, then some other veggies, and only THEN the entre. The the dessert(s) follow. It is a long process. Our kids would die!

Let me just insert here that when I say “salad,” in Russia you are not talking about some lettuce thrown in with some carrots, cukes, and tomatoes you’ve sliced or diced. We talking major creations of such complexity that I have no idea all the things that are in them. I never knew salads could be so complicated! The same is true with soups. The Campbells soup people would bow their head in shame if they saw the soups a Russian housewife makes! Anyway, we finally resolved the disagreement with her folks by telling them we would buy a cake and our immediate family would observe Oksana’s birthday here on Wednesday and them take them and our other friends to a meal Sunday afternoon. Problem solved. Or so we thought.

Oksana’s parents are very loving, however, and decided Wednesday they could not let the day pass without coming in to join wishing Oksana birthday greetings. While their motives were entirely loving, our response was, “So this means cleaning and cooking for the parents as well.” Things like this did not bother Oksana before she was “corrupted” in America. When she had a birthday in America usually my sister-in-law, daughter-in-law or other friends would organize the meal. If it was at our house my son and his wife would bring in the food. Or my son and his wife would pick up a lot of pizza and all the kids enjoyed it as did we. No pressure. After spending eight years in America, Oksana somehow adjusted well to this “it’s your birthday…sit back, do nothing, and let others cook for you and bring presents” approach.

Here we all cleaned like crazy and Oksana cooked the meal. I say she cooked the meal, but what I mean is she went to the grocery store(s) on foot, chose the food, brought three bags of groceries home by hand and hauled them up to the fifth floor. She did decide to buy a cake instead of making her own from scratch. She saw a chocolate one just dripping with rich chocolate. The lady there told her they rarely sold those—they were so sweet and had so much rich chocolate glaze that it was messy. In general, Russian desserts are not as sweet as American desserts. We like that, but sometimes you just have to have a rich, sweet, chocolate dessert. She brought it home for the meal. Oksana and I were the first to taste it before the kids did. She whispered, “Just like in America!” The funny part came with 8 year old Gabriel started eating it. He immediately exclaimed, “The Russians have hacked American recipes and stolen the way to make chocolate cake!” He came up with that one on his own, so I think he’s heard too many political discussions around the house about Russian hackers! Darn Putin, he gets into everything! Of course, I don’t mind a bit the Russians stole the American cake recipes! Keep up the hacking!

Oksana was exhausted from her birthday. Marina Grace was not sleepy, so that made it worse. The next day, however, she got up and read the birthday greetings and wishes sent on facebook, skype, and WhatsApp, and they all meant so much to her. The greetings came to her from people from different “stages” of her life and our life together. They literally came from all over the world. She was pretty much in tears (in a good way) as she read them. They were a great encouragement! Then she was given gifts and flowers by co-workers at the school and received many words of support and gratitude. She received four different flower arrangements for her birthday! She loves them. Now we’ll see how the Sunday afternoon birthday dinner goes…. Should be less of a hassle—maybe.