Thursday, October 10, 2013

Moscow Birthdays

I celebrated my first birthday abroad at the age of 21, a dangerous birthday year for any American, and especially one in the vodka capital of the world.  Poor planning prevailed, and I arrived at my birthday party on an empty stomach carrying a bottle of room temperature Russki Standart.  It doesn't take a genius to see where this night is going to end, so we'll just fast forward to the following morning, which was my birthday proper.  Find newly 21-year-old Jessie keeled over in the bathroom, waving her host mother away because "it's just a touch of food poisoning."  Soviet-raised Irina is unconvinced, and rightly so.

Celebrating my 21st birthday with my American comrades 
(I count 3 bottles of Russki Standart vodka on that table)

This year, I had no plans to replicate my 21st birthday mistakes.  Instead, I opted for a group dinner at the Spanish restaurant I discovered last month and balanced out my sangria and gintonic consumption with an abundance of tapas.  Our girl to guy ratio of 8:1 made fellow Fulbrighter Yan look like the luckiest man alive, and he was approached mid-meal for tips by a curious Russian onlooker.  I missed the finer points, but I did see Dmitry give an earnest thumbs-up and manage a heavily accented "Good job!"  Yan, for his part, did get Dmitry's cousin's number, so it seems that rolling with a crowd of eight ladies works for him.

After the meal, the responsible (read: employed) members of the group said their do svidaniyas, and we remaining five migrated to the bar.  When I announced to Gilberto, the Cuban owner, that it was my birthday, he insisted on a round of shots.

Me: What are we drinking?
Gilberto: Homebrewed aguardiente.  120-proof!
Me: Firewater?  That you made yourself?!  YES.

But his generosity didn't stop there, and next we were throwing back a round of orujo.  I translated for the group and remarked that I hoped the complimentary shots didn't signify I'd accidentally acquired a Cuban boyfriend.

Cold War nightmare: an American birthday in a Cuban-owned bar in Moscow

Our revelry soon drew the attention of two Hungarian businessmen who were eager to show off their English abilities and to buy us a bottle of celebratory champagne.  Taking a break from the onslaught of alcohol, I thought I'd rekindle my friendship with Nini of earlier blog fame.  However, he cut me off me to hand over another bottle of booze, this one gifted by a Russian.  Re-enter Dmitry, the Russian under Yan's tutelage.

I thanked him, as well as the girl at his side who I erroneously assumed was his girlfriend.  "First, let me say this is NOT my girlfriend.  This is my cousin!" But that explanation pretty solidly exhausted Dmitry's English, and I drifted back to the Spanish-speaking crowd where my earlier worries proved founded.

Me: How long have you lived in Moscow?
Gilberto: 25 years.
Me: Oh, so you're more Russian than Cuban at this point!
Gilberto: Well I've had 3 Russian wives.
Me: No Cuban wives?
Gilberto: No, nor an American wife.  But that's the dream.

Then he smiled and gave me a very pointed look.  At which point, I screamed for help and called Molly over to defuse the situation. Gilberto may not speak English, but I'm pretty sure he realized I'm not going to be the American who helps him realize that sueƱo.

The night ended in the same way that my 21st birthday started--in the back of a gypsy cab telling a random Russian man my life story.  But this time, I wasn't suffering from "food poisoning" and my life story can now be told in decently rendered Russian.  It's nice to see I'm not just getting older, but maybe even a little wiser as well.


  1. Haha, I love this! "Food poisoning." One time I actually did suffer from something like that. I never drank a drop in my life until I was 20 years old. But at age 17 I went to a we're-gonna-be-seniors party at my friend's house. Her parents were friends of mine and very Christian. We had hot dogs and sodas. But somehow I kept feeling nauseated all night, and when I got home I threw up. My mom was suspicious, but it was food poisoning (or something like it)! She realized that, though, because I didn't reek of alcohol or anything.

    Anyway, I can't imagine how tough learning Russian must be!

    1. It definitely makes me miss Spanish, but there are some grammatical parallels between Russian and Spanish, which helps me in both languages (or hurts me in both, depending on how you look at it). And it's always fun when a Spanish-Russian cognate pops up and saves me the trouble of looking up a word!