Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A beautiful birthday in Azerbaijan

Those of you that know me well will know that I have developed a habit in the more recent years of letting my birthday fly under the radar. Amongst my fellow trainees here in Azerbaijan we had exchanged birthdays early on, but I had not planned on mentioning it to my host family. I did not want them to feel obligated to celebrate with me or do anything to mark the occasion, and in all honesty, the older I get the less significant the day has become for me.

This past Saturday I arrived home to a quieter than normal house, with my host parents and grandma at a wedding and one brother at a neighbors for the night. At one point in the evening as we were having tea, my brother Ali told me that he was now 7, but would be 8 soon. When I asked him when, I misunderstood his explanation of "soon" as tomorrow. I then got caught up in the spirit of the coincidence and told him that my birthday was the following day. (I can advise anyone that comes across this situation in the future that, as you might guess, it is the ultimate way to NOT keep your birthday under wraps:).

The next morning within a minute of opening my door after waking up, my 6 yr old brother was there to ask if it really was my birthday the next day. My grandmother then followed several minutes later with the same question. My awkward responses of yes to both was met with big smiles and "ahh's". When the subject of cake came up I did my best to explain it was not necessary. The topic then came up again several times during the day and each time I would try to explain it was not necessary, but they would just think I was not understanding correctly and just explain to me in different words that they were making a cake.

Sundays are our only day off from school here and although it is really nice to have a break, we are very limited with options of what we can do with our time. There are not any public places in our town like a coffee shop, library or cafe where we can meet and just hang out. So, Julie, Marcy and I decided to just take a walk in the afternoon for some fresh air and just to be out for a bit. We were gone for an hour or two and when I arrived home there was a beautiful homemade cake on the counter for me. My brother was super excited to show it to me and explain it was for tomorrow. I was very touched, but also a little embarrassed at the effort it must have required. I have enough trouble making a cake out of the box so can only imagine making one from scratch...

On Monday (my birthday) I did not start class until 11am so got to sleep in a bit. Once my door was open I was wished happy birthday by my host mom and grandmother and treated to a pretty awesome half English / half Azerbaijani rendition of happy birthday by one of my 4 year old brothers. I could have called it at that and had it as the perfect way to start the day. Little did I know it would get even better... Julie, who is a fellow volunteer, lives around the corner from me so she comes to my house each morning and we walk to school together. She arrived as normal and we were halfway out my courtyard when I was called back in by my host mom. She had the cake with a big candle in it for me to blow out and it was then cake and tea time. (The unofficial slogan for Azerbaijan, I believe, is that there is never a bad time for something sweet and it was definitely the case that day). The cake was delicious and such a thoughtful way to have my day start. I was in a great mood and we just chatted about how nice it was for the several minute or so walk to class. We then entered the classroom where I was met with more cake and probably the coolest birthday "candle" I have ever seen. More cake and tea and even some pictures (I promise to add soon), and a super thoughtful gift of a beautiful scarf and some cozy socks from the best language instructor ever, Mahira!

The rest of the day passed by with technical class in the afternoon and more birthday wishes. (Thanks Ceyranbatan 2 for the coke zero and Elmir and Khalid for the chocolates!). Rainy, muddy, cold walk back home from class and then in for what I thought was a quiet night. That changed around 8pm when people starting arriving at our house. Some were family members I had met before and others ones I was meeting for the first time as we exchanged hellos and I received wishes of happy birthday. Soon we all converged in our living room and I was sitting at the head of the table with a beautiful spread in front of me. I was truly so touched and moved by how much effort had gone into everything, that even if I had the ability to speak well in Azerbaijani I am not certain I would be able to.

After we finished eating, the men went to the other room to chat and the women settled in for their chat around the table. As my language skills are not great, my host mom was very aware that I could not really understand any of the conversation so told me that it was ok if I wanted to go. I took that as my opportunity to make a break for it asap in the direction of language assistance to try and compose an appropriate thank you. My luck shone on as Mahira also lives around the corner and happily agreed to help me. She put my thoughts on paper which I was then able to return back to my house and give to my host mom. She then read it aloud and I received an approving round of applause. It was really nice to be able to express some of the sentiment I felt, even if it was not necessarily spoken by me.

We wrapped up the evening around 11pm and I can honestly say it was one of the nicest birthdays I can remember. I feel very fortunate to be placed where I am and be surrounded by the people I am with. I am very lucky.


  1. That sounds SO, SO great! I'm really happy everything has worked out perfectly for you. Touches my heart that they have treated you so nicely!

  2. Such a beautiful birthday story!! Thanks for sharing it brought a smile to my face :-) Happy Happy Birthday!!!!!