A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine


As soon as I arrived at the office on the day of my birthday, I was greeted by full birthday wishes. What do I mean by a full birthday wish? I’ll give you an example. My friend and colleague Mila hugged me and looked me in the eye and said, “Congratulations! I wish you a life full of happiness and success and money, wherever you are (even if it’s not Ukraine). I wish you to always smile as brightly as you do now, and to stay young and beautiful. I wish you love and soon to be married and have children. May your life be complete and happy and may you have everything you desire.”

This was a comparatively short birthday wish.

It is also a prime example, as it includes two recurrent themes: youth and beauty, and marriage and kids. I think nearly everyone included these in their wishes. Most wishes were extremely personal. Some got really creative. Ilya, for example, texted me the following: “Mishka, happy birthday! 🙂 Be lucky, healthy, wealthy and happy every day for at least five hours! 🙂 Ilya”

I forgot to mention that when I arrived in the office, I was carrying four large bags of groceries, and had four other bags waiting for me in the kitchen that I had brought the day before. It is a Ukrainian birthday tradition for the birthday boy or girl (or man or woman) to make a meal for the rest of the office (or class or workplace). Think of back in elementary school, when students brought in cupcakes for the class on their birthdays. It’s like that, only bigger.

Most Ukrainians prepare a simple table, with buterbrody (sandwiches, just with only one slice of bread) with different spreads (pate, caviar spread, butter and fish spreads, etc.), colbaca (sausage, only better), and cheese, alcohol and juice, and a cake and maybe some chocolates or candy. I decided to put an American spin on the tradition.

I wanted everyone in the office, about twenty people that day, to experience an American meal that wasn’t McDonald’s, so I prepared a nacho feast! There was chips with melted cheese, sour cream, homemade guacamole, olives, homemade pico de gallo, jalepeno peppers that I brought from America, homemade chili, refried beans brought from America, and hot sauce brought from America. There was tons of vermouth (everyone in the office LOVES vermouth, plain, or with a little orange juice), wine, juice, and leftover vodka that I didn’t bring but was still around from the last birthday. Finally, we finished with chocolates and a chocolate fruitcake from Bulgaria, the best cake store in the city. It was a great success, and even though I made enough food for thirty people, it all went.

And then, of course, there’s the Ukrainian tradition of drinking on your birthday…


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