Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I'll Drink to That!

My host father’s birthday was this past week and the occasion offered another chance to observe the fine art of parties and toasting here.

Armenians love to celebrate things and when there is a legitimate reason to do so it seems a big deal is made out of it. Even when the occasion is a bit of a stretch there is cause for celebration. I am thinking of a day at work when I was passing through the dining area and a few women asked for my help in opening a bottle of wine. I obliged and asked what the occasion was. Pointing to the receptionist, one answered “Her brother’s football team won a big game! Join us!” Another day, what was supposed to be an informal coffee break (very common here) became a sit-down lunch for twelve to celebrate the entering of one woman’s daughter as a member of the church (they don’t have the baptism / confirmation process that I grew up with and people enter the church at various ages). That included wine, brandy and several different types of meat, pastries and the ever present vegetables (tomatoes and cucumbers).

But birthdays are a big deal (not as big a deal as weddings and “army parties” for when someone is about to start his compulsory service or after he finishes – I haven’t been to those yet) starting from age one. When I was in Solak, my host father’s sister’s grandson (also an Albert as it turns out) turned one. His party included khorovats for somewhere between 30 and 40 people, bottle after bottle of cognac and vodka and a cake with fireworks on it.

Baby Albert's Birthday in July

Albert’s 73rd birthday was a little more low-key, but it included khorovats on two successive days. The first was an afternoon dinner with about 20 family members, plus the volunteer who lived with this family last year and myself. [Random note about unemployment here: While one might ask why a dinner for 20 was scheduled for a Thursday afternoon, Albert pre-emptively answered "When there is no work, every day is Sunday".] The second was an evening dinner with three of Albert’s close friends.

Dinner Number 1

Dinner number 2

What the birthdays all had in common was a lot of toasts and a lot of vodka. During training we were given a lot of background information, not only of the whole tradition and language of toasting (an entire day in language class was devoted to that) but also in the fine art of declining a drink – which can tricky since we are also expected to integrate culturally. But I have found that people do respect your limits and will not press (too hard) if you say no, especially the host families who attend conferences with sessions on cultural differences.

But this is not a culture where people just down their drinks constantly. While the glasses may be put on the table and filled before you even sit, you do not drink until a toast is made (you have soda, mineral water or juice to sip on in the interim). In some cases, there is a toastmaster (a “tamada”) who either makes the toasts himself or delegates them. There may be an order to the toasts (to the occasion, to the parents, to the grandparents, etc) and they tend to be very lengthy. While I still can’t follow everything that is said, you can easily get the gist and they may go on for several minutes (no simple “here’s mud in your eye” although the toast at a regular nightly dinner may be a simple “May we be healthy; may we be happy”). Someone that I used to have Thanksgiving dinner with every year would fit in perfectly as a tamada here (as Cicero once said….).

At baby Albert’s party, the mayor of Solak was the tamada and it was clear that he relished the role.

As each toast was given, the person toasted then took the opportunity to give a return toast. The whole process for one round can go beyond five minutes, but then got repeated five or ten minutes later since there were the parents, two sets of grandparents and a great grandmother present. And as guests kept arriving over the course of the party, there was more reason to toast more people.

Another aspect of the hospitality traditions here are that if someone is invited to a party, everyone in their house is also. I was included in this fashion, and the hospitality to me as the American guest was ratcheted up so that I was seated near the head of the table. Someone I met that day made sure my glass was refilled as soon as each toast was finished but I had to start refusing after a while since we had our Peace Corps July 4 party to set up that day. But since I had my camera with me, they lit the cake early so that I could get pictures of the cake (and indirectly the terrified expression on the kid’s face since he seemed to be the only one to question the wisdom of lighting fireworks indoors).

At host father Albert’s parties, there was no tamada so the toasting was done by whoever had it in his mind to do so (it was similar for Gohar’s birthday in Solak although the group was smaller and her brother did most of the honors). On both occasions, especially since both fell a week before I was due to move away from the family, I took advantage of the more casual atmosphere to offer a toast of my own. And while my Armenian is still far from perfect, I got the sense that everyone was thrilled that I was taking part in their traditions (similar to the Gyumri Day dancing a few weeks back). Again I was reminded about how proudly the people here cherish their heritage.

For the first party there was no exploding birthday cake, but there were piles of food (after the chicken and pork khorovats and five or six other things, pizza was brought out, followed by a fruit platter). I should point out that everything is homemade as Armenian women take particular pride in their cooking as do the men with their barbecuing skills. For the second party, there was only pork khorovats but we also had rabbit (which answered my question about what Albert would do with the rabbits he raises while he an Emma are in Moscow – it turns out he had been eating his way through them all week).

But a couple of things were consistent with the parties. Due to the gender divide here (which I again promise I will write about at length in the future – it is a very involved and weighty subject) if there is a large table, all the men sit at one end and the women at the other. At Albert’s second dinner, Emma wasn’t even at the table. When it comes to the toasting, I have hardly ever seen one given by a woman except in response to one given to her. And as far as being given too much to drink, women can decline much more easily than men can and are often not even offered drinks in the first place.

And then there is the phenomenon of the non-smile. I have heard several explanations as to why Armenians tend not to smile when their pictures are taken (self consciousness because teeth here tend to rival the British, lingering Soviet era stoicism) but have not quite figured it out. People here love to laugh and their faces light up when they smile, yet you normally have to catch someone unawares to get a smiling picture (Albert can be an exception as you can see from my picture of him making wine a few posts back).

Before they knew the picture would be taken

Seconds later - the official pose

The younger generation has mastered the pose although Armen (on the left) seems to be struggling - maybe because of the stuffed animals


This will be a relatively short post since I have been pretty busy lately. I am moving into my apartment this week and we then have an all-volunteer conference in Yerevan for almost a week (including a full Thanksgiving dinner on Monday night). I have finally engaged a tutor and am working with her twice per week while still doing self study almost every day.

I feel like a broken record sometimes but the anal-retentive accountant in me constantly keeps track of milestones. This week marks six months since I left New York, I have taken what should be my last bucket bath and have done my last load of laundry by hand. I still can’t believe how fast the time is going but I’m sure it will slow down a bit when the winter fully hits. Still – six months??? I'll drink to that.