February 01, 2009

5 Years, 50 People

5:45pm -- Thinking it might be a particularly long evening, I pour myself a cup of coffee, thereby breaking our self-imposed rule about that stimulant late in the day. I'm usually okay, but give Jillian even a whiff of caffeine after 3 o'clock and she'll be tossing and turning all night. It's especially dangerous given what I'm drinking, Nescafe instant coffee. I read a story once about a former Peace Corps Volunteer who was serving in some central Asian country and became a little too "integrated" into his community. He developed a habit of visiting a local opium den. Then things got out of control and he was sent home. There's nothing so nefarious for PCVs in Macedonia, just these little Nescafe packets, which we all tend to carry around in purses and hidden backpack pockets like a drug. Really, some people just hoard the stuff.

6:35pm -- We set out in what has turned from light rain into a light snow fall. It's our 5-year wedding anniversary, but rather than find a cozy little spot to celebrate in a private, romantic way, we're headed to a party. A house anniversary, to be exact. So while it may be five years for us, across town there's a three-story home celebrating a few decades. Along with this snow is a bitter breeze, so we catch a cab. Unsure exactly how to express where we're going in Macedonian, I tell the cabbie, "Umm, drive. We'll tell you where to turn."

7:10pm -- Apparently there's an order to all of this. During a house anniversary, or slava, the neighbors come first, followed by family members and then, lastly, friends of the family. We just showed up with the family members. Ooops. No one seems concerned; after all, we're just the Americans and much like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live, we just don't understand how things work.

7:30pm -- We're sitting at what is clearly the "kids' table", i.e. the table for non-family members. The table is full of wonderfully-presented meats (we ate wild boar), cheeses (and some homemade goat cheese), breads and sweets. At this moment we're speaking to the patriarch of the home, a congenial 75-year old man named Boroslav. His grandson, a student of mine at the high school and member of the debate team, shares the same name. Boroslav the Elder grew up in this town, survived a string of bombings in his village during WWII and went on to be the head cook at one of the town's Yugoslav-era factories. I ask him what his specialty was. "Grilled meat," he replies. 

7:50pm -- Two framed photos come out from the back room, each one with its own snow flake-unique pattern of cobwebs around the edges. One photo shows Boroslav, younger and working in the factory kitchen. An obligatory portrait of Tito hangs in the background. The other frame contains an icon, that of Saint Anthony, which brings us to this house anniversary.

Orthodox Christians, much like Catholics, just love their saints. In the Orthodox tradition, there are 365 saints. That's not a coincidence, that's one for every day. It's common for a Macedonian to be named for one of these saints and so, on that saint's day of the year, that Macedonian commemorates what is called a "name day." Celebrations range from a few guests to lavish spreads to which half the town is invited. And this applies to houses as well, except that, as Boroslav (the younger) explained to us last night, how the name is selected is a bit different. An Orthodox priest comes to the home with a book of saints (maybe the Audobon Official Field Guide to Icons) and after saying a few prayers, opens the book to a random page. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your house's saint. 

8:45pm -- The wine and rakia are really flowing now and the crowd has thickened considerably. Jillian and I are seated across the table from a colleague of our host. They're both police officers, but at this moment I can't shake the notion that this fellow would make the most wonderful Russian henchman in an old James Bond movie. Squat with a deeply lined face under his balding head, he has an enormous laugh and he's drinking the rakia like it's water. He knows just enough English to be really, really funny. "I learn from television," he says. "Television is a free course in English," I reply rather awkwardly in Macedonian. He roars with laughter. Yes, it is. 

9:20pm -- The place is packed. Neighbors, family and friends have all arrived and now I'm glad we got here when we did. We've got great seats with a view of everything. Jillian is taking note of the portraits hung prominently in the kitchen and living room. One is an exceptionally amateurish painting of Dragan, son of Boroslav and father of the other Boroslav. Shouldn't this be the thing collecting cobwebs? On the other wall is The Last Supper. 

10:10pm -- When I was a kid I had a magic set, the sort of thing that probably could have produced some really cool tricks if I hadn't been so lazy about it. What I really remember about it was the Bottomless Water Jug, or something to that effect. Due to what I can only imagine was a false bottom, concealing an inner compartment, this jug never seemed to run out of water. Well, after twenty years I think I've been reunited with that little jug, except that instead of the tap water of my youth it now contains wine. No sooner have I taken a sip of wine than our very gracious host refills my glass. I swear I've been staring at the same full glass of wine for three hours.

10:30pm --"Where do you live?" asks Goldfinger.
"Oh, they live over by the church, next to the auto school," replies another man, before we can answer. He gives us a shrug. "I work for the city, checking water. I see you bill."
"How much to they use?" asks someone else.
"About 5 cubic meters," he says.
"Is that a lot?" asks yet another guest.
"Not really."
Oh. Good. Is it more or less than what's in my wine glass?

11:35pm -- We've learned that it's never a good idea to hint to your Macedonian host that it's time for you to get going. Macedonians tend to interpret that as "I'm just getting started," "Would you fill up my glass, for god's sake?" or "When is the next round of food?" No, it's better to just stand, using brute force if necessary, and make your way to the door. We do just that, narrowly avoiding the roving host and his quick-draw wine bottle/bottomless jug. "Leaving so soon?" the table asks. Yeah, well, I try to limit my drinking to five consecutive hours or less. We thank our hosts for a really great evening and step out into the brisk, clean air. Happy anniversary, house. Happy anniversary, us.

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