Big news: I’m a year older.
I celebrated with friends throughout the last week, and I’ve been overwhelmed with all the thoughtful messages, and of course, all the cake.
I shifted into birthday mode the Thursday before my birthday, with cookie cake and ear tugs. Traditionally in Macedonia, the person celebrating a birthday treats friends, quite the opposite of the American tradition of receiving gifts.
I got in the spirit and made my coworkers a giant “American cookie” cake. (They call chocolate chip cookies American cookies.) It was another colleagues birthday and she brought in a cheese filled baked good, so we had a great spread in the teacher’s lounge.
My sweet, sweet coworkers also collected a few denars from everyone to give to me to buy a birthday gift for myself. (I have to tell them what I buy too.) One of my counterparts explained that it’s how they celebrate each other and I’m “one of them for the next two years.” She couldn’t have said anything nicer.
My coworkers all shared their best wishes in a mix of Macedonian and English. They also wished that this will be the year I find my husband. (My only wishes that day involved cookie cake. Not sorry.)
My second graders also introduced me to a birthday tradition: ear tugging. I was walking around the room checking homework and thanking them for their birthday wishes when one of my little boys called me over and reached toward my face. I had no idea what he was trying to do, but I leaned in anyway and he grabbed my ear and tugged it sideways. A few others followed suit.
My counterpart explained that the tradition is common for children, because it means they’ll grow taller. My kiddos couldn’t quite reach to pull my ears up, so I’m hoping the sideways tugs won’t mean I’ll grow in that direction.
I had a dogpile of hugs on my way out the door, which was the perfect way to end my last day of school for the week. (Friday was a holiday and my students competed in an outdoor running race.)
Friday felt a little weird. It didn’t quite feel like I was preparing for a birthday. Maybe the first birthday away from home was sinking in. I was just getting home from a trip to the market when my counterpart sent me a text informing me that she heard I had a package at the village post office.
(I’ve never seen the village post office open. It also didn’t surprise me that some third-party heard I had mail before I did. Sometimes my neighbor picks things up for me. Sometimes letters get stuck in our fence. The mail system is a mystery.)
I practically ran down the street to get there. The post man was excited the package made it all the way from Texas and we had a brief conversation about American geography. (Pennsylvania is up and right from Texas because I don’t know the words for north and east. He got the idea.)
Then he brought out the package. I’ve never cried in a post office before, but I was dangerously close. I could barely wrap my arms around the beautiful box from my best friend. The timing was perfect. (Seriously Anns. I love you so much!)
Saturday morning, my students competed in the regional competition for the National Spelling Bee. We’d been practicing with different grade levels nearly every day for weeks, so I was very proud that three of my students qualified for the national event next month. A few of my sweet students also brought gifts Saturday morning.
I told them the only gift I wanted was them to do their homework over the weekend. The nail polish, body spray, and bottle of vinegar was a bonus. (The vinegar was a decorative thing and spray deodorant is a very common gift.)
Saturday afternoon was when the birthday excitement really took off. I returned from the spelling bee to spend the weekend with the wonderful ladies from my PST language class. I got home to find a giant birthday cake and flowers.
I assumed they were from my host mom, who wasn’t home at the time, so I dove into my Texas care package instead. My friends enviously applauded as I pulled out boxes of shells and cheese, my favorite snacks, amazing spices, and tampons with applicators. (Anns, for real. You’re amazing.)
Then I had the surprise of the day.
My host mom came in to give me a gift and a hug, but when I thanked her for the cake and flowers, she told me they weren’t from her. They were from my mom in America.
Whenever something doesn’t make sense to me, I assume that it’s because my Macedonian sucks. I had her repeat what she said: she definitely said the cake and the flowers were from my mom in America.
Again with the near tears. I had no idea how it was even possible because my mom knows about three words in Macedonian, and none of them are cake.
I called her immediately to debrief. (The Magic Jack app is seriously so great. Free calls to any number in the US over wifi.) Apparently she got in touch with my host sister in Germany who arranged the whole thing. Sneaky and sweet.
But there’s more. My host mom came in one more time with a pile of cards and letters. I’m not sure if she assumed they were birthday cards and stored them away or if they all arrived Friday, but it was another incredible surprise. Thanks mom, grandma, grandpa, Anne, Gene, and Katherine! You guys are so wonderful.
My grandparents sent a singing card because they weren’t sure if we’d be able to talk on my birthday and it’s a tradition that they call and sing to me every year. I loved the card, but I was also able to call them and get my song. More near tears, especially when my grandma explained that they sang to me at breakfast because they knew I would “hear it in my heart.”
The rest of the evening involved sweats, downloading every episode of Lip Sync Battle (because John Krasinski in a dress), and eating more cake than anyone should eat in one sitting.
Rachel brought me a homemade ice cream cake. I also made Rachel a belated chocolate birthday cake with peanut butter, butter cream frosting and I made Sarah belated birthday cheesecake cups. (So many April babies!) We made a huge dinner of comfort foods, including potato casserole (in the casserole dish Iris and Rachel got me!) and a giant pot of macaroni and cheese.
Like true adults, we also stayed up late, applied care package facial masks, painted our nails and gossiped.
All in all, it was a very sweet birthday, by every definition of the word.