Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Starobilsk Birthday Surprise

Olga came to Luba's to visit last week and invited me to our favorite cafe on Lenina Street, "for next Monday," she said emphatically. That's the cafe where we usually go for tea after our Sunday English Club meetings, to continue our conversations and enjoy each other's company. The Monday after Easter is a national holiday so I wondered about the timing, but I said "sure," as usual. I seldom turn down any invitation.

Monday was a warm spring day under a cobalt blue sky, perfect for a walk through the university campus to the cafe. When I got there, SURPRISE! About 12 members of our English Club greeted me with birthday wishes, a calla lily, and a beautiful cake made by Luda and her mother. It was as delicious as it was beautiful. Friends kept coming, and we shared tea and stories and fun.

As is the Ukrainian custom when celebrating a birthday, each member in turn around the table toasted to my good fortune, health, and happiness. They all had kind words to say. It was touching. Vlad, our youngest member and so faithful, recited a poem from memory (he only had to check the book once!). Alosha played guitar and sang love songs. Luda sang, her trained voice clear and lovely. Ira danced to music by her favorite American, Beyonce. Anton came to give a poetic toast. All the toasts were heartfelt and moving. I thanked everyone from the bottom of my heart, and offered a toast "to friendship" and "to my Starobilsk family."

When they asked me about my birthday in Toledo, I showed photos and told them that my daughter Elissa had asked people she invited to my party to bring "books for Starobilsk" or money for postage. "Not presents for you?" No, just books! And we got lots of them, more than we could send. Three boxes of books are on their way here from America, I announced. They were astonished, and pleased. It was like sharing good news with a big family gathered for a special occasion. I told them that when the books got here, we would open the boxes together at an English Club meeting. Smiles and clapping all around. "Please say thank you to our American friends," they said.

This year, my 70th year, my birthday celebrations followed me wherever I went! I had a party in Toledo with my daughters and grandchildren and friends; another in Saint Petersburg with my Florida family, my sister and brother, Sandie and Christopher; and a third celebration in Starobilsk, my village in Ukraine, where I have been welcomed, feted, and loved.

I feel so fortunate. I have received so much more than I could ever give. We Peace Corps Volunteers come to do good, but the best part, and maybe the most important, is getting to know a different culture and sharing friendships. Here in Starobilsk, we are Ukrainians and Americans united, sharing the universal language of respect and love.

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