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"I've never been served vodka in a hospital before." 12/14/05

A Buryat birthday party.

I've never been served vodka in a hospital before. Or red wine. Or caviar. It started with a call from Roberto, a Chilean photographer.

"Naj, it's Roberto. You busy? Where are you?"

"I'm at the Academy discussing sculpture classes." (East Siberian Academy of Culture, Ulan Ude)

"Yanzhima asked me to remind you that she is picking you up at 4:30 and at 10 we will be meeting for a banya. You, Justine, me and her husband Nicholi and their kids."

"Do you know why she is picking me up?"

"Something about a birthday party for her aunt. She thought you'd like to experience a Buryat birthday party."

Sure enough three hours later as I was finishing up an English lesson with Badma, Yanzhima was pounding at my door. After Badma and Yanzhima exchanged greetings and news, Yanzhima pointing to her watch now creeping towards five and said, "Time to go."

We bade farewell and took the tramway two stops to the Republic (of Buryatia) Hospital, a grand campus of stately buildings painted in pale yellow, with white trim, and beautiful flower gardens tucked all around. Doctors strolled about, some chatting with patients and their families, while others headed for the tramway. En route Yanzhima was excited telling me that I was on Buryat national television yesterday, something that I had heard about several times during the day from colleagues at the Academy. I had been interviewed while attending the celebration of the dedication of a stupa to Twelfth Khambo Lama.

"You most famous American in Buryatia," she said.

"I'm about the only American in Buryatia," I said. "Why are we at the hospital?"

The honoree.

"To go to my teacher's 85th birthday," she said. "She and my parents taught at the Buryat High School and were close friends. She taught me how to write and speak Buryat."

"Is she your aunt?"

"No," said Yanzhima. "Like an aunt. But I will have cousins here."

After getting directions to a hospital cafeteria, we stepped into a room rearranged into a huge U-shape filled with people from about 9 months to near 90; sixty-two adults I later counted. Sitting center stage at the head table was an elderly couple, he, a short stocky man holding a cane and leaning slightly back, and she sitting ramrod straight proud in her jacket with its two medals, one for service in World War II and the other representing national recognition for her lifelong service as a teacher.

Standing in front of her was a thin elderly woman in blue, holding a shot glass of vodka and giving a passionate toast that had others riveted in their seats. We were quietly ushered to chairs at the end of a table and our shot glasses filled. The one standing and giving the toast held her glass high, knocked it back, and slammed down the now empty glass on the table bottom up to show she hadn't left a drop. A burst of applause followed with everyone else leaping to their feet, clinking glasses, flicking a drop of vodka to the four directions, and following suit.

Damn, I thought. It's just a little after five. These people look pretty tough. Would we survive till ten? Looking around, the good news was that it appeared that the people were well into the meal having obviously finished what seemed to be the main course. Maybe the second or third course I was to learn, with many more to go.

The honoree with her husband.

Refreshments included one of three choices, vodka, red wine or fruit compote that tasted pretty grim and few were taking. Food went on to include three fish dishes (stuffed, poached and raw), three salads, baskets of bread, a cheeseburger with mashed potatoes later followed by stuffed cabbages later followed by steamed posies, a fruit platter, a cold cut platter, caviar and stuffed oven-roasted chicken. After the cheeseburger and before the stuffed cabbages, everyone took a fifteen-minute break to visit the bathroom, go outside and smoke, or mingle; then it was back at it. After the second break leftovers from the earlier part of the meal started reappearing. About every ten minutes someone stood up to give a toast. Usually the person giving the toast presented a gift - cash, either straight out or in an envelope.

"Do you want to give her an American twenty-dollar bill," I asked Yanzhima.

"No," she said. "I'm giving her you."

"You're what?" I said.

"You will sing her that American song," she said. "You famous American seen on Buryat television. It will be a treat for her. Very unique."

"What song?" I said, as she popped up, pulled out a couple tapes about the 12th Kambo Lama Intigelov, gave me a white hadak to hold (white scarf given to another as a sign of deep respect, white standing for purity), and dragged me down to stand in front of honoree.

"Sing," said Yanzhima elbowing me.

"Sing what?" I said, my fear of singing in public causing sweat to begin trickling down.

"The American birthday song," she said.

Guests singing.

So I did relieved that it was one I knew as well as did about two thirds of the people who immediately started singing along. The song also seemed to turn a corner in the festivities and now many started singing Buryat songs, Mongolian songs and a couple Russian songs with at times everyone in the hall joining in. I even knew most of the words to one that seems to be either the Buryat national anthem or the next closest thing. Soon it was well after 9:00 and getting to be time to go. The cake and tea had been served and the tables well picked over. At this point the only people still capable of standing when giving toasts were the honoree (her husband having faded to a sofa), most of the elderly set, and a group of former students that included Yanzhima. The honoree's children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren were now glued to their chairs, and the great grandchildren (about eight of them) were too young to drink and too busy shooting paper airplanes about. I, nervous about the time and checking my watch, asked if we should leave.

"We get a ride in the chairman of the Communist Party's car," said Yanzhima soon thereafter, "driven by the chairman herself."

"Really," I said. "The party still is active?"

"Yes," she said, "but it's not the same as it was during Soviet times."

"Isn't that the party car leaving now," I said pointing to the only one remaining in the lot now jammed with people creaking out towards the drive on flattened springs.

"Ah, you are right," she said grabbing her purse. "Deviedavy, deviedavy (hurry, hurry), "We go to tramway. Nicholi is waiting. Banya."

The Communist Party

Tram decked out by the Communist Party.

I don't know what is their platform as yet, but I have to say I was both surprised and impressed by the local Communist Party's electioneering. About a week ago as I was getting ready to go downtown to meet Dab Plumley, a tram pull up festooned with banners, big red flags flying, and that classic Soviet Workers Party music blasting out the windows. It reminded me a bit of the trains in the film Doctor Zhivago. On entering I saw that the party had taken over, rented really, the entire tram. Rides were free as they paid for all people coming on. They had laid planks over several seats turning them into table filled with literature including petitions to sign and an opportunity to vote on a couple issues. While I am pleased that our political parties can't rent subways, buses and other public transportation in the same manner, I had to give them credit for their get-out-the-vote gumption in a country that is so dominated by Moscow that opposing views are rarely published in the media, indeed generally suppressed.

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