Birthdays: a three-year retrospect

Three years ago, I celebrated my birthday in Minneapolis.  My dear friend Sharla arranged a surprise birthday party.  We went bowling and then went to The Good Earth for a delightful dinner.  I remember beaming across the table, in awe and thankfulness of the diversity among us.  There was about a twenty year span between the youngest (me) and the oldest.  There was a paralegal, a few teachers, a chemist, an engineer, a man in human relations, and other professions represented.  They were people from all walks of life, who had overcome great challenges.  One was legally blind, a couple others had been through prison, one was now living thousands of miles away from the rest of his family in Africa.    We were European-American, African-American, Caribbean-American, African.  But more than that, we were united by our faith into friendship.

I basked in the glow of their smiles, and the almost palpable love among us.

Wednesday marked three years from that celebration.  I spent the evening under the stars with two Americans, one Indian, four Czechs.   Men and women.  Teachers and techies.  Atheists, agnostics, and believers.  And we were friends.  And the warmth among us wasn't just the campfire in our midst.


Birthdays and holidays.  Both are times with lots to prepare and enjoy and little time to tell about it.

2012 marked my first birthday in the Czech Republic.  At that time, my friends were mostly composed of my colleagues and some Americans from my church.  My colleagues organized a get-together at a pizza place near the school.  The sun was shining, and my colleagues shone with their own openness.

None of us knew then that I'd still be here in 2014, and they decided to honor me with a Czech birthday party.  They showered me with all-things-Czech.  This included Czech edibles like frgal--a sweet pastry--Czech pretzel sticks, bon bons, various chocolates, štramberské uši--gingerbread in the shape of ears to commemorate a battle--and some addictive puffy treat that's one of the nicer outcomes of the Communist era, and more.  There were also some historic coins, postcards from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and (as a piece of realia) an invitation to a wedding (that had taken place during the previous year).

Birthday snow last year.
 2013, my second year in the Czech Republic, I tried to plan a birthday party rather specific to my personality.  The result was a Saturday morning birthday breakfast.  A mix of Americans, Czechs, an Indian, an Australian, a Brit, and a brief appearance by my dear Irish brother.  The plan was originally breakfast and a hike to Halda Ema (the local slag heap), but the cool weather and persistent fog left us to be content with a walk through the centre.  It was an unusual celebration, and it was nice to see that I had some dedicated friends willing to wake up at 7 AM on a Saturday for breakfast.

Then this year, 2014, my birthday fell smack in the middle of the workweek.  I had my regular Czech lesson in the morning and then a "normal day at work"--which included: being hugged by a student (who then exclaimed, "You're so small, Miss Straszheim!"--she's quite tall), being gifted a couple of M&M's from a student who was snacking during my lesson, being sung a spontaneous chorus of the Happy Birthday song while returning vocabulary quizzes, having an original birthday song composed and sung for me by four 15-year-old boys (with the assistance of the music teacher aka my Irish brother Rowan), receiving birthday blessings and kisses by colleagues (per Czech custom), being given a drawing of my "imaginary birthday gift" from a junior high class (the imaginary gift was a rainbow unicorn), and finally having my last two lessons in the sunshine--sitting on the grass and reading poetry with a group of teenage girls.

As if that weren't enough, I then headed to Karel's garden, where he'd been tirelessly running around to arrange things for a campfire (táborák).  Petr joined in the work while I stood awkwardly around.  Soon a colleague came, and while we waited for the others, the fire was started, dusk fell, and the first špekaček were cooked over the fire to be served with seedy mustard and Karel's homemade rye bread.  The stars came and then the other guests.  They joined us for more sausages, veggies, salty cheese, and the beers that were cooling in the nearby creek.  Though many were meeting for the first time, people slowly got acquainted.  At the end of the night, I was taken home in a car full of friends, with arms full of flowers, chocolates, and nuts, my face filled with a smile.
Photo: Karel Dušík
Photo: Eric Hagedorn
PhooIt was a sweet birthday, made sweeter by the arrival of my newest niece to this world.  When I returned back to my flat, I saw that Gretchen Joy had been healthily born to my sister Faith.

I can now count among my blessings 3 beautiful sisters, 3 caring and strong brothers-in-law, four nieces, and two nephews.  Of course, I wouldn't be able to count them without counting my richness in having two grandfathers, two grandmothers, a mother, and a father.  And because family can also be attained by other means, I can also count my blessing in having a thoughtful stepmother and an entertaining stepbrother.

Moreover, I've also been granted some non-blood family here in the Czech Republic through the adoptive grandma from my church or my adoptive brother and colleague, Rowan, who has literally been a shoulder to cry on, who has brought me coffee and sunshine, and more than all that: claimed me as his sister.

Though it's a bit difficult to celebrate one's birthday thousands upon thousands of miles away from family, I can't help but bend my knees and head in thankfulness for all the blessings that have been showered around me in the form of smiling faces clasped hands.


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