Thursday, June 23, 2005

Having parties in Kyrgyzstan (host optional)

The other day, my girlfriend came back from a party celebrating her aunt’s birthday. She’d been gone quite a few hours, so I assumed it’d been quite a good one.

‘Did you enjoy it?’ I asked.

‘It was quite good,’ she replied, ‘though my aunt never turned up.’

I sensed a cultural difference here. It seems that the guest of honour is very much optional when it comes to parties in this neck of the woods.

I mention this because I have to undergo a Kyrgyz gathering in my honour in a few weeks time. To be more precise, it’s in honour of my new son, Lucas. After forty days, they always have a party to celebrate……well, his forty day birthday I suppose. I will honestly try to find out why this is at some point.

Now, much as I love my girlfriend’s family, I’m less than keen to go through with another one of these celebrations. You see, I already had one to celebrate…actually, I’m still a little hazy about what that one was in aid of. It was either my girlfriend’s pregnancy, our ‘marriage’, our general togetherness or my general wonderfulness. I’d like to think it was the last one, but I suspect it was one of the others. In fact, I think the main purpose was for the whole family to get a damn good look at this strange Englishmen who’d joined their clan. Certainly there were a lot of heads popping in and out of doorways whenever I walked down the corridor to go to the toilet.

Now, your average Kyrgyz party isn’t like the ones I remember from England. You know, you buy a crate load of beer, vaguely invite people round you know, make a desperate lunge for one of the ladies, get knocked back, get drunk and fall asleep on the sofa (you may also gather from this that I haven’t been to a party in England for quite a while).

If one word adequately sums up a Kyrgyz party then its mutton. This isn’t some fancy slang, by the way, just a literal description of what you are going to be eating for the 12 hours you are at the party (oh, that’s another thing: they are very, very long). You see, at any big celebration they have to kill a sheep in the guests’ honour, and then the rest of the time is spent eating the damn thing in a variety of unappetising dishes: boiled mutton with potatoes; boiled mutton with vegetables; boiled mutton with noodles; boiled mutton on the bone; sliced boiled mutton. You may begin to notice a recurring ‘boiled’ theme here.

And then there are the toasts. In some ways the endless raising of glasses and speeches are a blessing as they can often offer welcome respite from the mutton motif (and a chance to surreptitiously switch round plates with someone who’s eaten more than you). But they do go on, and after the 15th person telling you to have a fruitful, healthy life, it does begin to wear a bit. And of course this is all done in translation from Kyrgyz. My girlfriend dutifully explains what each toast wished me, though I began to suspect after the first couple she just started translating on a loop. And then there’s the huge, pregnant post-translation pause where everyone is staring at me and waiting for some kind of response. I always hoped that ‘thank you’ would just about cover it, but normally they want a bit more, presumably as penance for them having to make the toast in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, they are a great bunch of people: warm, friendly, bosom-clutching folk. I just don’t want to go to their parties very much. I look at it this way: if they came to England, I wouldn’t put them through a Morris Dancing marathon or force them to watch a five-day cricket test, so I hope they’ll cut me some slack regarding some of their traditions.

And if all else fails, they can have the party and I just won’t go…..hey, it’s optional.


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