In Moldova, the tradition is that it is the responsibility of the person with the birthday to put on a party for all of his friends. But my friends in the village of Costeshti offered to prepare a party for me in the forest outside their village if I would provide the ingredients. I happily accepted their offer and invited some friends. On Friday after work sixteen year old Dima arrived at my office with a list from his mother Anna and we set off for the market. Two hours later we had bought fifteen pounds of pork, thirty pounds of chicken, fifteen pounds each of tomatoes, oranges and bananas and lessor quantities of cucumbers, scallions, bread, olives, salami, mayonaise and numerous others.
We delivered the food to his house where we made the shopping list for the next morning (cakes, candy, champagne, cognac and more mineral water) and discussed the starting time for the party. They suggested 9 AM. I thought that was a bit early, so after some discussion we agreed that they would go early to the forest to begin preparations and that I would arrive in the village with my Chisinau friends at Noon.
So Saturday morning I finished my shopping, picked up two colleagues (Armando and Dick) and a friend of Dick's and drove to Costeshti. Dima greeted me with his ten year old cousin Micha and explained that some cheese pies were still being baked. It was a warm sunny day and we walked to a hill-side where we saw small entrances to tunnels. Dima explained that the Turks had dug these several centuries ago. He said that though you had to crawl at the beginning, a short way in they got big enough to walk and that they went all the way to the other side of the hill. None of us was willing to crawl in the mud to find out, but Dima suggested we explore them later in the summer when the ground is drier.
Dick and Armando sighted some old motorcycles with side-cars, looking just like the ones we saw on Hogan's Heroes, but Soviet made. We haven't seen anything like that in Chisinau, but there were at least a half dozen in this village. Soon they both might be motorcyclists!
Before too long the pies were finished and three more cars arrived with Moldovan co-workers and we set off for the forest. We drove for a while on a dirt track up a hill through vineyardss. Then we entered the forest, descended rather steeply and arrived at a beautiful clearing. In one corner we saw a twenty-five foot table next to a barbecue and a fireplace. I asked the purpose for the big light bulb hanging from the tree and the source of the electricity. The answer was "For the night, of course" and they showed me a generator at the other end of the wire.
There were about three dozen of us: a dozen Barents workers from Chisinau, a dozen adults from Costeshti (mostly Dima's parents' brothers and sisters and their spouses) and a dozen of their children, mostly boys aged five to eight. A soccer ball and volley ball appeared and we played while the table was set for a feast.
We ate and drank while we heard thunder rumbling in the distance. We finished much of the food on the table and then someone loaded up the barbecue with shashlik (shishkebab without the vegetables). Then suddenly it started to rain. Some people got in the cars and trucks, Armando got out his umbrella, I put on my raincoat, some sought shelter in the woods and others turned plastic bags into panchos. It rained hard for almost a half hour and even hailed a bit. But then the sun reappeared and we finished cooking and eating the shashlik.
After some more eating and drinking, a vigorous soccer ("football") game, less vigorous volleyball practice and some exploration of the forest we noticed that dusk was approaching. Our hosts explained that the party was just starting, that the road was now very muddy and perhaps impassable and suggested that we settle in for the night and return to Chisinau tomorrow. I was willing, but the rest of the Chisinau crowd decided that they had other commitments and that they should go.
However, getting home was not as easy as jumping in the car and pointing it down the road. It had rained hard and there were huge mud puddles. So the passengers and our hosts walked with the cars, stopping at each mud hole long enough to offer expert advice about the best route and to push the cars up the hill. Before long we were out of the forest and heading through the vineyards when we realized that Armando was still back at our picnic site. I headed back and found him napping and we resolved to catch up with the others.
We walked for a half hour before we found one of the big trucks of our hosts stuck in the mud but we were pleased to find three of the boys inside. None of them spoke any English, but five year old Gheorghi seemed confident that he knew the way to find the other cars, even though the only light now came from the full moon. Our pace was now a bit slower because of the mud and the fact that I had left my flashlight back in my car. We made a couple turns and Gheorghi's confidence diminished. It became clear that we were no longer on a road and it was not obvious which way back to our picnic site. I made the mistake of asking (in my best Romanian), "Where is the forest?" and Gheorghi started to cry. We told him not to worry and decided to look for the truck. Before too long we were back on a muddy road that seemed to be going in the right direction. We were relieved to hear the horn of the truck and found it without further difficulty.
Back at the truck we found Dima, who had been sent back to find us. So we all headed back toward the picnic site. Soon we heard the truck rev its engines as it tried to get out of the mud. We could hear it coming, but we got back to the site fifteen minutes before the truck. Now it was 10:30 and time to barbecue the chicken! Someone fired up the generator, we moved the table closer to the light and we ate chicken, lamb stew and more.
Shortly after midnight they decided it was time for the children to go to bed. Sleeping outside seemed risky, so I folded down the back seat of my car and a surprising number found space to lie down there. Others slept in truck cabs while adults sat around the fire. I began fading an hour later and got in the front seat which reclined well enough for me to sleep fitfully.
The children got up early in the morning and it was clear that the time for sleeping had past. There was plenty more food, more football and volleyball and exploring of the woods.
Our hosts were only a little disappointed that Armando and I decided 2:00 was time to head back to Chisinau. They insisted that we all return soon for another party. Fortunately the roads had dried up enough that the driving wasn't so bad. We followed one of the trucks and Micha stopped to direct us around the challenging spots. By 3:00 I was home and ready for a long nap!
Of all my birthday parties, this was certainly the biggest and longest! And probably the most memorable.