I just turned 28 yesterday - and in saying that, I’ve probably outed myself as a foreigner, if not a downright “foreign agent.”
You see, Russian women don’t like to talk about their age - and Russian men don’t like to ask. Traditionally, people believe that discussing a woman’s age is pretty rude.
Even now, certain stereotypes about the aging of women persist in Russia. Just ask my doctor what she thought about me getting pregnant with my firstborn at - gasp - 26 years of age.
On second thought, it’s better that you not ask. I like my doctor - why bring up the stuff that depresses her so?
And here is something that many American women will surely identify with: if an unmarried woman has passed the magic mark of 30, she deserves “sympathy.” Or possibly even scorn.
My more traditionally minded Russian friends still routinely congratulate me on “turning 17 once more” whenever a birthday rolls around. “But I’m not 17!” I protest. “I was boring at 17! I listened to bad pop music from France and thought it made me seem profound!” Still they persist. They say it’s for my own good. They say I must always remain 17. “At least in spirit.”
I do see this attitude changing among the more progressive people. And, conversely, age anxiety is now a bigger and bigger issue among Russian men.
“Don’t tell anyone I just turned 40!” A male writer friend whispered to me at a restaurant gathering recently.
“But half the people here came to your birthday party!” I said, after taking a closer look at the various miscreants assembled.
“It doesn’t matter! I’m trying to land a television job - and they’re not going to take me if they realize I’m 40!”
“What, are you trying to write for a sitcom aimed at teenagers?”
“No, a historical drama! What does it matter? I’m old!”
As I watched him walk away, pangs of sympathy mingled with glee. Ha! It’s not just women staring down the barrel of 40 and fretting anymore!
Meanwhile, the one great birthday tradition for Russian women is getting flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. And a summer birthday means a whole lot of flowers I personally love - roses and lilies and simple field flowers that look like they were picked by grandmas who then sold them at the nearest railway station (when, in fact, they also tend to come from local flower shops - with prices to match).
I’m not really sure how sustainable the flower industry is in Russia - especially now that the police have to crack down on people selling endangered flowers every spring in particular - but I suppose I am allowed to be frivolous on my birthday. It only comes once a year, after all.
Finally, birthday wishes and toasts are a crucial part of any Russian birthday gathering. I think of them as good luck charms. The dry, old, Anglo-Saxon “happy birthday” just doesn’t do it for me - I want people to wish me things, good things. And want to be able to wish them things in return.
Of course, not all Russian toasts are original. Some are trite, others take the form of bad jokes. Still, I am somewhat of a bad joke connoisseur - and think the world is better for guilty-pleasure laughs.
Having said that, here is my favorite bad joke/toast of all time:
A young girl, a middle-aged woman and a crone are walking down a long road. Suddenly, they see a mountain in their path. “Let this mountain fall into as many pieces as I’ve had lovers!” Says the crone. The mountain falls away in a rain of pebbles.
The trio keeps walking. Suddenly, they come up against yet another mountain. “Let this mountain fall into as many pieces as I’ve had lovers!” Says the middle-aged woman. The mountain falls apart into boulders.
The trio keeps walking. They once again encounter a mountain. Apparently, they’re lost in the Himalayas - or something. Anyway. “Let this mountain fall into as many pieces as I’ve had lovers!” Says the young girl.
The mountain remains right where it was.
The young girls starts crying.
So let us drink to never letting our girls cry!
OK, so that was pretty tasteless. But years later, after first hearing this toast raised at a birthday party of a friend, it still makes me smile.
And hey - the joke sort of implies that the crone was getting around long after her youthful years were behind her. What was it that I said about age and Russian women? It all depends on the angle you take on the subject.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.