May: The Month Of Birthdays

I fit in rather well with my Albanian host family…as least as far as birthdays go.

May 15 // My birthday
May 20 // Arti’s birthday (my landlord)
May 25 //  Marijana’s father’s birthday
May 30 // Marijana’s birthday (my landlady)

I just noticed we are all 5 days apart! So May is the month of birthdays apparently. Sunday, I got to celebrate with Arti and his family.

Marijana, his wife, wanted to surprise him with a cake. To buy a cake is very expensive for them so she made one from scratch. To keep it a surprise, she cooked it the night before in my kitchen upstairs. I offered my kitchen also for her to decorate the cake in as well as food coloring to make it extra special and colorful (you can’t get food coloring here). The following day, she left work early to get everything ready for the birthday festivities, including decorating the cake.

In my head when I offered my kitchen to be used, I envisioned how I decorate cakes. Slap some icing on and write a few words and I’m done after 20 minutes max. When she was still beating the frosting after 30 minutes when I thought it looked quite edible myself after the first 15 minutes, I started to realize this was much more of an event than I had originally planned.

First, she cut the cake in half and added a layer of icing topped with bananas. Then she put the top layer on and covered the whole thing with white icing. Then, she would smooth it out. Then smooth it out a little more. And then just for good measure, she smoothed it out again, just to make sure.

Next, she covered just the top with pink icing and repeated the smoothing process. (It was supposed to be red but she thought it was using too much food coloring and she felt bad. Luckily Albanians seem to love pastels anyway…)

Then she decorated the sides with a blue and greenish pastel. Then came the writing. On the top, she couldn’t get it how she wanted it so she kept taking the blue off and then smoothing, re-smoothing, and re-re-somoothing the area. Then her sister-in-law came up and tried to help.Then the grandmother came up and offered advice.

After many attempts and many, many, many smoothing sessions, they got it how they wanted it. They added more fruit for the final touches. Finally, the cake was decorated. After more than 3 hours! Marijana was super proud of it though and was so happy she could surprise her husband!

Marijana with the final cake

I know Marijana was tired. One thing you should know about the family I live with is that they are the hardest working people I have ever met. At 4am, they go to the market to sell used shoes and other fruits/vegetables they’ve grown or bought and are resaling for profit. Rain or shine, they sit out and wait all day for people to buy something from them (keep in mind there are many people who do this). On a good day, they probably make $5. Sometimes, they don’t sell anything.

About 5:30 or 6 they come back home and start getting ready for the next day, working in their garden, and making petula. They usually don’t go to bed until 12 or 1am! They are manual laborers who work pretty much 7 days a week around the clock. So for Marijana to spend a whole afternoon decorating a cake after being so tired from working so many days in a row? I don’t think I could even keep up with them for just 24 hours!

But this is just another example of how Albanians take pride in the smallest of details and are so willing to give of themselves. If I would have messed up on the cake, I would have just left it or tried to cover it up. I’m pretty sure I will never spend more than 3 hours decorating a cake. I would rather just go without a cake.

But even though she was super tired, Marijana was so proud of all the work that she did, not for herself, but for her husband to make his birthday special.

When I’m tired, maybe I should channel my inner Marijana and think more of how happy something will make someone rather than how tired it will make me.

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