In honor of New Year’s Eve, here’s a Deleted Scene of my first New Year’s Eve in Kazakhstan. But this version is from my very first draft, it’s in present tense, and it’s actually from one of the many emails I sent home to those “108 close, personal friends.” It’s a good memory for me and gives a little more insight into my relationship with our first host family, Hadija, Mamluk and their four kids.
New Year’s Eve is like none I’ve ever known before, with small bursts of the familiar, as well.
Back in Zhezkazgan, before we left, and again when we reached Almaty, we see many decorated artificial trees looking not unlike ones we’d see at home. They are not Christmas trees, of course, in this Muslim country; they are New Year’s Trees. Even if the Russian Orthodox Church were larger, their Christmas does not fall until January. No; these are New Year’s Trees.
Here at Hadija’s there’s no tree. In fact, there’re no decorations of any sort around her home. Perhaps in other years there have been, but not this year. We watch a lot of Moscow TV with holiday programming, holiday commercials, and holiday costuming — white fur trim over anything red. All the ads are holiday related, pretty girls with white fur collars and very short red skirts, singing the praises of the product of choice. There’re holiday songs here too and I’m beginning to recognize “Snovum godum” as the traditional holiday greeting.
The Kazakhstani Santa Claus is a grandfather who, along with his granddaughter, delivers presents. No elves or reindeer, no sleigh bells or chimneys. This grandfather Santa comes to the front door and knocks to gain entrance before leaving the gifts.
What I’m really enjoying this holiday season is the absence of the constant Christmas music that plays incessantly from just after Halloween. At home, by the time Christmas comes, I’ve often grown weary of it.
Here in Hadija’s living room, the TV is on and we’re all watching Russian comedy. The skits remind me of old Milton Berle or Sid Caesar routines. The language is irrelevant; the humor is in the costuming, the facial expressions, and the slapstick. Two large men are dressed as Russian babushkas, grandmothers: clunky shoes, cardigan sweaters askew, hose fallen down around the ankles of one, oversized glasses on the other. Although the pace of the humor seems slower than at home, I find myself chuckling now and then. Not the loud guffaws I hear from Hadija and Mamluke, but I can see the humor.
They prepare a huge meal on New Year’s Eve, twice. About seven o’clock, we eat the regular dinner, ploff (rice pilaf) with tomatoes and cucumbers. I make an apple pie in the afternoon, a first for the family, though they’d had my apple crisp often last summer. Apples are plentiful still, I know how to find cinnamon, kuritsa, and I make the crust from scratch. No Pillsbury crusts in the dairy case here. They say my apple crisp is better than the pie and there’s something in the way they tell me, they mean no offense and I take no offense. It is simply a fact — and maybe a hint they’d love to have apple crisp again. I vow to make one tomorrow and this time I’ll teach them the amounts.
We brought maple syrup with us — part of our regular care packages from home — and plan to make them a pancake breakfast in the morning.
“I wish I had the Vermont video with us, to show them how syrup is made,” I say to Woody. In September, Woody’s roommate from long ago, Peter Thoms, sent us a video of his adopted state; I use it often in my classes. There’s a segment showing the sugaring process: tree tapping, collecting and boiling the sap, and bringing it all to market.
“Can Dina bring it?” Woody asks, thinking ahead to our visit with the family after IST.
I call Gulzhahan on my ever present cell phone and ask if she can get it from the college and take it to Dina. “Of course” is, of course, her answer. Dina will bring it with her when she comes to Almaty on the fourth of January. We’ll figure out how to meet up after she gets here — again, cell phones.
Curiously, I receive almost a dozen text messages on my cell phone throughout the evening. I didn’t even know I had text messaging. Colleagues and students back in Zhezkazgan wish me, “Congratulations on the New Year.” Many are much longer. I return the first few, but stop after the fifth. After ten of them, I turn my cell phone off.
At midnight we go outside to watch an enormous fireworks display literally overhead. Huge explosions of light go off all three hundred sixty degrees around us, as far as I can see. Everyone has fireworks — not firecrackers, fireworks – and sets them off at midnight. No community fireworks display here; if they could afford a fireworks display, they’d be able to afford sewers. I’ve lived in Hudson, Ohio, where one of the local businesses, American Fireworks, feels it their civic duty to impress the townsfolk. I’ve also lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where the lengthy displays are choreographed to music. I’ve seen impressive fireworks displays. This one has them all beat. It gives me a sense of what Francis Scott Key must have seen in Baltimore Harbor, when he wrote “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” I keep saying to Hadija, “This would never be allowed in America. Fireworks are dangerous. There could be a fire.” And she just laughs.
These are anything but choreographed. Some go off way too low. Many are high up, spectacular, really. But others go off behind me and low and I startle, yelping, making everyone laugh even more. I go inside until it’s over.
“You know,” Woody later reminds me, “all the houses have metal roofs.” I admit I’d forgotten this. “It would be difficult, with snow covering everything and most of it frozen, for a fire to start.” I wish he’d said something earlier. I might have toughed it out.
Following the fireworks, there’s a second full meal. Woody and I are up past midnight and eating and we live to tell about it!
We serve our special pancake breakfast at one o’clock New Year’s afternoon.
How will you celebrate New Year’s Eve this year?