09 Mar

“And don’t stuff yourself in the first 30 minutes! Remember, there’s always more food coming later.” My charming husband reminded me in no uncertain terms that every function we have attended so far has had more courses, with more dishes than anyone could reasonably expect. 

“The baby’s probably gonna be crying all the time,” he added. This was the typical reaction of the Fox from one of Aesop’s fables: “If I can’t reach the grapes, they must be sour.” I was invited to a birthday party for a one-year old and Dave was not. 

“It’s probably going to be really boring. Probably only women and a crying baby.” I tried to make him feel better with my take on things by making the grapes almost inedible. 

Women, being generally more sociable than men, do tend to have more opportunities to experience different cultural events in most societies. Let’s take this particular occasion, for example. I was invited to a small birthday celebration for a one-year-old. Could there be an equivalent celebration involving guys only? I don’t want to stereotype, but not many mentally stable mothers would willingly lend a one-year-old for a party thrown by a bunch of guys. 

“I have no idea how long it will take,” I continued. That was true. As usual, I was clueless about the details. I did not know where the party was, how many people would be there or how long it might take. To function well, or even thrive, in Uzbek culture, one has to be extremely flexible. Things seem to always happen at the last moment. Sometimes they may seem almost as an afterthought. Some of it is no doubt caused by the language barrier and some is almost certainly cultural. I received the text from Nodira, inviting me to the party, only the evening before. When I texted her back asking if I should bring a present for the baby or the hostess, she answered with her cryptic, “Why not”. I did not pursue it any further. She is the most wonderful, the kindest person ever, but sometimes her inscrutable responses remind me that I am in Central Asia where people learn crypto-speech in kindergarten. 

The invitation came from our Uzbek language teacher, and was extended to Nodira – my co-teacher, Lora – the only other female international teacher, from South Africa, and me. Nodira arranged the taxi and, the evening following the invitation, the three of us entered a house close to the city centre. As is customary, we took our shoes off in the hall and followed our hostess. I did not have any idea what to expect. How many people would be there? What would be expected from us during the small ceremony involving the child? The only thing I was certain of was, as Dave pointed out earlier, I would not go home hungry. The room we entered was a typical large dining room, with a long table that could easily seat 20 people. One end of the table was all set for us. The dishes full of salads, plates laden with savory pastries, no doubt all home-made, pots of tea and jugs of juice, all ready. But surprisingly we were the only guests. This was unusual – a small family gathering which included us, two foreigners. I felt privileged. We sat down and a teenage girl, daughter of our hostess, came into the room with a jug of warm water and a basin. She held it for each of us in turn, as we used it to wash our hands before tackling the feast. 

We chatted for a while and then it was time for our little ceremony, the reason why we were invited. I helped to tie a soft twine around each of little Tumaris’ chubby calves. While I did that, she was looking at me curiously as if thinking “You are a new face. And you look weird, your eyes are much too round. I don’t know if I like it or not.” Luckily, she did not have enough time to decide. As she was standing there on her wobbly legs, Nodira used a special small knife and cut the twine. Tumaris was now free to walk the short distance separating her from an assortment of objects including our gifts. Apparently, as the tradition goes, the baby’s choice will reveal her future propensity. If she picks a set of keys, it will fetch her a nice home one day. Choosing a car key will bring her a set of wheels, a book signifies her love of learning. Luckily, the interpretation is far from cast in stone. It was not a big surprise that Tumaris picked my present – a toy presenting alphabet in a fun way. Primary colours proved irresistible. 

When I asked what to make of her choice of picking out a toy, I was assured that it does not mean she would spend her life playful as opposed to working hard. In this case, she picked a study tool and would go far academically. Whew, what a relief. I was worried for a second. 

Later on, while continuing our feast, Nodira translated from our hostess, whose English was very limited. “The family chooses the person who cuts the tie very carefully, because that person is like a role model for the baby. We hope that our Tumaris will have similar personality traits as Nodira.” That was a very nice compliment and well deserved. Nodira is my co-teacher so, by now, I know her quite well. The family chose well. 

“So, are you a godmother to Tumaris now?” I wanted to know. “No, a godmother is something else. I am a godmother but to a different child,” Nodira explained. We chatted some more and then came a question. 

“So do you have some similar traditions in your country?” 

Lora took up the lead with a disclaimer. “It’s not practiced anymore.” 

I perked up. This must be some interesting South African custom and it’s on its way out. So let’s hear it. 

Lora continued. “But we used to have a custom, that once the umbilical cord fell off naturally, the parents took it to the tribe elders and the whole big family was there when the elders threw the cord into water. Whatever water was available. Maybe a pond or a pool. And if the cord sank, it meant that maybe the child doesn’t belong fully to the family or the tribe. But it’s not practiced anymore because it caused too many problems. The parentage could be questioned.”  

When Lora used the word ‘pool’ I chuckled inwardly. Imagining a swimming pool, I thought, no way I would let anybody pollute my pool with this stuff. Of course, I don’t have a pool, and never will have a pool – I don’t like pools. And that all stems from a couple of unfortunate experiences I had with pools. One was way back in Toronto, when Dave and I decided to get our scuba diving certifications. As a part of our practical training we had the ‘pleasure’ of having our first dives in a public pool. I used to like pools before that experience. It’s funny, the things one notices in the depths of a public pool when armed with goggles. For example, I didn’t need to know that hair actually attracts other hair to form intricate forms that move ever so slowly like well-fed sea creatures along the bottom – the much-feared ‘hair-ball anemone!’ However, no umbilical cord. The other experience dates back to a nice communal pool in Alberta. There, I came to the realization, supported by empirical evidence, that just because a child wears a diaper doesn’t mean that the rest of the pool users are poo-proofed. Apparently, “these accidents happen more often than the public realizes,” I was told by the life-guard on duty that day. Lora was finished with her story and everybody looked at me expectantly. I felt myself shrinking. I have two cultures to draw on, Czech and Canadian, and there’s still no way I can trump a dry umbilical cord in a pool. The best I could come up with was being sprinkled by water with supposedly miraculous qualities. I was not even fully submerged in it so I could claim later that I survived my own drowning. That prize goes to the Born Again Christians. No. I was too small, so I had no choice. The most I can remember from my grandma’s recollection was that I protested in a very loud voice when the cold water hit my cheeks. Nothing much has changed, as I have often reflected while taking a morning shower. 

I needed a diversion from my personal lack of interesting customs. “Actually, there’s something I heard about. It’s from Kazakhstan. I wonder if you have something similar here,” I turned to Nodira. “Apparently, in Kazakh culture parents put the baby in the cradle and attach a tube to the penis. The other end then snakes out through the cradle’s bottom to a bedpan underneath the cradle. So there’s no need for diapers.” 

I looked at Nodira to see if she was following my brief description. She nodded so I continued, “Have you heard of this before?” 

She smiled, “Yes. We have the same custom here. I still have my tube for a girl intact. Still waiting.” She grinned and I recalled that she only has two sons. 

I was fascinated, “So this custom is used for girls as well?” 

“Yes,” she replied matter-of-factly. 

“Wow!” I said. Sometimes I am so articulate I surprise myself. 

“Yes, we use a soft string and tie the hands and feet with it, so the baby doesn’t move. And then we rock the baby to sleep. After he is asleep, we don’t have to worry about them needing to pee.” After many toasts with a very sweet wine and the main dish of pasta and meat, which of course, came after I was already full from all the appetizers, came time to say good bye. We had spent close to three hours there and, between eating and sharing stories proving that life is often weirder than fiction, time just flew by.

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