At Children's Birthdays, Grown-Up Celebrations

Friends in our block have just done a birthday party which, since their 6-year-old daughter attends a detsky sad, was heavily weighted in favor of the Russian contingent.

Nevertheless, feeling faint at the prospect of entertaining lots of kids and their families, they decided to do it po-angliskii -- the English way -- which means the kids get dropped off and picked up later. Sasha assured them no offense would be taken, and since we live next to the VDNKh shopping mecca, it was assumed, rightly, that parents would leap at the chance of a few hours bonus child care whilst they perused the electronics pavilions.

It started like any normal kids' party with enough decibel noise to guarantee irritating the stuffy diplomats next door. But then came cultural difference No. 1. The table was a veritable feast of nostalgia-inducing party fare like iced gems and jelly babies -- no mean feat in Moscow -- but the kids were stunned into immobile silence as they surveyed the strange sight before them. "Er, what would you normally eat at a birthday party then?" enquired our hostess brightly.

"Salad with mayonnaise and then the meat dish of course," the eldest girl promptly replied, describing the standard adult holiday meal.

"Never mind, let's sing happy birthday. We'll do it in English first and then Russian. Does anyone know the English version?" To our amazement all the kids sang faultlessly in English, but when Sasha was nominated to lead the Russian equivalent the blank stares returned: Not one child knew the words.

"We don't sing that at birthdays," announced the eldest again, leaving Sasha feeling rather old and out of touch. The parents, on hearing of their children's English performance later, were immensely proud. We thought it another sad sign of creeping Westernization.

But the big cultural gap came with the parents' return. Since this was the English-version party, our hosts suggested something to "popit" which, according to the unfathomable subtleties of the Russian language, implies drinking tea or coffee. The Russian banker-father of one young guest counter-suggested, "This is a big day, what about something to vypit" -- and vypit, as we all know, is something you only do to alcohol.

"So how do you normally celebrate children's birthday parties?" smiled a resigned hostess already suffering visions of an unscheduled all-night drinking session.

"Stick the kids in the corner and crack open the vodka," giggled the woman from next door, at which point I felt duty bound, for friendship's sake, to poke a suddenly hopeful Sasha in the ribs, grab Vita, and say, "Thank you for having us."