I still recall my 25th birthday party as one of the best I had.
My American girlfriend decided to organize a dinner party for me. I was fortunate to be born in summer, and we had my birthday dinner in a lovely restaurant outside Baku, on the terrace overlooking the sea. A belly dancer was shaking her tanned round tummy at my tipsy American boss, the waves were crushing over the black rocks... The long table was full of vodka, beer and food, and I was surrounded by family and friends. Oh, it was a fantastic night. I was incredibly happy. But, at the back of my mind, a concern was slowly building up.
How much would this feast cost? I had a good job, and prices for a shashlik dinner like this were not high those days. However, there was over thirty of us, drinking and eating non-stop. I was prepared to pay, but to my huge surprise, that was not expected. Everyone chipped in when my friend, the organizer, announced the total in the end. In fact, because it was my birthday, I did not even get to pay for myself.
That was my first experience of a non-Azeri birthday party. I have to admit, I thought it was quite a result for the birthday girl. Never before would I had expected not to pay for the invited people on my birthday. Not only did I get to celebrate with everyone I wanted to be with on the day; I also received lovely presents and a free dinner. ‘Hmm...I like this western style!’ I thought to myself.
Having moved to the UK, I found that in a lot of cases, people would often do the same. In my years here, I had various birthdays. Some of them were parties in my garden, but most often there were girlie or couples' dinners out.
However, as a lot of people around me rapidly (not moi, of course, as I am still very, very young!) approaching the big fat round 40, I noticed that these special birthdays are often treated differently.
It is a lot more common to throw a party, often in a hired venue, and invite a large number of friends. Some people clearly treat special birthdays as a small wedding. A friend of mine in New York was having a fancy party on a hired boat and was deeply offended that I did not come. Years later, he still whinges that I missed such an important event. To me, it was a birthday, not his funeral or a wedding. What is a big deal? I am not in the position, frankly speaking, to fly across the ocean for friends’ birthdays just yet, however much I wish I were.
But, speaking of the special birthday party etiquette, there clearly is a range of ways people choose to celebrate.
I have been to sit-down dinners paid entirely by the hosts but also dinners where guests pay for themselves; parties with food, parties without food but a few canopies only, parties where you only get a welcome drink and the rest of the night you pay for your own....parties where only wine is paid for, or only a certain amount is put behind the bar, or only for the first hour...there is simply no end to various options people go for.
But then, of course, for every way someone chooses to celebrate their special birthday, there will always be different opinions of what is okay to do.
At a party recently, a local friend whispered to me that she was shocked there was ‘no proper food’ and not even a welcome glass of champagne.
‘A bit cheeky’, she added, ‘isn’t it?’
I, personally, was not so sure.
You see, a few years ago I went back to Baku to celebrate my 30th. That time, on my British salary, I was in the position to throw a proper party. I invited around 30 people, paid for all the food and alcohol and had a fantastic time...all for about $250. In fact, I was more than happy to pay the requested $400, but my Turkish brother in law stepped in with a bit of skillful negotiation.
Of course, in a situation like that, it is oh, so easy! to be generous.
If it only cost $250 for 30 people, why not invite everyone and pay for them?
However, to do something like this in or around London, in a semi-decent place, let alone a posh restaurant, would cost you an absolute fortune. Let’s face it, not many people can afford this option.
Now, of course, you have a choice. You can choose not to have any party at all rather than make people pay. But, in the country where average houses are too small, outside is too wet and miserable, and restaurants will skin you alive, would any celebrations ever take place?
But, guess what? People discuss and judge- just like they always would, anywhere in the world. Someone thinks asking to bring a bottle to a party is cheeky. Someone thinks inviting people to go out and pay isn’t right. Someone thinks a host should provide food and drinks...and so on. And, as I chat to friends from various backgrounds, there is simply no general consensus on the subject.
Everyone views things, as we say, so svoey kolokolni, which translates as (don’t ask me why?) from their own bell tower. Those who can afford judge those who can’t. Those who can’t afford judge the ones who could but choose not to. There simply is no right or wrong answer, I guess, no matter what country or cultural background one comes from. Well aware of my Azeri habits, I personally tend not to expect much from a birthday invitation in this country, however special it might be. This way, I always leave myself some space to be pleasantly surprised.