Happy Birthday! I’m Celebrating, Ex-Pat Style!

My favorite time of year ushers in crisp apple days, cool nights- great for snuggling under that cloud-like white down comforter… mmmmm! I could sleep for days!

Ex-Pat Living: Celebrating a Milestone abroad- Happy 40th Birthday

Celebrating my 40th birthday in Baku

But not this week… This week is for celebrating!

I’m celebrating yet another birthday, and so will my brothers. (Happy Birthday, Johnny Angel! Happy birthday Charming Billy! Um, nevermind their nickname for me…ahem…) My brother John and I aren’t twins exactly, 4 years apart actually, but only a few hours separate our birthdays. My eldest brother, Bill, is just 3 weeks ahead of both of us (plus an extra year). Actually, many in my family will be celebrating- aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. I also shared a birthday (again a couple years apart) with my cousin who passed away a few years ago from MS.

[Note to Self: Some serious winter canoodling going on during those post-war years!]

All of us are September babies… all except my younger sister, a true non-conformist! She arrived in July in Hawaii while my father was on shore duty at Pearl Harbor, in the days before Hawaii became a state.

I got to thinking about birthdays and their special meaning to each of us.

Are you like me, wanting to celebrate the entire week? (Or month?) Or are you one who prefers to slip quietly into the night with as little fanfare as possible?

Doll cake for a 4 year old girl

My 4 year old dream

For me, at least the way I remember it, I always had to compete with the boys for birthday attention as a little girl- I ended up with school clothes every year. I vowed to make up for it when my daughter came along, and truth be told, I think her birthday cakes were really for me. I always made her a special cake, mainly because I only remember ever having one, a doll cake my mom made for my 4th birthday.

What’s your favorite birthday memory? Did you have someone who made you feel special? Did your family do unusual things to mark the day?

Without a doubt the most “unusual” birthday party I ever had was my 40th birthday party in Baku. My local family friends decided to have a party at an Azeri restaurant on the Fountain Plaza. I had only been in country about 90 days, so I didn’t know many people, and I didn’t speak Azeri yet. I could get by in Russian then, but most everyone I was with spoke Azerbaijani.

So, there I was, celebrating my 40th birthday at a huge family reunion (of someone else’s family) where I didn’t know, and couldn’t speak to, most of the guests. The two exchange students who had been in Houston with me were there so that was a relief, but it was kind of odd for Americans, who expect our 40th to be a goodbye to youth, to spend it hanging with high schoolers!

But… That was also the night I learned to love the local music and dance the exotic quick-moving local bah-da-da-bada-da-bah style with its expressive hands, shoulders and eyes. It still fascinates me. And no, I don’t wear the flowing corset style costume… not even before 40!

After enduring “school clothes” disguised as presents, and being in line behind my brothers for birthday attention, I’ve always felt birthdays are special and should be celebrated – big party celebrations, not just going out to an everyday dinner at the local diner. No, make a fuss, and really let those you love know you are glad you have another birthday with them.

Birthday cake celebration: Caryn's 16th, a heart-shaped basket of flowers

Caryn’s 16th, a heart shaped basket of flowers

I sent my mother flowers one year on my birthday- confused her until she realized I was thanking her for having me and keeping me safe all these years. Then she got it and it became our thing.

For my daughter and friends, I was the cake mom. I went through the whole range of little girl cakes- Strawberry Shortcake (where my hands were red and pink for days), Holly Hobbie, My Little Pony- whatever the current pre-teen delight was, you could bet it was coming to our house courtesy of Wilton.

I loved every minute of the pre-birthday anticipation building. Is it wrong to want your kids to have what you didn’t? As long as Caryn invited every girl in her class- no cliques or favorites here- we could have all kinds of fun (not unlimited indulgence, just homemade fun).

For my friends, I was a great source of custom cakes. And, as a sanguine personality, I reveled in the ooh’s and ah’s. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my birthday, I just loved the whole process of surprises and joy. (Still do!)

Bart Simpson birthday cake, 1980's theme

Oh, the 80’s! So. like, totally rad man!

In fact, I had a whole photo album of cakes I had made, and had brought it back from Houston after Christmas to share it with kids at class in Baku- a great way to practice English.

Somehow though, that little memory book got left behind in the move. So many things we have to leave behind when we move as expats. Have you ever left something behind, and then wondered why? I’ve often wondered what happened to that book of memories that means nothing to anyone but me. (I get a little sad imagining all those birthdays, weddings and bachelorette party cakes, sitting in a landfill somewhere outside Baku.)

But life is here now, such as it is! (wink, sigh). Since I am now re-married, I have someone new to turn my birthday attention to (yea! Though much to his chagrin, most likely!) For my husband’s 60th birthday, one of our first together, I bought him a Karaoke machine since he loves to sing and, after all, what Irishman doesn’t get a little sentimental?

Every man's favorite birthday gift: Ursula Andress, 1962, Dr. No with Sean Connery

Every man’s favorite birthday gift: Ursula Andress, 1962, Dr. No

For his 62nd, I decided on “Where were you in ’62?” as the theme and got all the beach-y decor items I could find, made a mix tape of all the hits of 1962 and rounded up the Oscar list and made movie posters (Ursula Andress in that white bikini anyone?).

Oh, it was tons of fun- right up until it poured down rain in the midst of a clear blue summer sky! (What’s up with that?) We grabbed a spare table and set everything up in the living room and had a beach party in doors. We passed out beach towels to dry our guests- the only ones missing were Frankie & Annette!

I love celebrating birthdays, especially with friends. This year though, once again, many of my favorite friends are far away and I will celebrate without them.

Happy Birthday Good times, Good friends

Good times, Good friends

We all know that’s the life of an expat, and a repat, too. We are given the gift of making really great friends around the world, but we don’t often have any control over when we can get together after assignments end.

That doesn’t mean the ties are any less strong. I think expats particularly know to allow for long periods of disconnect, and yet, if a far away friend showed up on your doorstep tonight, you would gladly make room as if it had been just yesterday that you shared tea in (fill in the country here).

As I look back, I think the expat experience brings far more positives than negatives. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I loved the people I met, the friends I made and the memories I made- even though I don’t know who most of the people in that one particular birthday memory were. (wink!)

So, for all my friends who are somewhere around the world, know that I miss you and when I celebrate this week, I am thinking of you all far away, just as much as I’m thinking of the fun we’ll be having here.

Be safe and come home to share another birthday in the future with all of us together again.

Hugs & Kisses, Jonelle

(We certainly can’t end without singing Happy Birthday, can we?)

6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday! I’m Celebrating, Ex-Pat Style!

  1. Happy Birthday to you! Wishing you many more interesting ones to come!

    You mentioned sending your mother flowers on your birthday, thanking her for having you. This reminds me of the custom in my native Holland where you don’t only say Happy Birthday to the birthday person, but also say “congratulations” to the parents and siblings if they’re present, because, well, the parents were lucky to have you, and the siblings should be grateful to have you in their lives! I know it confuses Americans when parents are congratulated with the birthday of their child. I never gave it a thought until I realized it was not what was done in other places.


    • How interesting- I don’t remember where I heard of or got the idea to send flowers to my mother, but it sounded like a very sweet thought. Lucky you for growing up where sharing and appreciation were part of your heritage. Lucky us for getting to know you!


  2. Pingback: How Cultural Differences Turned My Kitchen… Pink! | Life Lessons

  3. Pingback: Ex-Pat Living: What’s Your Label? It’s How We Live | Life Lessons

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