From the time that I hit the teenage years, I’ve always felt a little ambivalent about my birthday. I suppose after a childhood of trips to the beach or Water Country USA and my mother’s perfectly-planned parties with such outlandish themes as the Cupcake Dolls, it was only bound to be downhill from there.
After my thirteenth birthday, they all began to pass by rather uneventfully as I changed from an attention-loving-bring-me-presents kid into a please-no-not-the-spotlight adolescent (quite the contradiction, I know). My fifteenth birthday is memorable if only because I happened to (correctly) predict what each present was before I unwrapped it – much to my mother’s horror, who to this day closes off her closet a month before Christmas. From my 18th, which was spent at my cousin’s graduation party, to my 19th, on which I worked at a bank all day, to my 20th, where it was only the second day of Keynote Summer Project and I was thus too shy to let anyone know it was actually my birthday…I think you get the picture.
So it was with this recent history that my twenty-third birthday suddenly became imminent last week. However, despite how loathe I am to celebrate my own birthday, I was surprised to find myself actually looking forward to this year’s. For one, I am in New Zealand after all, so how can I not be excited? And then I would be having my first winter birthday – from laying out by the pool to wearing a coat and scarf…weird! I felt like my Kiwi friends in the Alps last Christmas, so used to spending the day with barbeques and the beach. Some holidays are inextricably linked to the time of year they occur in. So already this birthday was bound to be different. Moreover, the time difference essentially meant I would be having a 36-hour birthday, as on my proper birthday here in New Zealand, it would still be the 16th for everyone back home. I woke up on the 18th to find a slew of well wishes on Facebook from friends back home – pretty cool. I don’t think anyone’s ever wised for a shorter birthday before. So clearly before the day had even started, I was off to a good start.
While I was able to get the night off from the restaurant, I still had to work at the office – but it’s not like I haven’t worked on my birthday before so I wasn’t too fussed. If anything, it’s fun to let your office make a big deal out of it – we all know how locked into routine offices can get, so any occasion for cake is a welcome diversion. But who exactly is providing said cake – that is the real question. At the aforementioned bank where I spent most of my 19th birthday, my colleagues surprised me at lunch with a Carvel ice cream cake, having somehow found out that was my favorite. And so it went for everyone else in the branch – the last thing you’d be expected to do would be to bring in a cake on your own birthday. But after I started working in London, I soon found that to be the case! If it was your birthday, you brought in sweets and treats for everyone else. Bizarre, eh? I told my colleagues that their tradition would never fly back home. You might as well not celebrate your big day at all. This is also the case in New Zealand, however, where it’s called your “birthday shout.” Shout is a term in New Zealand that means to cover for someone, what we might call treating them. Where we would say, “Let me get this round,” or “Can I borrow a few bucks off you?” the Kiwis say, “This next one’s my shout” and “Can you shout me a few bucks?” I first learned this in London out to dinner one night. One of my Kiwi friends said, “Pick anything you want…my shout.” I of course asked, “Your what?”
I quickly learned it wasn’t so much a matter of volume as it as of covering for a friend. So at my office here in Christchurch, if it’s your birthday, you “shout” the office a cake or other frosted delicacies for morning tea. I spared no expense (a first for me, I know) and bought a Mississippi Mudcake from Copenhagen Bakery – a chocolate gateau cake with orange filling. As it turned out, one of our organization’s suppliers paid us a visit and brought in morning tea to keep everyone happy – a huge box of sweet slices and an even bigger box of savouries – sausage rolls, meat and cottage pies, the works. I was probably the only person not upset about it – while everyone else wanted to celebrate my birthday per tradition at morning tea, I was more than happy to postpone til the afternoon and indulge in the offerings of a grateful supplier!
It’s funny how the mere fact that it’s your birthday automatically sets up you up for a good day. Every time a customer would end a conversation with, “Have a good day,” I’d think to myself, “Of course! It’s my birthday! How can I not?” It’s a guaranteed feel-good drug. If just for a day, you’re suddenly impervious to things that normally ruin your mood – customers that yell at me, customers who hang up on me, customers who complain about my accent. You just can’t be bothered getting upset! There is a shield of magical wonderfulness blocking it all out.
After work, a colleague at the office whom I’ve gotten to know well and I went to my restaurant for dinner before seeing a play that night. I try not to be that person who comes into work on their day off, but FBB is like family here to me in Christchurch and what’s a birthday without family? As soon as we had sat down, my head manager Jenna brought drinks over for us. “Let’s get your birthday off to a good start,” she said as she set the drinks down. Between that one – an M-7, a fruit-smoothie-esque concoction with seven fruits and a little somethin’ extra – and the coconut and pineapple margaritas we ordered next, I was pretty much set up for failure when it came to finishing my dinner – as amazing as the quesadilla was, there was no hope of me eating the whole thing. Just as we were about to leave, Jenna came over and said, “I’m going to have to ask you to stay seated a little while longer.” Sure enough, several of the girls I work with set a slice of Aztec Treasure – our chocolate cake normally used for birthdays – in front of me as well as a drink made especially for me by my flatmate Kenny. Supposed to be “American,” it was served in a martini glass with layers of red, white and blue – it tasted like something awful, of course, but was so the thought that counted! When we went up to the front of the restaurant to pay, Jenna said, “Thanks for coming in on your birthday, it was fun to see you.” But all I could say was “thank you” to them. As weird as it was actually sitting at one of our tables – not running around clearing them with twenty empty plates in one hand and orders to be placed in the other – they made it so special for me and I felt entirely undeserving.
But it didn’t end there. Arron’s sister Amber, whom I stayed with when I first arrived in Christchurch, offered to have a dessert night for me at her and her husband Andy’s house, being as they are “my NZ family,” as she said. Who am I to turn down dessert?! So the celebrations continued, with a carrot cake frosted by Andy to read “Happy Birthday Candy” – complete with American flag and all. Classic. And what’s a birthday without presents? Emma gave me a book of New Zealand slang, Arron and Georgie got me a set of Russian nesting dolls painted like a traditional Maori family, and Marcus got me a…pumpkin.
Yes, that’s right, a pumpkin. As if my birthday wasn’t weird enough, being in the heart of winter and sixteen hours ahead of home…nothing like a symbol of Halloween to make my day complete. The seasonal inversion is official.