Happy Birthday to Me, Dammit!

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If you’re searching for an example to illustrate the difference between Americans and Romanians, you need look no further than at the very different ways we celebrate our birthdays.

Yes, it’s almost my birthday. No, I’m not happy. I find the whole thing discomfiting, somewhat like sitting quietly in the audience mindlessly watching some show when suddenly the man with the spotlight turns it on you and asks you a question. “What are you doing?” you want to cry. “I didn’t ask for this!”

No, I didn’t. But birthdays come anyway – as long as we’re lucky. And with it, the spotlight, no matter how small.

That part I accept. It’s the idea that I need to do something to celebrate my birth that I find so annoying. And completely unnecessary. And somewhat insulting. The fact is I’m American. It’s not my job to be thankful I was born.

I saw with great interest recently a respected theologian write that overconfidence is “the fundamental and constitutive American sin.” He says that even in America’s founding document we had the chutzpah to presume to know several truths that we then brazenly declared to be “self-evident” – as if we alone could know this.

Well, it turns out he’s British. So what would you expect him to say? Really, just combine the fact that we’ve never lost a war (ok, we didn’t quite win a couple), the fact that nothing good happens in the world without our involvement, and the fact that we remain the world’s only superpower because our fast food tastes so damned good and you start to see why God chose us to know a few truths the rest of you missed.

So is it any wonder (and I say this without fear of contradiction), that we are in fact, indeed, without question, the center of the universe? And so, by simple schoolbook deduction, it goes without saying that each of us Americans, individually, is what holds that center together. Overconfidence? I don’t think so. Just a self-evident truth the Declaration of Independence forgot to mention.

Right. Now that that is clear, let’s get back to birthdays. What do we Americans do? Each year on our birthday (just as God intended) we let all of our friends thank us profusely for even deigning to be born. So with great fanfare, and our tacit permission and politely feigned embarrassment, we let our friends do what they should do. They celebrate our existence. They bring us cakes. They buy us drinks. They compete to see who can buy us dinner. They give us enormous and expensive gifts. They hug and they kiss us. They offer us unmentionable favors. They do everything possible for us in the desperate hope we will continue to regard them as somehow worthy to be our friends. (Of course, the bigger the gift, the more we appreciate it. It shows they know just how inferior they are.)

This is why, of course, surprise birthday parties are so difficult in the US. We all know we deserve a big celebration, so even if our friends have not invited us to one, we know that it’s coming and we pretend to be surprised.

Yes, as you see, it is indeed a marvelous tradition.

But then there’s Romania. And what happens here? Oh, my unworthy friends, you have it all wrong.

What do you do to remember that accursed, hard day you came into the world? That wretched one that came long ago when you were given no choice and coldly tossed out of the comfort and into the void? The day that caused your mother such pain and your father such worry? When you were forced to be born and we were forced to accept it?

What do you do? You slump your shoulders and stoop so low as to plan your own party. You call up your friends and you rent out the bar and your pay all the bills. You buy your own cake and you hand out some cookies. (Sure we bring cupcakes to our classmates when we’re in the second grade, but that can be forgiven. At the age of seven, how are we to know yet that we’re the most important thing around?) Then you hope for some kisses and that someone remembers. Or you simply hope someone shows up. In other words, you pay all your friends, the ones who put up with you, as if you know you’re a bother whose name they’ll otherwise forget.

It’s just terribly sad. It really is. The fact is a few us like you. We actually do. Somewhat, at least. And what you consider being humble, we Americans see as just one more sign of your silly inferiority complex. You know, the one all of you have. The one that stems from thinking your country is Europe’s Wile E. Coyote, sitting on the highway just waiting once again to be flattened by a truck.

I suppose it’s not that surprising. It’s the subdued way you Romanians treat holidays in general. (Forget the fact you have no Thanksgiving. I mean, for nearly 400 years, we in the US have been thanking the Lord at least once a year for providing family and friends, and a bountiful harvest, and for letting us survive another long year. In Romania, it seems, most of your holidays are primarily focused on thanking the Lord for leaving you alone.)

Well, ok, you’re not the US, but you’re still pretty good. And you all deserve a much better birthday. So I’m here to fix that. Call it my mission. Put away your wallet. Your money’s no good here. We’ll buy you the drinks. We’ll get you the presents. We’ll bring you the cookies. We’ll bake you the cake. We’ll do you the favors. I say let’s give it a go. Let’s start changing things now. No time like the present.

And gee willikers, come to think of it, the timing is perfect. Because my birthday is next. So let’s start with me. That only makes sense. And here’s what we do. Plan my surprise party for 9:00 at night, tell people to come early, and I’ll get there a bit later. You can rent out that club, the one that I like. There’s room for the presents to the right of the bar. Then you all can take turns buying me drinks and saying nice things so I might stay your friend. Oh, and don’t forget the name tags so I know who you are.

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