The main reason we went to Semey at all was for New Year and so I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about that. Most of New Year’s Eve was spent at home. Murat’s mother spent part of the day at work and then came home and began to prepare for dinner that night. The night before, she and her husband spent a good portion of it making manti or preparing bauersaki. I suppose she started cooking at about 7:00 PM, so it was pretty evident that we were not going to be eating until much later in the evening.
Around 9:00 we cleared the table in the living room and turned the TV on and thus began our New Year’s celebration. Murat and I added a leaf to the table and put the table cloth out and waited for the salads and main course to be ready while we flipped around the Television. The Russian movie “Irony of Fate” was on about 6 different channels at varying points…and when the movie finished…it began again.
Personally, it didn’t matter to me—I didn’t really care for the movie, but since I didn’t understand I wasn’t going to complain. However, Murat soon got tired of the film so we ended up switching around the channels—checking out concerts and some Kazakh comedy program that had a bunch of celebrities getting involved in New Year’s Eve related hijinks. I didn't understand much of what was going on and tried not to pester Murat to explain everything to me—he already had enough work to do translating all the important parts of his parent’s conversations with me.
As the New Year drew closer, we finally began to fill the table with food---Murat’s mother had made three salads: a vinegar based cabbage and radish salad which was red in color; another cabbage vinegar salad that was white, like sauerkraut, but I did not enjoy it; and an odd sort of amalgamation of eggs, mayonnaise, ham, potatoes, and peas, which was very good. Along with the salad, we had other side dishes such as sausage and cheese, along with bread, crackers, and bauersaki. Our main course was manti—which is either a steamed wonton-like food or more similar to ravioli, whichever is easier for you to understand. It is essentially noodle wrapped around meat and can be eaten with mayonnaise, ketchup, or a light red sauce with onions.
Around 11:00 the four of us, Murat, his parents, and I began eating. Initially I had expected some guests to arrive, however as none had yet arrived and the family appeared not to expect anymore, I decided to eat like it was a meal (for clarification, often in Kazakhstan you will be offered food with tea or at what would seem like a usual time to eat—and you may be hungry…but be warned: if some members of the house are missing or you are expecting someone to arrive, this is not a meal. It is merely a way of them being hospitable. You should eat—but eat very little, as the REAL meal will come later. I have accidentally eaten too much sausage and cheese with bread, thinking that was lunch, only to have the host bring out a huge plate of beshbarmak and expect me to eat that an hour later. If you aren't sure—ask your host!).
Marat gave a toast around 11:15 and we drank a shot of vodka. After this, Murat and his mother decided they didn’t want to drink the vodka, so they switched to Cognac; I, however, decided to accompany Marat because I didn’t want him to think I was some sort of sissy cognac drinker—though, I will admit I did take a dram of cognac every now and then. Each of us gave a toast—mine was to making new friends, Murat’s hard work, and my new Kazakh family (Sorry Aina! You’re title has been usurped! Murat’s mom makes me beshbarmak and kurdak every time I go there!)
Midnight came and we switched the channel to Nazarbayev’s New Year’s address…but Marat and Murat quickly switched the channel back off. Instead, we made a skype call to some of their family in Almaty and gave each other New Year’s wishes. Obviously, this meant that I was introduced to everyone and the parents in Almaty tried to get their young children to say “hello” to me in English.
Parents—I understand it may be cute and you want to show your children off…but as a child, I have to say that putting us on the spot like that is a nightmare. So is telling everyone about something “hilarious” that we did that was due to our misunderstanding of a simple adult concept. Please stop that…or at least do it when we aren’t around. At any rate, the kids were pretty shy and none of them worked up the courage to try and say hello. I was able to impress people with my “hello” in Russian and the few words I knew in Kazakh.
After we talked for a little bit, midnight came so we put our jackets and hats on and went outside to watch the fireworks. Many people launched their own fireworks, so we were out there for quite some time. While we were out there we met many of the neighbors and Murat introduced me to them—this included meeting people outside or just having them shout down at us from their windows and balconies.
One of the neighbors that we met was literally their next door neighbor and so after we spent a bit of the time outside, we went to her apartment and had a bit of tea and some kazyi (Horse sausage—though only had a few bites because I was already full up on manti). She lived there with her mother, who at first was reluctant to join us because she was tired, however she quickly changed her mind and brought her dombra out and began to play and sing for us. The other adults in the room joined her for the chorus and it was a very interesting sight to see, the older generations of Kazakhstan singing their traditional songs.
After about three songs, the grandmother (Appa or Aje…depending on whether it is the mother’s mother or father’s mother) became tired so we moved back into our apartment and had some more tea and alcohol for toasting. We stayed up talking (or in my case just listening and picking at the manti or salads whenever I got hungry…until about 5:00 in the morning. Then the neighbor left and I helped Murat’s mother clean up while Murat and his father argued whether or not the meerschaum of my pipe was a mineral (Murat and I said it was—his father claimed it was too soft to be a mineral; minerals are hard.)
Eventually the table was cleared, Marat eventually acquiesced that Meerschaum was indeed a mineral, and I was able to go to bed. My first New Year’s in Kazakhstan was a very interesting time, yet not too dissimilar to how I would have spent it in the US. I missed my family, but it was wonderful to experience Kazakhstan with Kazakhs!