When you’re living overseas, celebrating the holidays often takes on a new twist. The usual trimmings and activities may not be available, and it often takes some adjustment to combine the customs of your home culture with the realities of life in your new host country.
Take this last Christmas, for example.
We had been living in Romania for just over a year. It was our third overseas tour, so we were used to spending the holidays far from our home in the States. As December 25th drew near, the U.S. Embassy collected Christmas tree orders. We had hoped to improve on last year’s tree. Sure, that last freshly-cut 5-meter (16 feet) tree had been beautiful, but this year, we were aiming for a bigger 6-meter (18 feet) tree. The Christmas tree was to come from Buzea, in the Carpathian Mountains, and it would cost only US$35, delivered – or so we thought.
When the huge tree arrived, I put out our usual tree stand, and then stood back to take a look at the tree. The lowest branches were only 2-3 inches from the base.
“We’ll have to cut off the lower branches off so the tree will fit in the stand,” I decided. We didn’t have a saw, so I borrowed one from our neighbors.
With difficulty, the embassy drivers cut off the fresh branches. My husband joined us, and the three mighty masculine men heaved and worked to get that tree into the base. It settled with a loud crack into the base.
I quickly screwed in the screws and added water, then we all stood back to admire our wondrous tree. Nic and Kristi, the embassy drivers, hurried off to make their next tree delivery.
“Doesn’t it seem to be listing to the side?” my husband asked, a bit of concern in his voice.
“Here, I’ll just tighten the screws on the other side.” But to tighten those screws, I had to loosen screws that were already digging into the fresh wood. Blisters raised on my palms, and then…
“Whoa! It’s tipping!” my husband shouted.
I scrambled out from under the falling tree, and together we managed a slow descent. Sugar water poured out from the base. The tree lay on the floor, and we examined the damage to the base. The bottom was cracked, hence the leak, and the weight of the tree cracked one of the sides. We were going to need a new base.
The next day, we combed Bucharest’s major markets and department stores for tree stands. But we found nothing for a tree over 1.5 meters (4.5 feet).
It was time to call in Radu, our local handyman. Over the telephone, Radu pretended to understand what I said, and I pretended to understand that he would be there in a couple hours. He showed up six hours later.
“Oh, Mrs. Annie, we have a problem,” he said slowly.
“Well, yeah, Radu, that’s why I called you,” I replied. “Can you fix this stand? It worked fine last year.”
“No, Mrs. Annie, this tree is too big. And that stand, she is plastic. I don’t trust the plastic. For this tree, I only trust the metal.”
“Can you make something metal?” called my husband from upstairs.
“I don’t know,” he replied, shaking his head. “I will try, but I will need money. They don’t give away this metal for free, and there must be a cylinder to hold water for the tree or it will dry out.”
“How much money will you need for parts?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Annie. The metal, she is expensive, and I don’t know if I can buy just a little.”
“Here, let me give you a million,” said my husband, reaching for his wallet.
“No, no, that’s too much,” Radu said graciously. “I’ll probably need 300,000-400,000 lei ($9-$12US).”
I gave him 500,000. “Let me know if you need more,” I said.
He did. The next day, he pulled up beside my van as I was leaving the school. He started his long story, with four cars of people and the guards watching. “Mrs. Annie, I found a place that can sell me the metal, but they don’t want to sell me a little metal,” the handyman said. “They want to sell me a lot of metal. And I don’t want to buy a lot. We only need one meter (three feet).”
I interrupted him. “I know you’ll do a good job, Radu. Just tell me what you need.”
“Mrs. Annie, I need more money.” I handed him another 500,000 lei.
“Bine,” he said, and drove away.
He called me about 9:30 that night. “Mrs. Annie, I understand the situation has some urgency. The tree, she is suffering.”
“Well, yeah, I guess it’s thirsty,” I admitted.
“Yes, she’s thirsty,” he replied. “And she wants to stand up. She doesn’t like to lie down. I drove to many places today to try to find metal. But everywhere I asked to buy the metal, they did not want to sell me just a little metal. They wanted to sell me kilograms of metal. But I don’t need that much. Finally, they agreed to sell me half, and then I will have to sell what I don’t need.”
“Okay, Radu, just tell me what you need,” I replied, trying to remain patient.
“Well, the metal will cost one million (lei).”
“And how much will it cost to assemble it?”
“They said assembly will cost 700,000 (lei), but I don’t trust them,” the man continued. “They don’t want to follow my plan. They say the metal will change shape when they weld it, and I don’t trust them. I told them to wait until I talk to you. I still have the million lei you gave me. I don’t give them nothing yet.”
“Well, tell them to go ahead,” I said. What did I have to lose now?
End of story? Not hardly.
Radu called again the next night. “The situation has changed.” After a long story which included his wife reading the worried expression on his face, and his reputation, and everybody else’s reputation, and friends of his, and people he doesn’t trust, and his plan, the upshot was, “They don’t want to follow my plan.”
So, Radu found a man who had done work for Radu’s former employer and still had a key to the metalworking factory where he then worked. Radu used the million lei to buy the metal, the screws, the wheels, and the cylinder (not all in one place, mind you), and his plan was to meet at 11:30 p.m. in front of our street. From there, he and his friend let themselves into the metalworking factory where the friend would work through the night. Radu would deliver the stand Thursday morning.
“Fine, Radu, I understand,” I said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Well, Mrs. Annie, it will be hard for us to stay awake all night. If you could make some coffee and buy something for my friend to eat, maybe some bread, that would help him stay awake. I don’t need anything, of course.”
“Fine, Radu. You stop by and I’ll give you coffee and bread.”
When Radu came over that evening, he provided a detailed accounting for the kilometers he drove looking for parts, as well as receipts for the parts. The total was 1.5 million lei ($45US) and climbing.
The next morning, Radu unloaded several large pieces of metal. But he still needed another bolt, a size the shop didn’t have, so he said he’d to go buy the bolt that day. He had paid his friend the 500,000 lei, so I gave him another million lei ($30US) for their labor. The tree had been lying on its side for five days now.
Two days later, Radu brought the bolts and a receipt, along with the finished tree stand! My husband helped erect the tree once the stand was assembled, and tipped Radu another million lei.
I poured in the water. It didn’t leak. Glory Hallelujah! We spent the next weekend decorating the tree. It was a beauty to behold, yet all I could see was the meter of space between the top of the tree and the ceiling.
So, this year, we’re going to try for a bigger tree. You see, we have this great tree stand…