Only In Romania

Annie Rasiak

© Copyright 2003 by Annie Rasiak

Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

We came to Romania in August, 2001, when my husband, a foreign service officer, was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest. This is our third overseas tour.

The week started inauspiciously. The U.S. Embassy collected Christmas tree orders. We hoped to improve on last year’s success of a beautiful, freshly-cut 5-meter tree delivered and placed in our stand, which never wobbled, with a 6-meter tree.

When the tree arrived, I placed the stand, then took 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.”

They 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 hoed and got that tree into the base.

CRACK! “There, I told you the tree would settle itself onto the center spike,” I proclaimed, ever the optimist.

I screwed in the screws and added water, then we all stood back to admire it.

Nic and Kristi hurried off to make their next delivery.

“Doesn’t it seem to be listing this way?” my husband asked.

“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.

“Whoa! It’s tipping!”

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. 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.

The next day, we combed Bucharest’s major markets and department stores for tree stands. Nothing for a tree over 1.5 meters.

Time to call Radu. 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.”

“Well, yeah, Radu, that’s why I called you. 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, domnul. I will try. 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.

“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. I’ll probably need 3-400,000 ($9-12).”

“Here’s 500,000.” I gave him the bill. “Let me know if you need more.”

He did. The next day, he pulled up beside my van as I was leaving the school. He started a long story, with 4 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, they want to sell me a lot of metal. And I don’t want to buy a lot. We only need one meter....”

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. 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.”

“OK, Radu, just tell me what you need.”

“Well, the metal will cost one million.”

“And how much will it cost to assemble it?”

“They said assembly will cost 700,000, but I don’t trust them. 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. A colleague of mine told them, ‘Don’t worry, you can trust Radu. He will give you the money.’ But I don’t give them nothing yet.”

“Well, tell them to go ahead. When can they do it?”

“I don’t know. They say maybe Tuesday and maybe Wednesday. Depends on how much other business they have. I don’t know, Mrs. Annie. I understand there is some urgency.”

“Yeah, tell them to go ahead.”

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’s else’s reputation, and friends of his, and people he doesn’t trust, and his plan, the upshot was that, “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 used to work and work through the night. Radu would deliver the stand Thursday morning.

“Fine, Radu, I understand. 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 detailed accounting for the kilometers he drove looking for parts, and receipts for the parts. The total was 1.5 million lei ($45) and climbing.

The next morning, Radu unloaded several large pieces of metal. But he still needed another size bolt, a size the shop didn’t have, so he said he’d buy them that day. He told me he paid his friend 500,000 lei, so I gave him a million for their labor. The tree had been lying on its side for 5 days now.

Radu called me that evening to report that, “I buyed the pieces, Mrs. Annie. But I just now arrived home, and I am very tired. You understand?”

“Of course, you’re tired. You didn’t sleep last night!”

“Do you want me to finish the work tonight, Mrs. Annie? If you do, I will come now. But I am very tired. You understand?”

“No, Radu. Get some sleep. You can finish tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Annie. See you tomorrow.”

The next evening, Radu brought the bolts and a receipt. 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 Halleluja! My husband spent the weekend decorating the tree. But all I could see was the meter of space between the top of the tree, after the lighted star, and the ceiling.

So, next year, maybe we’ll go for 7 meters! We have this great stand....

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