Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Bucharest Christmas

Summer and fall in Bucharest were brilliant in their sunlit days and blue skies.  From May until December, what precipitation there was fell at night or during the workday.  As little as three weeks ago I was riding my bicycle to and from work.  We were beginning to wonder, where is winter?

Then there was a week of fog.  Everything was shrouded in mist.  Temperatures dropped, and a drizzle turned to light snow.  Winter came, and now it is Christmas Eve.

This is my second Christmas in Bucharest.  A year ago it did not feel like Christmas, embroiled as I was in a legal battle that seemed without end.  I put up no decorations of my own and made no Christmas plans.  Then one day I came home from work, opened my door, and stopped short.  My apartment had been decorated!  There were Christmas wreaths, candles, ornaments, and Merry Christmas signs.  It was all the doing of my Bucharest friend K*, soon to be my best friend and one of the most significant people ever to appear in my life.  Unbeknownst  to me, she had gotten a key to my apartment and had decorated it along with her housekeeper without any hint to me.

A year ago I could never have guessed that this year I would be the happiest I have ever been in my 57 years.  This year I did my own decorating, putting up a small Christmas tree for the first time since joining the Foreign Service.  There are presents received and presents to give under the tree, and I am making the rounds from one buffet or dinner to another.  Santa Claus came to Embassy Bucharest on Friday, and I gave him the biggest of hugs.  This year Santa has given me what I secretly prayed for on Christmas Eve nights 50 years ago:  my womanhood.

I am far, far from the first person to walk this transition road, and much of what I write is familiar or even dull to those who have gone down this path long before me.  Yet for me all the milestones, even the small ones, are bright and new, each a shiny ornament for the season. 

My Childhood Christmas Creche (circa 1962)
One ornament came two weeks ago during the fog when I asked M* for a ride home.  "Of course," she said, "and then we'll go together to the book club." "What book club?" I asked.  She seemed surprised I knew nothing about it.  Later in the day I asked my friend N*, and she too reacted with surprise.  "Well of course you're coming, aren't you?"  With two such insistent requests in one afternoon about a group I had never heard of, I had to go and find out.

Mom and Dad's Christmas Village
It turns out that the International Book Club that has existed in Bucharest for years and years is known more informally as the Ladies Night Out Club.  Fourteen women, many from outside the Embassy and whom I had never met, gathered that evening, each bringing a dinner dish or dessert.  (I happened to have some chicken tetrazzini I had cooked the previous day, so I didn't have to embarrass myself by coming empty handed.)  Over wine and dinner, everyone talked about this month's reading, Galileo's Daughter, before digressing into general conversation about the lot of women then and through all times.  For me it was a magical evening that rivaled the Marine Ball.  "I can't believe I'm really sitting here," I thought as I pinched myself.  I had been accepted and was as much a part of the group as anyone there.

Then there was the Sunday afternoon when N*, who describes herself as a beauty school dropout, taught me the finer points of handling a blow dryer and brushes.  Other Embassy friends have been giving me makeup, hair preparations, and beauty advice.

Earlier this week one of my Embassy girlfriends came up to me and asked where I had bought my boots.  "Mine are worn out, and I love yours!" she said.  Another friend came up to ask where I had bought my skirt suit.  Then there was the handsome man, recently arrived in Bucharest, whom I met at a sweets and chocolate get-together last weekend.  When he heard we would both be part of a group that is going to a Christmas Day buffet, he said, "That's another good reason for me to go!"  I nearly blushed.

Santa has been good to me in smaller, practical things as well.  Much sooner than I expected, I received my new tourist passport this week, and just yesterday I received my new diplomatic ID from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Indeed, it is a wonderful life.

Bucharest at Christmas reminds me of small town America.  Christmas lights hang over all major streets, and the markets are full of wonderful smells as people rush home with their last minute shopping.  Men carry Christmas trees, and women carry wreaths and holly.
It is a very, very Merry Christmas in Bucharest this year.  To my family and friends and to all who have found their way to these notes, may your Christmas be as merry as mine, full of warmth, love, and happiness.  And to those who find themselves down and hopeless, know that this is how I felt just one year ago.  If that is where you find yourself, may you have your own K* in your life who brings you cheer and hope in spite of yourself.

I'll see you all again in 2012. 

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