|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Van Tat Thang
I arrived in Germany when Christmas was fast approaching. Snow was covering the ground. At night standing on the sky-high buildings and looking down the streets bedecked with brightly lit, coloured lanterns, we could see windows decorated with the twinkling lights. The Christmas tree standing at the corner of the market was also decorated with brilliant lights. The city looked so merry with bustling preparations for Christmas Day. I missed my home.
On Christmas night, a big German man, with the book entitled "Guten Tag Kollegan" (Good day, Colleague) in his hand, approached me and said:
"You should be missing home very much. Shall we go to my home tonight?"
I nodded in agreement. His name was Dieter, four years my senior. He had a wife and two children. We worked in the same plant and he was helping me learn German.
Dieter's family lived in a four-room condominium. The living room was cozily decorated with a Christmas tree adorned with glittering coloured lights. At its foot were the gifts. His wife in a beautiful evening dress came to greet us. She smiled joyfully upon receiving my gift to her. It was a bracelet of seashells from Viet Nam. After that Dieter and I sat down over glasses of beer, talking shop.
The church bell was ringing, heralding the approach of the sacred time. The family members embraced each other happily, wishing and presenting gifts to each other. Then they took turns opening the boxes of gifts and jumped for joy over the gifts. They expressed thanks to each other. And Dieter gave me a small box:
"This is for you!"
I took it with pleasure and opened it. A moment of silence. Dieter looked at me and said:
"In Germany, Weihnacht-Noel is the family reunion and it is reserved for dear ones only. I know you're living far from home and should be missing it a lot, so I invited you to my family just to help you get a little relief from your homesickness."
Actually I was not sad at all. And I enjoyed that night with his family and with his two lovely children, a 10-year-old boy named Mario and a 7-year-old girl named Nicol. After that I often came to see Dieter's family on Sundays and had dinner with them. When I was about to go home, Dieter's wife Gusti shook hands with me, saying:
"You're the fifth member of my family, so don't hesitate!"
Early the next year, Dieter joined the army for a two-year contract. The Law on Military Service was applied to men at the stipulated age. On the Sunday morning before he left home, Dieter invited me to go into the forest to pick mushrooms.
Winter was gone and spring came. Trees looked bright with buds and green leaves. Snow was melting, exposing the ground with soft humus and dead leaves left by the winter. Dieter tied a rattan basket onto my belt, saying with a smile:
"Look, this is really a mushroom picker. Here in spring, we go into the forest to pick up mushrooms. Look, mushrooms over there!"
I went to the direction Dieter was pointing and saw some chubby mushrooms. So I picked them and threw them into the basket. We moved on and saw a dead log on the way where there were a lot of mushrooms in different colors. Dieter pulled me away, warning that they were the poisonous mushrooms. And he told me to make the difference of assorted mushrooms in the forest. Later he said:
"If you love a girl, take her here, because this is the time for young couples to come and pick up mushrooms!"
I smiled at him.
Gusti cooked a very delicious mushroom soup for a farewell to her husband. I did not find any sadness in Dieter, while his wife Gusti looked gloomy. At the end of the party, Gusti played a gramophone record. She appeared in a pink skirt and a glittering diamond necklace. She looked so attractive. A waltz was playing and Dieter was embracing his wife and dancing. I heard him urging his wife:
"Do smile, my dear! I'll be home shortly."
Dieter did not come home the next Christmas. Gusti invited me to come and enjoy the holiday, but I refused.
"I'll come when your husband is back home."
Gusti looked at me in sadness, but she nodded her head.
The Berlin Wall collapsed. The political situation in Eastern European countries became extremely complicated. A lot of factories and plants closed down, and unemployment spread. Most of my team members received compensation and went home willingly. Only a handful of them stayed. I was jobless and rented a small room. One day I was strolling in the street and a man looked fixedly at me. I cried for joy:
"Oh, God! Jens! Hello, colleague!"
He smiled mockingly at me again:
"I am not your colleague! Why are you still hanging around here?"
I looked at him dumbfounded. I wanted to burst out crying. He worked the same shift in the same shop. And now he looked upon me as a stranger.
The following days, I told myself to stay and did some business to earn some money. I worked my fingers to the bone getting up at midnight and driving to the railway stations in the big cities to buy wool and fabric and came back in a hurry to be there in time for the market service. It was called the market, but it was only one of those large areas in the small cities where all sorts of things were for sale. But the main items of goods were clothes, woolen goods and some electronic goods, gifts and gramophone records for dirt cheap prices because they were all smuggled. We sold these goods like hot cakes because the Eastern Germans had lived in the subsidized society for a long time and now they found it hard to live in a market economy, so they came to buy these things in earnest. It was the same every year when Christmas came, I was present in the market early every day and when the market was over, I earned a lot of money. Whenever I met my colleagues who used to work with me in the plant, I gave them good prices.
One day, Dieter went to find me in the market. He embraced me. I cried like a child. He consoled me and gave me a handkerchief. It made me remember the first gift I received during Christmas. He took me to a food shop and bought two glasses of Gluhwein (kind of mulled wine) and two grilled Wurst (sausage). It turned out that Dieter's military service was over. The township near the old condominium was now busy with a lot of shops hung with colorful adverts. At the end of the main street was a large ground with a lot of second-hand cars for sale.
Dieter was unemployed for half a year. He hunted for a job everywhere in the area, but in vain. He decided to work as a long-distance truck driver for a Western German company. Gusti was very sad when her husband accepted the work. She said:
"This is a carefree job and there are a lot of risks."
Half a year went by. It was dusk and I was collecting things before going home when Dieter appeared. Only half a year had passed, but he had changed a lot. He looked emaciated and worn out. He was limping. I asked:
"What's wrong with your leg?"
"A bale of goods dropped onto my leg," - He said and went to his car and opened the trunk. He took out a leather bag and gave it to me, speaking in a hesitant voice:
"I want to sell this…."
I recognised that familiar black bag, which I used to sling over my shoulder when I went into the forest to take photos. It was a pretty good camera for that time with assorted lenses.
"Why do you need to sell it?"
"I don't need it anymore! You've got money…. So buy it…. It's cheap, you know!" - He entreated me.
Dieter took the money and went away in a hurry. I pressed the camera onto my chest, looking after him getting into the car. What was wrong with him, I wondered?
On the previous birthdays of Deiter and I, Gusti ordered a table in a familiar restaurant. She invited Jens, her husband's friend. It was late at night, all the diners had gone, and only Dieter and I were left behind. Gusti sat by us, a dead drunk man. But it was different this time. On Dieter's birthday, he phoned me. It was still sundown. His car pulled up in front of my house and the bell was ringing. I opened the door:
"Aren't you going home yet?"
"Tonight, only you and I. Do get into the car now!" - Dieter said.
Having got into the car, he asked me:
"Are you still my brother and friend?"
"Why do you ask that?"
"I need some money."
"No, I don't beg you for it. I want you to buy it for me," he said, rummaging something in his chest pocket and taking out a red package. He opened it.
Oh, good heaven! It was that diamond necklace. The diamonds were glittering in the weak light inside the car. I immediately remembered the first days I saw Gusti sporting it on her neck.
"Why…. is that?"
"Please, I beg you not to ask anything now. It's 3,000 DM. You know, I bought it at 12,000 DM."
I was silent. I felt something bitter in my throat. I felt choked. If I did not buy it, he would sell it at a second-hand goods shop. I looked at him for a moment. In the end of the day, I got the money from my wallet and gave it to him. And then I got out of his car without a word. He looked after me. I got into my car and sat there in silence, looking at the rear mirror and then I followed him.
He arrived at the house near the railway station. The front of the house was hung with an advert board "Spiebank". After a few moments of hesitation, I got out and went into the house. It was a gambling den. It smelled of cigarettes. A lot of noises were heard. Finally I found Dieter on the second floor. He looked outrageous. I guessed he was losing. It was midnight. After two hours standing behind him and following him in silence. I looked at the two empty machines. I saw Dieter was pointing to the machine which was blinking with the word: "First Prize". Then there were heavy steps coming from the guards. And Dieter's face was smeared with blood. He fell into my arms.
I came to see Dieter on the weekend. He was not home. Gusti received me in the kitchen.
"You know, he was always a poor loser. He has taken away everything in the house. His leg was disabled and nobody wanted to hire him, even the laundry shop. Jobless, he has roamed in the supermarket and tried his luck with these machines," Gusti said, looking sad.
"Or you two do some business and I'll join you," I said to her.
Gusti beamed. She told me she wanted to open a coffee shop. Three days later, I came back to her house and we decided to open a cafe. I lent her the startup money. At the crossroad near her house, there was a kiosk that was unused. So she rented it and opened a cafe. Some of her friends came to help her with old chairs and stools. Two weeks later, the cafe was opened and Dieter looked exceedingly surprised. From then on, he worked for his wife.
I decided to start a bigger business. I shifted from retail sales to wholesale. I bought leather goods from Poland and Czechoslovakia. I was up to the eyes in work. One year later, Dieter phoned me, giving me encouraging news. His wife's business had fared very well and they had saved enough money to pay me back. At the other end of the phone I heard a moving voice:
"Van, I would like to thank you very much. We Germans have never lent money to each other without a document of mortgage. Van, do you think I am a bad guy? I failed when Germany was reunified. A lot of young Germans at that time were without employment. We had to go and find luck in those machines….Van, I feel greatly repented…. You have pitied me and helped me. I'm much obliged to you!"
I came back to the former lodging right at Christmas time. I kept Dieter and Gusti informed of it in advance. Gusti was overjoyed upon hearing my news on the phone. She earnestly invited me to come and join them on Christmas Eve at her home. I brought some gifts from Poland, especially a small box that I had hidden carefully. I wanted to give them something as a surprise.
Here I was. It was a pine forest and those chimneys on the old plant were near. I stood in front of their house excited. Having returned here, I felt like I was returning to my old homeland. Having been away from my homeland of Viet Nam, I was in Germany alone. But I had the Dieter family, who had shared difficulties and hardships with me. I remembered my first Christmas night with his family. I saw snow everywhere. I went with him into the forest and picked mushrooms. Memories rushed back to me.
The door opened and Gusti smiled to welcome me in. Dieter ran quickly towards me. We embraced each other in the middle of the room. When the church bell was heard resounding, I handed to Gusti the box I brought along.
"Let me see! What's Van's gift for me this Christmas?" She said, carefully opening the box.
"Oh. God!" Gusti was about to drop the gift in great emotion. She was trembling and yelled "Look, Dieter…. This is Van's gift for us…." Her face looked brilliant and she jumped to embrace me with that diamond necklace in one hand. Yes, it was a surprise for them. Happiness filled me. Dieter ran to raise me high. I also gave him his old camera. He was so happy with it. Yes, sometimes giving is a great happiness in one's life.
Translated by Manh Chuong