As Christmas approaches the hysteria over finding the right Christmas tree is reaching a feverish pitch. I can see it as I lunch at a pizzeria in Prague's Smichov district: one customer after another gesticulating wildly over trees being sold on the corner, the seller running to and fro with a measuring tape. Customers inspect the trees with a keen eye. All manner of common defects are looked for: too tall, too spiky, too shabby, too lop-sided, a tree full on one side and flat on the other.
The poor bastards.
A tiny tree with a few limp branches that is just about ready to shed its last needle. But, because its the last you can be certain the vendor will jack up the price.
Watching from the window I watch customers silently bargain, waving their hands like straw men in the wind, while the vendor nods and seems to say, just a second, I have something for you. One customer opens his mouth in a wide "O" when he learns the price.
Back and forth, back and forth. Till the customer agrees and carts off the tree balanced dangerously in his arms as he makes his way precariously to his car, sweeping away of pedestrians who incredibly - just a moment ago - were passing by on the sidewalk.
Czechs are fierce about their trees.
It's no secret that many pack up and drive to the nearest forest to try and cut the poor things down. Officials now levy stiff fines but know that wouldn't be enough: they also have many evergreens sprayed with a noxious stinky substance to prevent them from being stolen and taken home.
I'm willing to bet that there is at least one family somewhere in Prague who will firmly be holding their noses this Christmas as they admire their sparkling tree, with a beautiful star on top.
Think I'm being uncharitable? If so, than listen to this: outside my apartment in the middle of Prague, park workers recently planted dozens of small evergreens in a project to improve my local park. Within a week every last one was stolen - in broad daylight what's more. My dad saw the thieves from the street and tried to intervene. They told him to get lost or they'd bash him over the head. An embassy is just metres away. Nobody did a thing.
A week later, park workers put up a beautiful little metal fence to surround the large patch of empty dirt where the baby evergreens once were. Talk about closing the barn door after you've let the horses bolt.
Oh, Christmas tree.
Somewhere, someone will have a whole forest of midget evergreens in their living room this December 24th. Me I'll settle for a little plastic tree I'll pull out of the closet stamped on the underside with serial number A1M40H.
Still looks good as new once you dust the dust balls off.
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