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The Garlic Tree

People call me cheap. I consider myself value-oriented. For example, back in graduate school, every Sunday evening, my friend Kevin and I would go to Frank’s Steak House and order the same thing: two New York strip steaks, two baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, two side orders of buttered mushrooms (only one with onions — Kevin is allergic), two orders of mozzarella sticks, and three medium Cokes. A 12 oz. medium Coke was a dollar, while a 16 oz. large was a dollar sixty. Therefore, three mediums cost less than two larges; it was a simple decision even if you factored in the extra ice in three cups versus two. We both knew then that the MBA degrees we were getting from MIT were fully preparing us for the future.

Years have rolled by, and now I am a house-husband living in Warsaw, Poland, responsible for such tasks as washing clothes, cooking, and food shopping. From the start I was determined to leverage my skills and abilities in my new career. After driving my wife to work that first September day following our wedding (honeymoons are cheaper in October in Poland so we decided to wait), I tingled with excitement in the parking lot of Geant, waiting for their 9:00 opening. Geant is a French hipermarket, like a Wal-mart and grocery store all in one. Not only can you buy meat there, but the next aisle offers radial tires, and if the competitors open up a better store, the management can cry until an American company bails them out.

Like children who had won Willie Wonka golden tickets and had entered the “World of Imagination,” fifty Polish women and I stormed the promotional discount newspaper stand, smashing our carts into each other. Polish shoppers are characteristically as careful as Polish drivers, who are renowned for having the second highest fatality rate in the world. The bigger your cart, the more power you wield, and hence the high death rate while shopping. Small babies are routinely crushed by the frenzy of carts chasing after the greatest sale. (There are no air bags on shopping carts yet.)

I scanned the paper and noticed that the first limited special offer was 5 kg of potatoes for 1 zloty (1 USD = 4 zloty). Although the only way I can cook potatoes is by stabbing them several times with a fork and tossing them into a microwave, 10 pounds for a quarter is a great deal. The spuds were in a mesh bag, and as I was the seventh shopper to elbow my way to the stand, I selected a bag that felt a bit heavier than the others. With my first major victory in my cart, I scuttled down the veggie aisle looking for more deals.

And to my surprise what did I see but a luscious shrine of garlic. Jubilant music filled my ears and my inner voice shouted, “Garlic is good.” I both know how to cook with and like to eat garlic. Four years ago, before I had met my wife, another Polish princess had taught me the finer points of making garlic bread. I figured that I could now apply my old skills to please my new queen and, at the same time, insert garlic into enough of her lunches to protect her from any amorous Draculaskis at work.

On display were the most beautiful garlic trees I had ever seen. They were also the first garlic trees I had ever seen. I had previously believed that garlic grew on the ground, or on a bush, or in the pouch of a mama garlic, but in front of me was the undisputed evidence of a tree-like form. Each tree contained about thirty serene, white garlic bulbs fibonaccically spaced around a center stalk. I picked up a tree and gently twirled it, the now jovial garlic leaves gently rustling and responding to my affection. While respecting its fragility, I delicately tugged at one bulb. Like paranoiac grape-eating/testing shoppers, I did not dare pull too hard for fear of later being hounded by vigilant shop police for harming this tree’s integrity. As an avid systems thinker, I saw that this tree was a unified whole in its existence. Every tree on display was as beautiful as the one cradled in my hands. We — garlic trees, I, the cart — were all part of a greater essence.

But the most orgiastic element of the situation was the price: 0.79 zl / sztuk. While I am no Polish scholar, I knew that sztuk means “piece.” Previously I had paid 0.49 zl for only one bulb, so Geant, despite being French, had exceeded my expectations by offering an entire garlic tree for only 0.79 zl.

My mania persisted. After buying the rest of the discounted items in the paper, including Tellytubbie stickers at 0,29 zl / package and something to drink and sanitary pads (the dark side of marriage), I proceeded to the checkout.

Everything was hunky-dory until the checkout girl scanned the garlic. She feigned surprise when she held up my garlic tree. It seemed that she was as proud of her company’s purchasing agent in finding such a magnificent tree as I was in selecting this precise one. I was resplendent.

She started to speak.

Like many people, I find that listening to a foreign language reminds me of a Charlie Brown cartoon where the adults sound like trombones except when they say “NO DOGS ALLOWED” or a Simpson’s cartoon where everything sounds like “BLAH BLAH BLAH DOUGHNUTS BLAH BLAH.” It’s even worse here, because Polish people always sound angry when they speak. I think this may be residual emotion from when the Russians marched many of their relatives to Siberia. Someday in America I want to crazily scream at a complete foreigner, with my eyes bulging out and my neck tendons constricted “HOW ARE YOU? I AM FINE. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE WEATHER?” and see if they show the same deer-in-the-headlights fear I get when a Polish checkout girl talks to me.

She screamed, “BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH 25 BLAH BLAH SZTUK BLAH BLAH.”

I blankly stared at her and her flailing arms and my fragile tree in her hands. I replied with one of my eight known Polish phrases, “Niema Problemu”, or „”No Problem.” (Asking her for a bathroom or a beer didn’t seem appropriate in this context.) I figured that my tree must be short a few bulbs. These big multinational companies (especially French) always try to shaft their customers. If my precious tree was supposed to have 30 bulbs and I was only getting 25, what the hell, for this low price, even I, Mr. Value-Man, was willing sacrifice a few bulbs. And my eight Polish phrases hadn’t accounted for this complexity of a situation.

She paused, looked at me futilely, punched her cash register a few times and rang up the garlic tree at 2.40 zl.

Now, I can handle the concept of being shafted once by being shorted a few garlic bulbs. However, having some checker overcharge me — greater than double the stated price of 0.79 zl — for my garlic tree-friend not only made the price/garlic-bulb ratio very close to my reservation price but also disrupted my greater sense of Gaia. I stood my ground. “Nie, Nie, 0,79 zl / sztuk,” I retorted.

This riled her up even more. I could see additional trouble brewing in the newly formed queue behind me. It always used to piss me off when I had to wait behind someone who wanted to use all of their small change to pay for a bill, or needed a price check on broccoli, or was being fleeced by a French company when they just wanted a tender garlic tree. Now as a retired house-husband, I was that same bastard. The Circle of Life had turned in my favor.

“BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH SZTUK BLAH BLAH 0,79 zl.” We were making progress. She had used the same Polish words I had used, plus a few more. I interpreted what she said as, “I am truly sorry, Mr. Schulist. You are a valued customer, and you caught us in the act of screwing another foreigner. The French Managers hate Americans and sell nuclear weapons to places like Iran and also bribed the referees in the World Cup of 1998, and are responsible for all the bad roads in Poland and Hitler should have burned Paris to teach them a lesson for their Frenchness. Please kindly accept my personal apology and take this sacred garlic tree piece home for 0.79zl.”

I nodded affectionately, winked, and smiled at the checker. In my experience, it is effective to act a bit flirtatious with checkers in most countries, as I have always received good service, even a free pack of gum once, and I have long eyelashes. She shrugged, smiled, counted the bulbs again, and muttered the number 25. I smiled inwardly, knowing how effective my charm is in that basest of all language – body language, baby. My garlic tree quivered and smiled at me in anticipation of our reunion.

The next moments of my life are a blur. Quickly she rang up 25 * 0.79 zl for a grand total of 19.75 zl for my garlic tree. In between heart palpitations, losing my breath, and turning bright red, I nearly fainted at the cost. At a total loss for words in Polish, and afraid to lose my new found herby friend, I sheepishly started packing my groceries. It seems I was expected to understand that each bulb is considered an individual “sztuk” and that I was to rip off each dainty bulb at its aorta, forever separating it from the mama stalk.

My whole sense of reality and global unity was shattered, while my feeling toward the French was confirmed, and my garlic tree was preserved.

Four months later, my garlic tree has only 21 bulbs remaining. Every garlic bulb consists of about 8 cloves and after cooking lasagna, garlic bread, chili (with garlic), tacos (with garlic), and garlic stir-fry, I still can’t get rid of the stuff. At my current rate of garlic usage, I expect my wife and I could conceive and have our first child, and this child could be walking and cradling the remaining bulbs attached to the tree. And that even includes innovations such as strained garlic puree and garlic flavored breast milk.

I also still have three kg of potatoes.

Copyright © 2002 Jason Schulist.

Jason Schulist lives in Warsaw, Poland.