Submitted by Rusty Waters
There is hardly any worse feeling you can get in life than to have high expectations that your gift is going to be fawned over (or better yet that YOU will be for giving it) and then to be humiliated by finding out that you gave the exact wrong gift; worse yet that your gift offended a room full of people. It’s happened to me many times, but by far the most humiliating was one cold evening in a beautiful restaurant in Moscow.
I had arranged a birthday party for a lovely girl and four of her girlfriends. I selected my favorite restaurant and told the maître d’ to hold a particular table. As a centerpiece I planned one dozen long stemmed, extra-large, gorgeous red roses. I had walked a good distance in the snow to pick out just the right flowers one by one. I had left them earlier at the restaurant in a backroom so I could surprise the birthday girl (and her friends).
How could I go wrong with roses?
When everyone was seated, I excused myself for a moment to fetch the beautiful bouquet. I returned walking tall; beaming as I set them right in the middle of the table. As the five girls saw me walking toward them they were all smiling. Yes, I thought, a big score on this one! But as the girls stared a little more at the flowers their approving, happy looks turned a bit dour. I could tell something was wrong because they were whispering to each other and obviously, even though trying hard not to let me know something was amiss, they were all horrified at what I’d done.
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They were being very polite, so I had to pry the problem out of them. It turned out that in Russia, a country rife with historical superstitions and customs far different from those I was used to in the United States, the problem was that I had brought one dozen roses! You see, in Russia an even number of flowers is only to someone who is… dead, at the cemetery! I could’ve brought one flower, three flowers, even 13 flowers– but one dozen, NEVER!
Russians, very polite people in such circumstances, were feeling almost as bad for my embarrassment as I was for not knowing what was to an American a rather obscure custom! Although they said I should not worry about it, I jumped up from the table and almost ran to the hostess. I had noticed a bouquet of flowers in the entryway and begged her for one of those flowers. Actually I needed two, 1 to add to the arrangement on our table to make it 13 and one to throw away so the entryway bouquet would remain an odd number!
I survived the evening, in fact a bit of a hero for correcting my earlier faux pas but I sure wish I’d have known in advance this widespread Russian custom.