Janine Braden works for a transnational food company based in Australia. Her job requires her to go to different countries to supervise that all branches are complying with quality standards.

In 2000, she traveled to Venezuela. She would stay there for a year and a half. She would have to spend Christmas away from her loved ones, which she did not like very much, but she accepted the transfer. It will be temporary, she thinks aloud ....

-It will help me to get to know another culture and customs.

In the meantime, she plans what she would take to that country: clothes, personal items, some ornaments for her house. This to feel like in her beloved Melbourne.... she had never been away from her family for so long.

She decides to enjoy with her friends and family as much time as she can. This trip made her reflect deeply on the connections she has firmly established in her life.

It seems incredible, she, who had traveled to different countries of the world and, known other cultures, now doubted.... could not find how to express what she felt.... was something she did not know how to define...... a mixture of homesickness and joy at the same time that she had never felt before.

Janine muses:
-Maybe it's because I never spent Christmas and New Year's without my loved ones...I don't understand, I should be used to it by now, I always travel.... Or is it a premonition?

It's time to leave for her new job. She begins to pack what she would take with her. She selects her bright red suitcases, those stand out from the rest, she spots them quickly when they pass by the platform. Besides, they bring him good luck. On her last trip, to Slovenia, because of those suitcases she met two wonderful people who are now her friends.

She would take clothes suitable for the tropics, some winter clothes, her sneakers that she wears for hiking, her ornaments and photos to palliate any sudden sadness.......

Ring, ring, ring the doorbell of the house. It's the cab driver coming to pick her up, Jannine, to take her to the airport. She says goodbye to her parents, John and Caroline, and her sister Mary .....woof, woof, woof.... is heard in the distance, it's her dog Luna, who runs after Jannine. She is sad, rushes at her, she doesn't want to let go. Janine calms her down and tells her:

-I'm coming back-.

Luna, as if understanding her, drops at her feet, calms down and wags her tail and cuddles with Mary. Her parents and sister give her a little box and say:

-Open it only when you are settled in your home in Barquisimeto....-.

-What is it?" asks Janine.

-A surprise gift from all of us,- answers Mary.

They all hug each other.

-It's getting late, Miss Janine, let's go," replies the driver.

Janine gets into the car and waves goodbye from the window.... They arrive at the airport. The flight would leave in an hour. While reading a magazine...they call for boarding.
She gets on the plane and settles into her seat. She has to rest, she has to make several connections before reaching her final destination.

She arrives in Caracas and decides to go by land to Barquisimeto, the musical city of Venezuela. There, the welcome committee is waiting for her. She is taken to the hotel. The next day she would attend a meeting with all the directors, which would include a show with tamunangue and tocuyano music.

Janine is fascinated. Back at the hotel she opens the surprise gift: a beautifully framed photo of her entire family, including Luna. Tears came to her eyes......

The next day she would start her work routine. Time went by..... Janine already speaks and understands the language. She decides to venture out on different excursions. She visits different towns: Cubiro, El Tocuyo, Quíbor and Tintorero. In the latter she meets a fellow countryman of hers, Gregg Walsch, who was interested in weaving. Gregg was an undercover boss, he worked in the same company as Janine, but no one knew he was the Director of International Trade. His mission was to capture the dissatisfaction of his employees and improve their situation.

Gregg has been living there for some time, when he hears that Janine is from Australia, he introduces himself and offers her his friendship. Janine is suspicious but accepts. He invites her for coffee and to taste the local goat cheese. They say goodbye and decide to meet again. This friendship would have consequences.....

Janine is still absorbed in her work. Every day in her routine. December begins, she gets sad remembering her family. She thinks about what she will do during this time, she is only friends with Gregg.

The office informs her that, before December 24, they exchange gifts. Janine does not understand this custom. She only observes the Christmas decorations in all the offices, that conforts her ....They participate that is a raffle. The names of all the participants are written on a small piece of paper. They are placed in a hat. Each participant takes out his or her slip of paper, but cannot reveal the name until the day of the gift-giving. That's the secret friend .....

Janine thought this initiative was ingenious. She was assigned Mrs. Margarita, secretary of the General Management. As she did not know her tastes, she decided to give her a typical Australian cake, the lamingtons sponge, as a gift.

Gregg was not present, he was represented by Mr. Juan Gonzalez. Mr. Gonzalez pulled out his slip of paper, which had Janine's name on it. Coincidence or destiny? This would be glimpsed later......

The moment everyone was waiting for arrived: the secret friends would be discovered. That day everyone brought their gifts and each one said the name of their secret friend. Janine gave the cake to Margarita, she didn't know that chocolate was her delirium. She thought: -I succeeded with the gift-.

Then, lastly, Mr. Gonzalez handed Janine an envelope. When she opened it, it was an invitation to dinner. Mr. Gonzalez explained that this was the gift his secret friend was sending her and suggested that she attend the dinner.

Intrigued, Janine went out of curiosity. For the occasion she wore an elegant wine-colored suit that highlighted her blonde hair and porcelain skin. She was even more surprised to see Gregg. He was reassured ..... tasted the typical Christmas food: hallacas, ham bread, chicken salad and dulce de lechosa. He was fascinated and thanked Gregg for such a pleasant evening..... but another unexpected gift awaited him......Gregg handed her, a jasper ring, and told her this is my gift:

-I have waited for this moment to express my admiration, my friendship, my affection and something more..... a feeling that springs from the bottom of my heart. Will you accept to be my bride?

Janine excited, very excited..... receives the ring, answers:

-Yes, I accept. Thank you. Red jasper is one of my favorite quartz because it has properties to eliminate sadness and protect me from any evil. Thank you very much!

THE UNEXPECTED GIFT OF THE SECRET FRIEND by María del Carmen Sánchez Copyright © 2021

Translated with (free version)

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