23. April 2023

Lovely Things: The Uzbek Lacquer Box

Small decorated lacquer box

In my series “Lovely Things”, I look at the beautiful objects I own and explore the stories behind them. Today: a relic from an extinct friendship.


If we are honest, most gifts are “OK”. Given on a certain occasion like a birthday or at Christmas — or perhaps “just because”. The item might be something we specifically asked for, or something which we would never have otherwise bought for ourselves. After we’ve said our polite thankyous, we find a use for the gift, or put it away in a drawer to be just as politely forgotten about.

Occasionally, we open up a gift and understand in that instant that the giver either has no idea who we actually are – or actively dislikes us.

The perfect gift

At the other end of the scale, a tiny minority of gifts are so perfect and so timely and so right, they literally take your breath away.

So it was with this tiny hand-painted lacquer box, which was pressed into my hand at work one morning by my (now former) friend and colleague, Stefan*.

Stefan was an avid traveller and had just returned from several weeks in Uzbekistan with his (now former) girlfriend in 2007. He’d seen this little box at a market and bartered and brought it back for me.

Fast friends

Stefan and I were fast friends when we met at work back in November 2004 — my first job in Austria. We bonded over our shared love of long-distance running and, having studied in the English-speaking area, he welcomed the chance to practice his language skills in conversation. With anyone else, I might have resented being used so blatantly as a free English lesson. But I was flattered by this attractive older man giving me attention, so I let it go.

I was young and impressionable and silly — and also desperately in need of guidance from a native in this new country. Stefan’s friendship felt like someone was taking me under their wing.

In any case, the gift of this box made my heart jump so high. It is exquisitely decorated; shiny and lacquered and lovely. It certainly one of my lovely things.

Friends for a season

Alas, my friendship with Stefan did not last.

He’d had always had two sides to him: the nice, friendly, caring guy who I would go out running with in the morning…and the annoying macho lawyer who loved nothing more than boasting about how many billable hours he’d clocked up to anyone who would listen.

As time went on, the latter side shunted the former ever further into the shadows. The social media lifestyle bragging grew tedious, the obsession with flashy material possessions thoroughly off-putting. I also felt offended by the way he’d look down his nose at anything deemed less impressive than what he was doing. Which, as it turns out, was more or less everything apart from what he was doing.

As for me, I grew up. I went through a few rough patches, learned how to roll with the punches…and became much less impressed by a whole bunch of stuff. I knew what I did and didn’t like — and was less afraid to argue back and fight my corner.

Goodbye, I won’t miss you

When you change as a person, not all your friends are going to love the new you. Relationships are bound to break down and fall by the wayside.

How exactly the friendship with Stefan hit the buffers is not a story I am proud of. It was not my finest hour. But when the time came and it all hit the skids, I was not sorry to let the friendship go. I don’t miss him.

Even so, when I look down at this tiny box and run my fingers over the smooth varnish, I feel a tinge of sadness at the friendship I left behind. I will never forget the joy of receiving that perfect gift from someone who had thought of me while far away and knew it would make me happy. I will cherish it always.

(* Name has been changed)


Read the other articles in the “Lovely Things” series here and here.

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Photo: author’s own