21 December 2010

The Smell of Citrus

It seems there are so many Christmas stories about oranges. Oranges, clementines, tangerines stuffed in stockings. Children who had nothing for Christmas but this fruit, which became their treasure. Stories about sacrificing parents who worked hard to provide oranges for their families on this special day, or selfless friends and neighbors who brought the spirit of Christmas to others by means of orangey treats. Even my father remembers his socks stuffed with tangerines on each 25th of December. Because of his childhood tradition and memories, each of his kids finds a citrus surprise in the form of a tangerine of our own on Christmas morning. In spite of all these Christmas connections, oranges and their tangy smell don’t bring me memories of the birth of Christ or the joy of Christmases past. As I sit here in my house in Idaho, typing with fingers that smell of my freshly peeled clementine, I feel drawn back to a cold and grey February in Paris, France—far from my family, far from my home and far away from Christmas memories.

On that dreary afternoon I was doing my homework—to learn the streets of Paris, notice the architecture, and communicate with the people in their native tongue. Winter in Paris is drizzly and damp, a kind of cold that I had never experienced before. Knowing I would be outside walking all day, I left my apartment bundled in the warmest of coats, my new European scarf and gloves to protect my fingers from the chill. In my wanderings, I found myself on a narrow cobblestone road bordered with old, stone, and ivy-covered apartments. On the corners sat booths with vendors selling their wares. Knit hats, scarves and mittens, painted canvases, plates and vases, and fresh cheese, bread and produce all lay out across tables, tempting the passerby.

A younger merchant stopped me as I strolled past his tray of fresh fruit. In an attempt to keep my attention focused on his stand, he engaged me in conversation and was quick to notice that I was a foreigner (not at all hard to recognize when I practiced speaking French to him). After exchanging a few brief facts about where I was from and what I was doing in France, I attempted to excuse myself. However, the gentleman came around the other side of the table, told me that he was “enchanted” to have met me, that my French was coming along nicely, and that I was beautiful—for an American. As a parting gift, he pressed a beautiful, enormous orange into my gloved fingers and I continued on my way. Not wanting to expose my fingers to the icy air, I peeled and ate my juicy treasure without removing my gloves. For the rest of the day (and even a few days afterwards) every time I brought my hands close to my face, I could smell the citrusy smell on my gloves. Each time, I smiled and thought of my perfect orange.

Even now, four years later, the scent of citrus reminds me of that stunning European street, a friendly stranger, brief words exchanged in a foreign tongue that I once spoke so often, and a lingering aroma on my gloved fingers from a sweet and tangy treat.
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