This is the first of a few posts about my African Thanksgiving, 1987. I hope you can smell the Sahara and taste the mandarins as I did…
Many moons ago, when I was 17 years old and still fondly dreamed that someday I’d be a famous opera singer, I took a trip to Tunisia with my best friend, her mother and aunt, and another friend. That’s right: five women (three of them still in high school) headed to Africa for Thanksgiving. Don’t you always think of Northern Africa when you think about Pilgrims and pumpkins? Okay, I didn’t either, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
Lest you’re imagining us on a many-hour journey across the world, I hasten to inform you that I was living in West Berlin at the time, so really it was just a small hop south.
We arrived, along with a German-speaking tour group, in Sousse, Tunisia. From there we drove to Kairouan, where we spent most of our time. I remember seeing a sign along the route: “Libya, 10 kilometers” – perhaps not that exact distance – and thinking, “Oy! That makes me a little nervous.” Quadafi was causing a bit of a ruckus in those days and I had one of those, “I’m not in Kansas anymore” moments.
Those moments continued as we began to explore the town. We ditched the tour group (as none of us spoke adequate German to understand anything anyway) and struck off on our own. I was not accustomed to shops that sold hookas as casually as if they were tea pots. Nor was my friend. “Are those lamps?” she asked, curious as to the purpose of the curvy pottery. “No,” our other friend replied. “They aren’t.” We left pretty quickly after that.
We walked past that shop and headed to the Mediterranean Sea, no more than a block away. It was beautiful and almost empty, that beach. Sometimes we were the only people there. We collected tiny shells that we left in our hotel room to dry and which, by morning, had a residue all around them and on the counter beside them. I couldn’t figure out what it was. “Salt,” my friend’s mother said, and sure enough, as I rubbed it with a finger there it was: the Mediterranean, condensed on our countertop.
The thing I remember most is not the scent of the sea or the feel of the sand or the temperature of the water. What I remember is the Clementine seller. His was a constant presence every time we went to the beach. “Clementine, mandarine!” he would call with a sing-song tone, making both words rhyme. You could hear him coming from way down the shore. He would come up to us with a basket of mandarins, their tangerine-colored skins warm from the sun, and for a few cents we would buy them from him, choosing our favorites from amongst the dozens. Then he would shuffle off, calling his song to whomever could hear.
Even now, 24 years later, when I buy tangerines from the grocery store, I think of that man and I sing his lilting song. I can hear it as clearly as if he were here beside me now. “Clementine, mandarine, clementine, mandarine!” I taught my kids his song and we sing it as we peel and pop the juicy segments into our mouths.
Minnesota is a long way from northern Africa. But even here the memory of the soft sand in my toes, the aroma of the shops, the desert heat, and the clementine-man’s song, all conspire together in my mind, leaving my mouth watering for more than just fruit.