“Clementine, Mandarine!”

13 Nov

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.

This is the Mediteranean Sea from Tunisia, though not the exact beach I was on. Photo from http://www.panoramio.com.

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.

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10 Responses to ““Clementine, Mandarine!””

  1. Minnesota Prairie Roots November 13, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    You are just the most gifted storyteller, Gretchen. I love weaving my way through your words. What a gift you are passing along to your children also in sharing these stories. I will never again look at clementines in quite the same way. I will think of that peddler on the beach with his basket of orange orbs.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 13, 2012 at 9:21 am #

      Fantastic! My goal has been reached! :-) Thanks, Audrey.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 13, 2012 at 9:22 am #

      PS – Instead of saying “Audrey” above I was tempted to abreviate Minnesota Prairie Roots to MPR…but then I thought, “OH, that name is taken.”

  2. Carol Owens November 13, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Oh, what a thing to read first thing in the morning! You showed me, rather than told me…and I was there feeling the hot sun. Reminded me of MFK Fisher’s favorite way with clementines/manderines/tangerines: in Paris, in the middle of a grey winter, you just break open the tangerine, and put the halves on top of the radiator, to crisp on the outside….and then , mmmmm, that tangy sweet warm segment, breaking to your bite…
    OK, hungry now. Thanks so much for sharing this..keep writing~

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 13, 2012 at 9:24 am #

      Thanks, Carol, for the image! If only I had a radiator…. I’ve been in Paris in the winter, and I can imagine the need for that summer scent!

  3. hotlyspiced November 13, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    You certainly are very well traveled. I’ve been to South Africa but not Africa and certainly not Tunisia. It must have been so interesting xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 13, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

      Yes, it’s all so different that it just constantly kept me on my toes! I’ll post three more stories about it over the next week or so!

  4. Barbara Bamber | justasmidgen November 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    A song.. sand.. shells.. and mandarins.. a very unlikely but likeable combination:) xx

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