Poland used to be a gray place. Perhaps it was due to the climate, with its wet autumns and winters so cold that it hurt to breathe? Or was it the darkness that enveloped us on the way back from school for several months of the year? The lack of billboards or colorful street signs? Or the people who always looked gray, whether they wore a gray outfit or a red one? There was something about the country and its communist atmosphere that made everything blend into a dull, smoky monotone.
With grayness as a backdrop, any product in an attractive, multi-colored package—you knew immediately it was imported from the West, outside of the Iron Curtain—stood out like a bride in a fuchsia gown. At Christmas, the only time of the year when it was possible to buy oranges, I loved looking at their bright, happy-looking rinds and biting into the fragrant flesh. What was it like where they came from, I wondered. Was it colorful, warm and sunny? Did it smell different? What were the people like? Could the children there eat oranges all year long?
One time when I was nine, my family went on vacation to the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. We boarded the train in Warsaw and chug-a-chugged for an interminably long time, stopping at every station along the way. A screechy loudspeaker voice of a bored, groggy woman—perhaps just awakened from shallow sleep—announced the long string of names: Opoczno, Kraków, Chabówka, Nowy Targ, Zakopane.
At one of the stations, our stop was long enough to get out of the train and go to the buffet. My mom wanted some hot tea, and we the kids were hoping for a piece of candy. The assortment at these buffets was usually limited: sometimes you could get bread by the slice; there was tea, and occasionally vodka or beer.
We walked into a gray room with peeling paint, cloudy windows and stain-covered tables. Several customers were drinking their tea from tall, thick, same-as-everywhere glasses. Cigarette smoke filled the room, floating in the air like a shapeless genie. A few flies danced around the bowls of clumpy sugar.
We got in line and waited our turn. When we approached the counter, I took a closer look at the items behind the glass and… I almost screamed. Among a few dusty bags of candy, there was a single, colorful, perfectly round orange. It wasn’t Christmas, and it certainly wasn’t a place of any importance, yet here it was, this wonderful gift of nature, looking at me, ready to be bought.
“Can I have the orange, mom?”
“I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t afford it,” she said.
I knew it was true, for the orange cost 40 złoty—an astronomical sum that could buy you more than twenty pounds of potatoes. I swallowed hard and we went back to the train.
There were eight people in our compartment. One of them was a middle-aged woman seated next to the window. I also had a window seat directly across from her. She asked me a few typical questions: “What grade are you in?” “Do you like school?” Then she proceeded to eat lunch. First, a sandwich wrapped in rough, brown paper. Some tea from a thermos, the steam made her face shiny. Finally, she dipped her hand into the travel bag, and pulled out a paper-wrapped object. She crinkled it open. It was the orange.
She didn’t try to hide it; instead, she held it in her hands for everyone to see, played with it as if it were a precious toy. Very slowly, she peeled the rind, one piece at a time, placing each in the brown paper on her lap. When she separated the first section of the orange, a wave of tiny droplets splashed out against the window, and a delicious, citrus fragrance filled the compartment. She placed the piece in her mouth and began to chew it slowly, obviously enjoying the flavor. My stomach churned as I watched her break off every wedge, globules of juice bursting in the sun.
I hope she offers me some, I thought.
I swallowed my saliva as each morsel went into her mouth. She took her time with it, looking at the snowy landscape outside.
Just one piece, I silently implored as I watched the orange get smaller with every bite. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, rolled up the brown paper that held all the rind, and placed it in her travel bag. The orange was gone.
To this day, I love oranges. There is something about them that makes me smile, whether I look at them, put them on the table, or cut them into pieces to eat. One of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen were orange trees in Florida, spread across hundreds of acres of land. Although today I can have as many oranges as I want, each time I’m about to have one, I pause so I can fully enjoy their sunny flavor, as if I still were a nine-year-old girl in a remote station in Poland.
Published November 2016