In Spain, I dreamed of food. There were, of course, the usual cravings for American pancakes and slabs of chocolate cake surrounded by inches of thick icing. But I also craved foods within my reach: the pastries on display at the bakery I walked past twice a day, the calamari bocadillos in Plaza Mayor, the pan con tomate at La Tienda Verde near the school, the mousse cups our señora Carmen often served after dinner. Carmen was only obligated to provide us with breakfast and dinner, so, in an effort to save a little towards travel, I often skipped lunch, or I grabbed an apple and some crackers that Carmen left out for us in the kitchen. This meant that from about 9:30 in the morning until 8 in the evening, all I thought about–in addition to concentrating on, listening to, understanding, and speaking Spanish–was food. What would Carmen make for dinner? Could I get away with another heaping bowl of cereal? Should I just get myself a damn sandwich from Tienda Verde? It was not my best plan.
I have been too frugal in my life, and this was one of those times. I relaxed towards the end of the semester, and I often indulged on my trips away: a tall glass boot of beer in Freiburg, crepes and red wine in Paris, dried apricots and mixed nuts and Kir Royale in Nantes, glass upon glass of mint tea while in Morocco. I am lucky.
But I didn’t eat my first clementine until November of the semester. I was putting together the props for an evening of one-acts put on by the school, and my new friend Laurel sat backstage, peeling a clementine. She joked that the white pith at the center looked like a tree. It did. She offered me a piece of the fruit, and I accepted. Juice burst in my mouth, sweet and tart and cooling after the heavy air of the stage. I’d been a fool. I’d been a fool to ever let the spiderweb-like pith of the clementine deter me.
When Carmen added clementines to the kitchen’s fruit bowl–good-bye, apples–I ate two or three a day, supplementing them with crackers or biscuits. Once or twice, I dipped a small spoon into the jar of garlic aioli in the fridge. But it was the clementines I returned to. The weight of the fruit in the palm of my hand was reassuring, a promise of happiness, even. In December, when I went to Barajas Airport to wait for my parents, sister, and brother-in-law to arrive, I brought what I considered to be the perfect Spanish breakfast after a bleary trans-Atlantic flight: a package of magdalenas–the cake faintly smelling of lemon–and a bag of clementines.
When you first stick your thumbnail into a clementine, you release a small spray of the peel’s oil, and the sunshine smell of the fruit overwhelms you. As my family and I sat in an airport cafe, they sipped coffee, and we peeled the clementines, pulled apart each segment, and the peels piled in the center of the table, the brilliant orange a foil for the gray sky outside.