I don't eat much fruit. Oranges have all those threads and membranes. Bananas make my mouth itch. And berries...well, some are squishy. Some are hairy. Some have those little fiddly seeds. Raspberries hit the trifecta. No, fruit -- besides a Honeycrisp apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter -- doesn't really have a place in my eating habits.
Except for one. The clementine. Clementine, the lifesaver. Clementine, the nostalgic queen. The clementine, which I discovered in Russia and have loved ever since.
In November of 1992, the group that was studying a semester in Krasnodar, Russia, was spending a week in St. Petersburg and a week in Russia for our mid-term break. I had just been dumped by a fellow student in favor of a Russian girl who made him tea every night. Really, who can compete with that? I promptly got sick and lost a lot of weight. I spent much of my time alternating between being tragic and being sick in my room at the dormitory. I had been to St. Petersburg before, and the burdens on my soul allowed me to plead absence from the sightseeing tours and museum visits.
Studying in Krasnodar was much worse than anyone had expected, including the people who organized the trip. It was the first post-Soviet group to come, and conditions had deteriorated in a year. There were food shortages (I still have my sugar ration tickets) and manditory blackouts. By November, much of us had succombed to a kind of lethargy.
I felt it in St. Petersburg. I was finished with Russia. My feelings were hurt, I was sick and weak, and I was ready to go.
One afternoon, the student in question came by with a bag of food. Western food -- a two-liter bottle of 7Up, a bag of potato chips, a bar of chocolate, and clementines. "I don't eat fruit," I said, annoyed.
"You have to," he said, equally annoyed. "Cut the shit. You're sick; you're making yourself sick. Eat them."
Clementines have thin, easy-to-peel rinds. They have almost no membranes. Most are seedless. They are sweeter than oranges. I was instantly hooked.
Clementines are called "mandariny" in Russian, and for years I thought mandarin oranges were clementines. They are not. Don't even go to the store and buy a can of mandarin oranges, thinking they are clementines! You have been warned.
The smell of cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust on a cold day is enough to put me back on a street in Russia. The smell of clementines on my fingers does the same. I ate them every day in the winter when I lived there. Three clementines, some bread and cheese and a cigarette meant lunch.
After plowing through the bag of Western food, the fellow student and I stopped being angry at each other. We weren't friends again (and wouldn't be for years), but the hostility, at least, had ended. I spent the rest of my time in St. Petersburg on my own, but exploring the city, instead of malingering in my room.
I bought my first box of clementines of the season today. I never ate clementines growing up, but the nostalgia I feel when I eat them every winter is powerful, like a memory from childhood.