Walking into the Eastside Food Co-op in northeast Minneapolis, I scan the citrus. They greet you at the door, fresh in from Florida and Texas and California, orbs of golden sun. One day in December I see the tag for blood oranges. You can’t rely on how they look, really—most of them look like any other oranges—but a few blush magenta. I inhale. My mouth waters.
Once I lost a suitcase with blood oranges inside. It was 1979, when I was living in Tunisia as a college exchange student. I got the chance to spend Christmas in Switzerland with the family that had hosted me for three months in high school, five years earlier. In Tunisia I was a scholarship girl and didn’t have a lot of money, so the gift I packed was a box of fragrant blood oranges from my temporary home on the south shore of the Mediterranean.
I loved those oranges. Growing up in Minnesota I had never tasted anything like them. It was a complete surprise to discover the sheer variety and just how sweet, juicy, fragrant, and intense an orange could be. As cold and rain had overtaken Tunisia’s dry heat in October and November, vendors appeared along the sidewalks with whizzing juicers, dispensing instant medicine on grim days, perfectly timed to fight the common cold. In our chilly apartment, I peeled an orange many times a day.
Blood oranges sounded morbid at first, but the sections inside were shot through with the color of roses. Packing for the Swiss trip, the oranges make me feel like an unlikely solar emissary.
Then—I missed my plane. On the Saturday before Christmas, I arrived at the airport early, checked my bag, and waited not far from the gate. Suddenly the waiting area was empty, the gate closed, and the plane with my suitcase taxiing to the runway.
It was the only flight from Tunis to Geneva that day. Everyone assured me that my suitcase would be waiting for me the next day. But of course it wasn’t.
“Do not worry,” said a Swissair staff member as I filled out a claim form in Geneva on Sunday. “99.8 percent of lost baggage is found.”
I wrote a description of the big tan suitcase and as many of the contents as I could list.
“Oranges,” I said. “There are blood oranges inside.”
So on December 22, I arrived on the snowy doorstep of my one-time host family’s house with the clothes on my back. But everything had changed in five years—I was different, they were different, they even lived in a new house. The days of Christmas stretched ahead of me—12 whole days and nights before I would fly back to my friends in Tunis.
Christmas in Switzerland had seemed like such a great idea when I arrived in Tunis, before I made friends. Now it was all a terrible mistake! I was spending money that I didn’t have to buy replacements for things that might turn up again! I was falling behind in my classes—Tunisia didn’t stop for Christmas! All I wanted was to get on the next plane back to my friends in Tunis and go look for my suitcase. But my return ticket was for January 3, and changing it would only cost even more money that I didn’t have!
The days were filled with all the rituals of a family’s and culture’s Christmas: church in the village, dinner with relatives, a village supper by candlelight, New Year’s Eve guests I’d never met, holiday food and drink meaningful to everyone but me. Every morning I woke up and called the airport, and I called again in the evening. Every day the reply was the same: no suitcase. Maybe it had been returned to Tunis and would be waiting for me there.
Every night I lay awake in bed going over the mishaps. How had I missed my plane? Were airport procedures changing in the fallout from the hostage crisis in Teheran? Where had the suitcase gone—was it misplaced, stolen from the carousel, or returned to Tunis? Even if it were found, wouldn’t everything inside be ruined? Why had I packed ripe oranges?
I obsessed about the contents: prescription glasses, Arabic class notebooks, bathrobe, pajamas, hair dryer, curling iron, makeup bag, underwear and socks, a fine Italian skirt acquired on the way to Tunisia, a green tweed suit, address book and journal. And blood oranges bleeding into everything!
It snowed and everybody joked about the timing—Snow to make me feel at home!—and yet I didn’t feel at home. I wasn’t sure where home was. When one of the brothers drove me to Lausanne, I stopped in front of a couscous restaurant and looked so homesick he took me back there for dinner.
To contribute to the festivities I offered to bake—an apple cake, cookies. But the kitchen was Madame’s domain, and she herself was still new to it. I was in the way, my efforts not worth the trouble.
I have a vivid memory of the flight back to Tunis in sunny blue skies above the clouds, looking down on snowy Alps. The plane came into Tunis in violent turbulence where the Mediterranean and Sahara air masses meet at the coast. The bumps didn’t bother me. I felt happy. I loved the skyline of the city below and the landscape turning to green in the winter rains—the land of orange and lemon trees.
At the airport, I immediately asked about my missing suitcase. I went to the baggage claim area, to Tunisair and Swissair, but nobody knew anything about it.
I made calls from the telephone booth next to the orange stand across the street from the apartment. I visited the airline offices. By then I was pretty sure the suitcase had been taken on purpose or by mistake in Geneva, the valuables appropriated, the rest trashed. But the possibility of finding the most valuable thing to me—my journal, three months of daily records—wouldn’t let me rest.
My roommate and I took a bus back out to the airport and negotiated our way by cab to the lost-baggage warehouse. It was immense—a sad, disheveled expanse of duffel bags and suitcases and backpacks, the .2 percent of lost bags at one airport spilling out their contents within a sprawling sheet-metal enclosure. The prospect of picking our way among the detritus was unthinkable. Later we both admitted to terror of who knows what scuttling among the mess. If my suitcase had been there, I would not have wanted to touch it, much less take it back to our apartment.
Friends welcomed me home with dinner on Sunday, Epiphany, the feast of light and revelation. By candle fire we ate all the familiar things I had learned to love in three short months—couscous, pomegranates, dates, and orange pound cake for dessert. They showered me with gifts of extra clothes they didn’t need.
In the end, it was the blood oranges that allowed me to let go. I still think of them inside the darkness of the suitcase, their slow fragrant transformation from solid to liquid, transforming in turn the fabrics and metals, cosmetics and plastic and paper.