Every time I eat a mango, I’m transported back to an afternoon in Strasbourg, France. My friends and I had spent our junior year abroad perfecting not only our French but also the art of the picnic lunch. We would pool our money and visit an epicerie for some cheese, saucisson, fruit and, naturellement, chocolate. Then we would stop at a boulangerie for a baguette and wander towards a park somewhere, maybe along the river Ill, maybe in the Orangerie. For this particular picnic someone- not me – had chosen a mango as one of our fruits.
I knew what a mango was, or at least I felt like I did. I had the sense that I liked it, but I couldn’t remember eating one. This seems odd now, not having had mango, but at the time, mango was an exotic fruit and could not be easily procured at the grocery store. This was a time before we expected so much to be available so often, when the one Vietnamese restaurant in my small town billed itself as “Chinese” but made Vietnamese if you asked. Coconut came only in plastic bags, shredded and sugary, and no one had even imagined pomegranate juice. I knew what a mango was, but only in a distant way.
We settled onto the grass – had we brought a blanket? did we sit on our lightweight sweaters? I can’t remember – and laughed as we tore chunks from the baguette and wrapped the crusty goodness around soft Brie. Someone cut some slices from the mango and passed them around.
The smooth orange flesh of the fruit slid across my tongue and my eyes widened. Sunshine. Laughter. Something like distilled happiness. I swallowed and glanced around. What magic was this? I took another bite of the sweet, tangy fruit. Again, I was gone. Where was I? I closed my eyes. Happiness, happiness and so warm. I felt tears well up. What on earth was happening to me?
I retreated into my own sphere, still with my friends but far from them, too; far from France, far from the moment. I savoured the sweet smoothness and heard the echoes of bird calls. I breathed deeply, overwhelmed, and then… just like that, I knew: Panama. I had eaten mango when we lived in Panama, the country we left when I was only three years old. The country I couldn’t remember at all. It was the only explanation – those sounds, those senses, that feeling of freedom.
Another deep breath and I was back with my friends. I didn’t say a thing about what I’d experienced. What would I say? Who would believe that a single taste could have such power? I didn’t even know how to describe it. Instead, I laughed and chatted and walked back to classes when we finished our lunch. That night, I called my mom. I asked my mother: did we eat mango? did we eat mango in Panama? “Oh yes,” she was matter-of-fact, “you loved them, but Daddy is allergic to their skins, so I never looked for them when we came home.”
Mango. Now I can have them almost any time I want. In fact, I just had one with lunch. And for a moment, I was 19 and in France, I was 3 and in Panama. And then I was in my kitchen again.