Freedom Smells Like A Peach
© Copyright 2004 by Karen Ferrick-Roman
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
In 1985, my mother and I took a bus tour of Communist Eastern Europe. The trip has stuck like Superglue. Even though Communism is on its deathbed worldwide, the questions posed by this trip persist as questions for the ages: haves vs. have-nots, the luck of birthright, the dangers of a closed society. We were extremely lucky to have seen what we did, in the time frame that we did.
Freedom smells like a ripe peach, the kind that drizzles juice down your chin on a scalding summer’s day.
Summer of 1985, Mom and I pack our bags for a whirlwind bus tour through Eastern Europe, land of our roots. We enjoy the lavishness of Vienna for a night, then head through our first series of armed border guards, barbed wire, checkpoints and pre-check points into Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and what then was Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
The relentless heat and relentless rock surprise us. We’d seen pictures of the brooding Balkans, of the harsh backdrop for the patches of green. We did not expect omnipresent gray outcroppings along roads, hair-raising tunnels and a view out the bus window of hundreds of feet down, with only the driver’s skill and God’s grace between us and the bottom of the mountain.
In Western Pennsylvania, mountains mean cool: jackets for evenings and fresh, brisk mornings. In the Balkans, the heat seems to rise with every new rock formation. Finding the bathroom is an unnecessary worry; each drop of liquid consumed is released in a sticky, shining sweat. Everyone sweats; everyone thirsts. At one bus stop, Mom and I are sent dagger glances by other tourists as we buy the last bottle of the shop’s water. Sweltering, they glare at us and stare at empty shelves. In America, we find that if you have money, you can buy whatever you want, from wherever you want. In Eastern Europe, we learn a new lesson. Here, money can be an unusable tool, lying stagnant in pockets and bank accounts, waiting for something to be spent on.
Some things aren’t surprising, like the border guard and the mandatory search through our luggage, which was set on the pavement outside our bus. Nor is it surprising that we have little opportunity to interact with ordinary people beyond Communist-approved guides and drivers.
But the few chances have been enough.
Compared to our world, status is topsy-turvy. Waiters, guides and cab drivers are wealthy from the dollars and other hard currency they get in tips from tourists. They are the ones who live in well-kept houses with red tile roofs.
Like Boris. I picture his face shining with the sweat earned by running to and among the tables at the outside café in Bulgaria. The temperature soared past 110 before noon. The tour buses had just landed with Yanks seeking to drown the heat with Cokes and beers.
Mom didn’t even ask if he could speak English. “Do you have children?” she asks, riffling in her purse for fruit roll-ups.
“Oh, yes,” Boris replies, taking a moment to wipe his receding hairline with a white handkerchief.
“Then give them these,” she says, handing over the goodies.
He returns with our drinks. “If you have children, you must have a wife, too.” A pair of knee-high stockings appears from her purse.
“Oh, yes!” he replies. He looks at the package in shock, quickly hiding it under the white towel on this tray. Obviously, the 33-cent knee-highs from Kmart are a grand prize.
He returns to chat. His name is Boris. “Boris?” Mom repeats.
“It’s a Slavonic name, he says, almost too quickly. “My parents were Slavonic.” He asks us to return when he is less busy.
We tour the city, meeting Chris, who claims to be a taxi driver and wants to trade money on the black market so he can buy a part for his cab. The part he needs is sold only at stores that accept hard currency. He has enough Bulgarian money, but no American dollars, no British pounds.
In babytalk English, during a half-hour walk, he explains the country’s lottery, which is not open to foreigners. The top prize is a car.
He asks again to change money. He buys us perfume bottles. We try to dodge him. He is tenacious enough to wait outside the women’s bathroom, blocking what we hoped would be a hasty exit.
We take him back to Boris’ table.
Boris smiles as he spots us, serves drinks, then sits with us on his 15-minute break. Another thirsty tourist from the group complains loudly. “How do you rate getting a waiter at your table? We can’t even get drinks!”
We ignore her.
Instead, we listen while Boris talks – quite fluently – about his dreams. His son is bright, in high school. He speaks English as well as the teacher now and needs English for a good job, not a waiter’s job like his father’s. The boy has reached the top in his climb to study English and can go no further here. A friend from Florida manages sometimes to smuggle in books; Boris cannot buy English books in Bulgaria.
He cannot leave the country, unless his father, mother, sister or brother lives beyond its borders. Boris has money, but cannot buy much.
The tour bus is leaving. Boris offers his payback, colorful pins with Bulgarian insignias, and wants to take us on an evening tram ride in the mountains so we can talk more freely. He walks us to the bus, about 20 feet away. His face, white in the heat, pinches up as he realizes that Chris is not getting on the bus, that Chris is not a tourist.
“Why,” Boris asks, the anger obvious in his whisper. “Why did you not tell me he was Bulgarian?”
Stupid tourists. We didn’t realize it mattered.
“How much English does he understand?” Boris asks, assessing his danger. I told him how we had struggled to communicate. A sigh collapses Boris’ shoulders. “Then is will not be so bad.”
His face disappears from the bus window.
We move on to Romania. We see horses pulling wagons through the Breadbasket of Eastern Europe. We see people waiting in lines in the early morning for their bread. We see oil fields and learn that the oil is not for Romanians, but for Russians. We see a gray pall hanging over the buildings and the people. We see black, rich mud squeezing between the toes of village women willing to trade hours of embroidered handiwork for a small jar of instant coffee.
Somehow, the people smile. They try to communicate. They barter for dog-eared cartons of the unofficial currency, Kent cigarettes, which are bought only by the rich and the tourists.
We see our homeland, Czechoslovakia. Lines form at every corner, at jewelry counters, record stores, ice cream stands. We see beautiful buildings. We see people chained to their barren lives.
“Your great-grandmother would turn over in her grave if she knew we were here,” Mom says, staring out the bus window at trees, a spattering of houses, a horse-drawn funeral and fields of hops. “She tried so hard to get out of here.”
She was seventeen, a peasant who didn’t speak English, when she caught that boat to America.
We ease back into the Western world via Budapest. Even under Communist rule, the Hungarians are capitalistic enough to sell cold drinks on the tour bus. People bustle about with few blatant hindrances, no lines, no waiting, no obvious shortages.
We spend our last day touring and shopping in St. Matthias Square. It is Sunday, and the vendors have lined the square with their stalls. Under the blazing sun and bright blue sky, they laugh and cajole buyers. One vendor’s navy bandanas, tied like flags, flap in the wind.
I cross the street to buy a peach. Some are mouth-watering perfect, some are bruised to dark purple and some are rotten. All are for sale. I carefully root through the tray for that perfect fruit on a perfect day.
The guttural, threatening sound coming from behind the tray thrusts me backward. As the vendor’s voice grows louder my embarrassment grows deeper. The one-sided exchange becomes the focal point in the square. I don’t understand the words but as the peach is snatched back, I come to understand that I am not free to choose my own fruit.
Yet, after the consternation, he gives me the peach I’d picked. I pay him and leave quickly, too wounded to look at his face.
I had paid the humiliating price of personal choice in a Communist country.
A year passes. Boris’ thin face, the village woman’s toes in the mud, the funeral procession with its garden flowers and unfinished wooden coffin. These images linger like a woman’s perfume.
Independence Day approaches. We are in church, and the choir sings its recessional, “America the Beautiful.” We’ve heard it since grade school. Amber waves of grain. Purple mountain majesties. Beautiful for pilgrim feet. Our home of enough food, enough gasoline, enough freedom. A home Boris will never know, even though his heart is here.
I stop singing and start crying. Mom puts her arm over my shoulder. She whispers, “I know, honey. I think of them too.”
Ten years pass, and more. Revolutions rage and political boundaries come and go. Coups bring the changing of the guard. Boris’ son is well into manhood now.
Is it any better?
Can they pick their own peaches?
Karen Ferrick-Roman lives in Beaver Falls, Pa., with her husband, sons and dreams of traveling.
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