As the first snow of the season turns drearily to slush outside in the navy-blue dusk, I sip tea and crunch thin slices of a giant white radish dipped in vinegar.
It’s an odd sort-of treat to the western way of thinking. But here in cold, agriculturally spartan Bohemia, it is a welcome bit of crispness and freshness in the winter.
The texture reminds me fleetingly of hikima, but it is not nearly so sweet and a touch less earthy. Before being sliced the giant radish is large enough to serve as an impromptu weapon if pressed. Sliced thin, it has a bite in the aftertaste and is better served with a few drops of vinegar.
It’s one of those things you get used to after a time in a different climate, especially in a place where imports are either not readily available, prohibitively expensive, of exceedingly poor quality or ecologically unsustainable. In the case of Hikima, it simply doesn’t exist here.
Just about everything fresh—beyond the ever-present root vegetables, wrinkly apples and cabbage—falls into most of those categories this time of year. I’m plotting a salad for tomorrow with frost-sweetened beets (the very last of the garden harvest), roasted pumpkin slices from the cellar, nuts, seeds, white cheese and whatever thinly sliced cabbage can be had.
There are plenty of people who buy the over-priced, pale and tasteless excuses for vegetables that are imported here, but I prefer to live as locally as possible, eating in season and storing what I can for the winter.
Only part of it is due to the price and low quality of the winter imports, though those are certainly considerations. Another part is my own conviction that eating in season is both personally healthier and more ecologically sustainable. And those things matter a great deal.
But I’m not a saint when it comes to importing. I have been recently obsessed with my list of things to buy abroad for a very specific reason.
‘Tis the season to get a bag from America.
The past few months have been full of lists and discussions of what you really cannot get in Prague or reasonably online in Central Europe. Partly this is the normal, pre-holiday scramble of most people with children and extended family around.
But in my case it is complicated by a large physical gap right in the middle of the family—large meaning the size of he Atlantic Ocean and most of the continents of Europe and North America put together. And one small duffel bag making its way from one side to the other in the care of a family friend.
Living on the edge of Eastern Europe, I have kept a running list of things to buy when I travel for the past twenty years. Once the list was topped by ordinary toiletries, household items and food, such as gallon jugs of salsa, hair ties, tubs of school glue, jumbo packs of washable markers, good quality clothing for the next couple of years, dried tapioca, molasses and assorted spices.
As the Czech Republic became more integrated with the consumerist networks of the world that list has shrunk until today it reads as follows.
Dr. Bronner’s soap
Edible vegetable glycerin
Real brown sugar
English language games
A few special children’s toys unavailable locally
Shipping is prohibitively expensive—eighty dollars for a small box that would hold only a fraction of that list. So, mostly we wait until someone makes the trip and pay the $100 fee to send them with an extra bag. That’s what is happening in the run up to this holiday season. We sent a young man to America to learn some English by hanging out with our cousins, and sent him with fresh rye bread and a few other things that can’t be easily obtained there. Now he’s on his way home and bringing a holiday sack with him, like a scrawny, young version of Santa.
For most of human history, where you lived was a decisive factor in what you ate, what you wore and every other detail of everyday life. Today, our global society likes to pretend that isn’t true anymore. It largely isn’t for those with money and even the rest of us consume a lot that comes from distant places.
But due more to social, political and economic trends than to distance and geography, there are things that are difficult or even impossible to obtain in one area that are common in others.
Receiving such a large package is like a holiday all it’s own. The preparation spans weeks, if not months—careful lists, family discussions of priorities, predictions of needs for the next year or so, ordering items, Skype conversations with the person receiving the orders and assembling the pack. more discussions of weight and size limits, revision of priorities, coordination of flights, schedules, transport to and from airports, and then at last the keen anticipation as the final days count down.
When the duffel finally arrives with a jetlagged traveler, there is all the sweetness of hope and anxiety. Things are often broken in transit, and if they happen to contain liquid that could mean stains and a mess to clean up, instead of a celebration. There are also battery operated toys for the children, which we have read and reread the US air traffic regulations on but still harbor anxiety about.
Finally, the moment of unpacking is at hand. Everything is tightly compressed in the pack and a faint whiff of the pine forests and wood smoke of my mother’s home in Oregon lingers poignantly on the taught canvas. It’s hard to unzip but I work the zipper down.
The first sniff smells clean. Nothing too terrible could have spilled if it smells good.
After twenty years, this has become a tradition that would be hard to break. And yet, I know that it is no more sustainable than eating out of season. There will likely come a day when flying is either too expensive or limited to make any such packages feasible. Then those of us living far from childhood homes and families will be cut off from small comfort foods, little luxuries and preferred clothing.
For now I savor it, a bit of guilty pleasure, one more duffel from across the world, filled with treasure and home and celebration. Tucked amid the good fabric, toys, games and Dr. B’s, there is homemade candy from my mom and pickled peppers from my brother’s garden. These, of course, are the things no money can buy and no import shop will ever satisfy.