The Orange


The outdoor market looked both inviting and intimidating. I had dropped my kids off at their new school and my next goal was to buy breakfast for myself.

I closed my eyes and pictured myself just two months earlier, pushing my cart along the brightly lit aisles of my local grocery store in Rockville, Maryland. I could find everything I needed, even in the produce department. Rip a bag off of the little stand and fill it with apples, oranges, potatoes or green beans, even strawberries in the winter.

I opened my eyes and I stood in a chilly open air market in a foreign country more than 4000 miles from Rockville. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know the process for this kind of market shopping. I didn’t have my own shopping bag. And I didn’t have the kids with me as a buffer to hide my lonely ineptitude for procuring produce in the Czech Republic.

Our little family was not just passing through on a holiday. This country was to be our home for the next few years. I was the Mom, the one who sustained our existence while the Dad was helping the businesses of this former Communist country figure out Capitalism. I needed to get it together before our air shipment of mac and cheese, tuna, pop tarts and fruit rollups ran out.

I picked up a small orange, and like a toddler just learning to speak, I directed a couple of strange sounding words that I had practiced toward the man who appeared to be the vendor.

He shook his head, said something unintelligible and went back to unloading the produce.

Nervous, homesick and trying not to cry, I persisted, asking once more how much for this small orange that didn’t even look that good.

He glared, repeated the (to me) gibberish and kept unloading. On the third try, I held up a coin along with the orange.

Thinking perhaps that I had escaped from some nearby asylum, he grabbed the coin and gestured for me to be on my way.

I took my orange and left. Shame, fear, anxiety and embarrassment flooded through my still jet-lagged body as I realized too late that he was telling me the market was not yet open. I wanted more than anything to find my way back home.

I can hear the fruit guy now, complaining to his wife when he got home that evening. “If she’s going to live here, she needs to learn the language!”

And I can hear those words here. “We need to make English the official language of the United States! If people are living here they better speak English! We shouldn’t have to print instructions in different languages. Tough shit if they can’t figure out how to get a driver’s license! Build a wall! Keep them out!”

Our fear and distrust of those that are different from us seems to be running high these days, at least from some factions here in the U.S. It’s no wonder that Americans bear the label “Ugly American” when they travel outside of their own border. Even away from home we expect people to understand our language. We also expect ice in our drinks and free refills.

What are we so afraid of? I am more afraid of those who fear and despise diversity and anything foreign than those who are different from us. Don’t they know how unattractive their anger, hatred and intolerance makes them? Don’t they get bored hanging around those that are just like them?

I have worn the shoes of a young woman living in a country where she doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy, where she doesn’t know how to sign her kids up for sports and doesn’t know how to find a doctor who will understand her.

Those shoes are damn uncomfortable.

They don’t have to remain uncomfortable. Those shoes can be broken in over time with care, compassion and bridges of connection, not walls of separation.



11 thoughts on “The Orange

  1. This is such an important message, Ellen. It’s amazing how travel broadens our horizons. We had a tough time in Spain recently with our minimal Spanish skills, but we found out we are really good mimes 🙂 What an experience living in the Czech Republic must have been! Please do write more about your experiences!


  2. It must have been so uncomfortable.

    In India, English is a second language and it is taught in schools but many times there are children from small cities and distant places who do well in school in their medium of instruction. English still remains a foreign language for them. When they head out for jobs, they need to know English and then when they move to other countries – then comes the need to pick some other. Just in India alone, many many languages are spoken. As much it is hard to understand, it is also not feasible. So, sometimes signs work or just picking up those most basic expressions.
    I liked your post and how you penned it.


  3. Hi Ellen,

    I enjoyed reading your story very much. I’ve never been brave enough to travel outside the country, but I love hearing about the adventures of others.

    I don’t fear and distrust those with whom I disagree; but I do have a problem with the blatant disregard for the laws of our land. Long standing laws that were put in place to protect the citizens of our country. Those same laws that will protect those who enter our borders legally, whether by immigration or political asylum. Honestly, I don’t know what the solution is for those that have already entered our country illegally, but I strongly believe that in the future, those that enter our country should have to follow our laws and enter legally. Without laws, mass confusion ensues. Order becomes chaos and problems arise.

    Other laws are disregarded and the entitlement mentality expands. My husband works for a blue-collar temporary job agency in the heart of a mainly Hispanic section of our large Metro city in the mid-west. This attitude is common among those that seek employment with his company. Just a few examples: One man shows up drunk for work at 7 am and doesn’t understand why he can’t stay to work with a blow torch, yes, a welder showed up expecting to work when he was drunk. Several that have chosen to pee on a wall because walking to the bathroom is too inconvenient. Those that are told not to return because they brought their cellphone on the production floor against policy. (But I gotta have my cell phone man). Those that are within hours of being offered a permanent position with a company only to call in because they “don’t feel like working today.” One that wandered the facility instead of working and not only didn’t understand why he was terminated immediately, but tells my husband that he’s so smart he could do my husband’s job. My question, if he’s so smart, how come he couldn’t keep the job he accepted? Many of these folks that seek employment are illegals that are protected, because by law the company cannot “discriminate.” It is definitely a tangled mess for certain, and there are no easy answers.

    I’m assuming you found somewhat comfortable shoes in the Czech Republic as you assimilated yourself to their culture. You obviously figured out how to buy an orange at the market since you’re here to tell about it today 🙂 It sounds like a great adventure! My husband was in Moscow shortly after Communism ended for several weeks, he has fascinating stories to tell from his travels.


    1. Thank you for commenting. I find that what you discuss in your second paragraph about the quality of workers that your husband encounters to be a problem across the board. Illegal or born in the USA, there will always be those who are irresponsible, and do not have or were not taught a clear understanding for making a contribution to society. Not exactly what I was getting at, but here in Georgia, employers have to comply with the e-verify system, and those that do not have the proper credentials cannot be employed. That doesn’t mean they aren’t, but they are not protected, nor are the people that employ them.


  4. So perfectly said. That would have been such an uncomfortable experience. I’ve said those wores before when I was less tolerant and ill-informed. More people need to hear this. Xx


  5. Great insight. I work in a tourist town, we have many visitors from non-English speaking countries. We also hire work exchange students. I have always enjoyed trying to bridge the gap of language. A smile goes a long way. I enjoyed your view point. Nicely done!


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