Ewa Jasiobedzka arrives from Poland with elegant knee-high leather boots in her luggage. They are no match for Toronto’s slushy streets and soon replaces them with sensible weatherproof boots. Years later, through a grocery store window, she sees a man in a turban and open leather sandals at a display of mangoes. Sadly, he touches one piece of fruit after another. Tears of empathy and kinship well in her eyes. She understands the longing he feels.
Over a quarter of a century ago, in my native Poland, I bought a pair of shoes: elegant, fine leather, high (up to my knees) boots. They were in my immigrant’s luggage when my family landed at Pearson Airport in 1991 on Halloween night. I thought that the shoes would serve me for two or more winters.
But after experiencing some Canadian weather wonders, like freezing rain, massive snowstorms and wind chills, and after learning about the effects of copious amounts of road salt on fine leather, I found myself in need of proper footwear.
In a Bata Shoe outlet, I bought a pair of boots. Not fancy but practical, made from a black, synthetic, weatherproof fabric. Their faux fur lining kept my feet warm. Thick rubber outsoles helped me to maintain a vertical position on slippery surfaces. Easy to clean. I could put them underwater every night in a laundry sink and wash away all the dirt and stains with no problem.
I had played peek-a-boo with the nasty effects of salt on my leather shoes till then. I am ashamed to admit that I kept losing the game, despite my graduate degree in science. The person who discovers a really effective ratio of vinegar and water to get rid of stubborn white lines deserves a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Bata boots, clean and dry in the morning, would take me anywhere I needed to go. I wore them for many winters until they almost fell off my feet.
I put them on one morning and went to renew our car registration. It was not long since we had started our life in this country. But I had already learned an important lesson: in winter, don’t let your children or yourself leave the house unless you check the weather channel first. The day was cruel. But dressed for a brave fight with the elements, I reached my destination. Unfortunately, so had many others.
After taking my place at the end of the long waiting line to the licensing office, I started to look around. I knew that staring was considered impolite by Canadians, but my new home country, its people and places had not become familiar to me yet. I was an immigrant with the curiosity of a tourist.
Across from the bureau was a big grocery store lined with a row of huge windows. I could see inside. It looked pretty deserted at that time of the day. Some people were shopping in the fresh produce section—despite the fact that a lonely clerk was removing dead leaves from heads of lettuce. This sight was not the best way to advertise the selection.
One of the customers was sporting traditional cotton pyjamas, a grey beard and a turban. He was wearing leather sandals with thin soles on his bare feet. This kind of footwear I would hardly recommend even for indoor slippers in wintertime. Looking at my heavy, newly salt-stained boots, I wondered how he had gotten there through all that snow and slush. And what was he doing?
The man appeared to be searching for the perfect mango. He took a fruit from the stand, looked at it for a long moment and put it back. He repeated the same ritual with another mango, then the next one. With a nostalgic sadness, he was handling the fruit with the care that mothers reserve for babies.
But as my line edged along and I continued to watch him, I realized that he did not intend to buy any mango. He just wanted to pick one up and then another, touch its skin, smell its fragrance and see its colour. Tears of empathy and kinship welled up in my eyes. I thought I knew then how he felt and what was bothering him. I also knew that it couldn’t be helped by a mango or any other fruit, no matter how exotic or ripe.
EWA was born and educated in Poland. As a chemist in her pre-Canadian life, she made a tiny contribution to the huge Human Genome Project while working in England. She is a mother of two and a grandmother of four. She loves small towns in Canada. After living in big cities for most of her life, she will try to replant her roots in one of them soon.