[Please excuse typos and or messy flow. As a part of packing light in my European adventure, I left my laptop at home so am typing all my blog posts from my phone. Thanks for your understanding!]
Before I get into the olive harvesting portion of this blog post, you’re probably wondering: Where in the world is Sammie?
I’m currently in Slovenia, but stayed with a family in a small town near Salerno, Italy, which is a part of the Almafi Coast, for three weeks prior to this. I found this family through a website called workaway.info. It’s similar to WOOFing if you’ve heard of that. But basically, a family or person can post a job on this website, whether it be needing help caring for children, teaching them a language, helping them build a house, or picking olives, and you can volunteer to do the job for 5 hours a day, 5 days a week in exchange for housing and food.
I don’t think I could ask for a better deal. Not only am I saving loads of money on housing and food, but I’m also staying with locals, meeting new people, making like-minded friends, eating homemade food, learning new skills, and I’m never completely alone in a foreign city!
Anyway, I knew I wanted to do something having to do with agriculture in Italy. So when I found out October was the typical olive picking season, I found a family that suited me (house near the mountains and they have 5 dogs) and emailed them about helping.
I was only there for 3 weeks, but it felt like I’d been there for months! My host family was so warm, welcoming, and FUNNY. We just clicked. And, lucky for me, I really liked the other workawayers who were there with me! There was Henry from Germany, Renars from Latvia, Romina from Chile, and two friends, Anette and Heleri, from Estonia. Romina was quiet and kind and smiled a lot. Renars and Henry excelled in English, and not only understood sarcasm, but were incredibly sarcastic themselves. Anette and Heleri were as obsessed with the 5 dogs as I was, laughed at my jokes, and loved wine as much as I do. Least to say the 3 of us got along really well.
Dario, our fearless leader, the 30 year old son of the family I was staying with, also excelled at English. I told him sarcasm was my second language. He said it was his first.
Dario, who just got back from traveling intermittently in places such as Iceland and Costa Rica, and his sister, Elena, who is still in university, live with their parents, Dina and Vito, in a beautiful, classic Italian home on 7 acres of land. They have olive trees, walnut trees, fig trees, apples trees, orange trees, hazelnut trees, pear trees, and lemon trees. They grow their own vegetables and herbs in a huge garden.
Now, about the olive harvesting.
We woke up bright and early on a Saturday to start working at 8 a.m.
Vito and Dario were already running around the property, putting bins here and nets there, while we were eating breakfast and allowing our coffee to kick in.
Vito, in his Italian/sign language combo, first taught us how to put a fluorescent turquoise net under an olive tree, and then how to take the olives off the branches and let them fall onto the nets. Each olive isn’t picked individually, that would take too long. Instead Vito showed us how to put your hand at the part of the branch closest to the trunk and pull forward taking all the olives and many leaves off in the process.
Once we had removed all the olives from the tree, two people took the net up from each of the sides, allowing all the olives to pool together in the center. We then lifted the olives and net into a bin and let the olives poor into the bin. Then we moved to the next tree and started all over. To be more efficient, we had 2 people working on each tree, picking, transferring, and moving the net to the next tree and starting over.
We had a lot if time to talk while working. Being that we had quite a mixture of people in one place, Italians, a Chilean, a German, a Latvian, and an American, we discussed a lot of topics to compare and contrast policies or traditions in each other’s country.
I asked what came to mind when they thought of the US. The following were their answers:
- Food fights
- Bad, huge pizzas
- Fat people
- Junk food
- Really crowded parties with pools
Ah, that’s American movies for ya, folks. Parties, food fights, and guns.
We got onto the subject of cars at some point close to lunch time. Renars, from Latvia, said he owned a Chrysler. I was surprised, “Really?!” He responded, “Yes, I love it. See, Europeans make fancy cars and try to put people inside. Americans take a couch and put a car around it.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t help but agree and, also, to be a kind of proud.
We had lunch around 2 p.m. Because we’d been working for 6 straight hours without a break, and because the food was so delicious, I was eating too quickly and a piece of food went down the wrong pipe. I was coughing up a lung and couldn’t speak.
My mom, if she had been there, would have told me to drink some water. Dina, though, passed me a the bowl of bread and told me to have some, as if putting more food down my throat would help clear it. This made me laugh and cough even more. Only in Italy!
Things I learned about olives:
- There are two ways of harvesting, the way we did it, and also just leaving nets under the trees and waiting for the olives to ripen so much they just fall to the nets.
- If you harvest olives earlier, like we did in October, you will get less oil from the olives than if you waited until November. However, the quality of the oil if better when harvested earlier. So you have to decide, quality or quantity. The people who leave the nets under the trees are choosing quantity. We chose quality.
- When harvesting in October, for every 100 kg of olives, you’ll only get between 10-15 liters of oil. (You’d get more if you harvested later, but the quality wouldn’t be as good)
- When you harvest, you have both black and green olives on the tree. The black ones are the ripe ones.
- You still pick the green ones though. They won’t give you much oil, but they add a lot of flavor.
- Reasons for trees to have a lot of green olives: they were in the shade of another tree and didn’t get enough sunlight.
- Olives only grow on new branches, so after the harvest every year, you cut the newer branches off the tree. The branches will grow back the next year and grow olives on them.
- Another reason for cutting down the branches every year is to keep the tree at a height easier for harvesting. The trees that were too tall were impossible to pick the olives off of. Ladders and many more minutes had to be dedicated to the tree.
- Once every 10 years, a tree doesn’t produce a lot of olives. “It’s just tired”, said Dario.
- A lot of rain is bad for olive trees. Last year they had a 0 production year because it was so rainy; mosquitoes laid their eggs in the olives and they were bad.
My favorite moment of the day was when we were picking olives from the last tree. The tree was the height of a normal tree. The first branches started above my head. All of the other trees were a quarter of the height of this tree. Henry and Renars climbed into the tree to pick olives, climbed as high as they could, and still couldn’t get to the top-most olives.
While we were picking I laughed to myself and said my thought out loud, “This is probably the first time I’ve literally started by picking the low hanging fruit.”
They didn’t laugh. They didn’t get it. I told them about how we use a lot of figures of speech.
I explained how picking low hanging fruit was one we used a lot in business, meaning we would tackle easy problems first before moving on to more difficult ones. They found it interesting and asked me to give more examples. I told them about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth, and killing two birds with one stone.
In a moment of silence, Renars, who was somewhere up in the middle of the impossibly tall tree trying his best to collect olives, said, “I want to make my own figure of speech…. how about… Someone didn’t cut the branches last year!!”
Henry was laughing so hard he almost fell out of the tree and I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. It’s what he said, but also how he said it. Renars is a no bullshit kind of guy. He says what he means and he means what he says. This, in addition to his Latvian accent somehow makes everything he says even funnier, often when he’s not even making a joke. Plus, someone really hadn’t cut the branches of the tree last year, or for a few years, which was why the tree was so tall.
Being an American who loves to travel abroad, I’m used to being made fun of. From our crappy food to our even crappier politics, you name it. But here, I am made fun of for, above all else, our measurements: miles, feet, acres, gallons, inches. Dario put the olive net down and said, “it should be a square…. oh, you don’t know what that is”. I told them we have a saying, “You can hear/smell/see it a mile away”. They laughed.
I am so happy I had the chance to be involved in olive harvesting. In this trip, I wanted nothing more than to dig into the culture of a country, to see how they live and to participate in their culture.
I hope to have many more stories like this one in the months to come! Stay tuned!