As I struggle to meet my National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) targets (and am terribly behind), a fever engulfs the small island in the Croatian Adriatic Sea I currently live on. The fever of the olive-picking season. It is the one time in the year when all hands are on deck. Depending on how many olive trees one has, the season lasts from a day to a few weeks and here on the island it usually starts on the first weekend in November.
So here we are, after weeks of trawling the olive groves, imagining the green olives turning a delicious shade of purple and black, and observing villagers busily preparing for the big showdown when everyone will find out just how much olives they have and how much olive oil will their olives yield this year, the fever has started.
My husband, son, puppy and I walk the narrow streets of our village towards the path that takes us into a spruce forest and out over the top of the island from where we can see the most beautiful sea in all directions, down the other side of the island and over a stone wall into an olive grove where we will help pick olives.
On our way we meet everybody.
“To the olives [U masline]?” we ask each other as if we don’t know the answer.
Even though cultivation of olives has some clearly defined DO’s and DON’Ts, everyone has their own style when it comes to olive picking. We see people with all kinds of tools and means of transportation headed into the groves. Some ride on little, rusty tractors that reek of diesel and pull ancient squeaky carts. Some walk pushing wheelbarrows. Yet others drive their beat up island cars with no registration plates and that look like they might fall apart any moment now, although they actually keep running forever. One person carries a rake on a long pole, the other an odd-looking contraption that looks like something a kinky hairdresser might use on your hair, something with large, pointy spikes and an annoying whirring sound.
Surprisingly, because they are usually kind of a curmudgeonly bunch, everyone is in good spirits today. After months of trepidation about whether the olives trees will yield or not, and if they do what quality will the fruit be; after fretting about whether it will rain or not on scheduled milestones (rain, don’t you know about these by now?) for the budding olives; after talking about little else but the miserable prospects of another year without olive yields; after stubbornly tending to the groves against all odds, the olives are here and ready for the picking.
Last four years summer droughts have been devastating for the olives. Rain needs to fall in specific quantities and at specific intervals for the olives here to yield fruit that contains oil. If this doesn’t occur, a tree might lose the fruit altogether or the fruit might just shrivel and die on the branch. This summer too has been incredibly dry, but fortunately September and October have made up for it. It will not be one of the best years but there are plenty of olives to pick.
At the grove, we join the others and start… picking. It’s not a small errand, picking those precious little olives between hard leaves and occasional poking things. After a while, my hands are splintered, my back hurts and my legs are about to fall off. But stop we cannot.
My son turns out to be a very enthusiastic picker, hanging from the ladder, singing and picking. When he is done with this, he takes a saw and saws dead branches for a while – building a pirate ship he says. Then he finds the puppy and they launch an attack on the innocent olive pickers.
“Olives or gold, what do you have?”
We have both!
He looks confused for a moment, but then understanding dawns.
Olives are gold!
And while they serve as golden coins in my son’s pirates game, olives are the most precious of plants in these parts of the world. The entire cuisine rests on olive oil. Olive oil is that priceless gift, the way of saying ‘thank you’ when words won’t do. If you have no olive oil, you might as well have nothing.
At some point during the day we stop and have a picnic under an ancient olive tree. Cheese and prosciutto, fresh bread and bevanda (a beverage mixing red wine and water). What more could anyone want?
And then the picking continues. My mind wonders off plotting my NaNoWriMo novel. The sun warms up my face and hands. Layers come off.
At the end of the day, I stand above the grove overlooking the sea. My chest swells with pride. A connection to all olive pickers, present ones and all those who have done this noble job through history, is born.
There is no punch line today. Just a silent satisfaction of an ancient job well done.
The picking continues….
And so does the NaNoWriMo!