You are a woman!

Branka ValcicMy Journey4 Comments

Olives have been picked. Next stop: uljarnica!

Uljarnica is an olive processing facility and in many of the Croatian Adriatic island villages it is the most prominent building in the village. During the olive picking and processing season uljarnica is the epicenter of village activity. Ever since it has opened its doors this season (and it has been open almost 24/7), I am dying to see what it looks like inside.  But that’s not as easy as I have thought. Two man stand in the doorway and look at me with scorn. As I try to enter the building they shift ever so slightly towards me making it more than clear that they did not want me to enter.


I find the president of the olive growers’ association of the village who is also in charge of running the processing facility, and by a convenient coincidence a relative. He is happy to give me an official tour. We pass the ‘guards’ and I am in! I look around and instantly fall in love. The smell of olives both waiting their turn and those being processed is absolutely divine. Bits and pieces of equipment, both new and old, look fascinating. I want to learn all about it. I want to see the oil! I want to stay here forever.

I stop to read the following poem that hangs on the wall. 

(Photo to the right – click to enlarge).

(The poem is in an old island dialect and I have done my best to translate it into English. If anyone can do a better translation, please let me know.)


Remember, my son, every time you pass 
through these doors
that everyone in the Mediterranean
at this moment, does the same thing.

Look carefully at the two stones
hugging like a boy and girl,
dancing with no rest or tiredness,
all your ancestors
and all the history of your island
will then show themselves to you.

Lean from above
and in the mirror of the oil
you will see your true reflection.
Dunk the bread crust
lick your fingers, close your eyes
and realize then
that stones in uljarnica
will never stop turning.

The tour itself is fascinating. The facility is currently set up with a modern, fully mechanized system, the third system since villagers have begun cultivating olives long time ago. The stones that used to grind the olives sit motionless in the corner of the hall. Under the new system, once olives are washed they enter a shiny machine that grinds them. The machine even allows one to set a desired temperature for the olives to be processed at. When properly ground, the mass of olives enters the newest piece of technology the facility manager is very proud of. At the end of the process water and other unusable material come out through one pipe, and through the other… PURE GOLD!

I want to lie under the tap and bathe in the rich oil that drips out, one precious drop at the time. It is interesting that under the very first system of processing olives into olive oil, the oil didn’t actually get separated from water. Liquid containing both oil and water used to get stored in large stone barrels. Over night, the oil would rise to the top and in the morning it was collected for that day’s use.

Next, I find out that despite a hefty pay, the manager is having a hard time finding two people per shift to work at the facility, one to unload the olives and the other to man the machine. I think I have a solution to his problem so I blurt out,

“Can I do it?”

“What?” he looks confused.

“Well, what do the men need to do, what does their job look like? Could I do it?”

“It’s hard work. I don’t think you could do it.”

“Why not? I can lift a bag of olives. And I can make sure the machine works as it is supposed to. I am reliable and hard working. What more do you need?”


“Why not?” I persist.

“You say you have no men to fill the jobs. I could help you out,” I beam.

He looks aside. And then it dawns on me slowly why he is evading an answer to my question. Finally, it comes out.

“You are a woman. I cannot hire you.”


“I would not be able to show my face in the coffee shop, if I had a woman working in uljarnica. People would say they should have gotten more oil, that you’ve messed something up. I would never hear the end of it. I would have a riot.”


“You are kidding, right?”

“No, I am not. You know, when we used to have five people working in uljarnica, one of them was a woman. She was a cleaning lady. Now we don’t need cleaners anymore because the process is not messy. Everything happens within the machines and we wash those out easily.”

O.K., so what was I expecting? I don’t know what, but NOT this. Although honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I knew I moved to a rather conservative country to start with, then to the even more conservative coast, and then to the ultimate of conservative – an island off this coast! This is as conservative and traditional as it gets. To many people, the fact that much has not changed here in decades is a sort of charm of these villages. I too dig it, in some odd, idealistic way.

“Did you know people talk about you as if you were the world’s eighth wander because you take the little fishing boat out by yourself?” he asks me as I stare at him in disbelief.

“No, I didn’t know that.”

I did notice the stares and then also a few nods – I thought as one equal to another. And maybe they do respect that I am able to skipper a boat, but whatever it is, it stops there. It certainly does NOT go beyond the olive processing facility door! Those doors seem to be protecting something sacred to these men, something women have never been privy to and they are, clearly, not about to start now.

“But you could make a difference,” I try one more time.

“No,” is his final answer.

I am not mad. I am not hurt. I am dumbfounded.

Is it really better to not have the work done than to have it done by a woman?

How silly was I to think that just because I got a few nods and some mumbled hellos, what lay beneath the surface was not so entrenched that even a well-meaning president of the olive grower’s association whose wife regularly fishes with him and cleans fishing nets (another traditional man job) is not willing to go anywhere near? The stones can be replaced by a shiny machine, but a ‘man’s job’ cannot be done by a woman.

I walk down the path on the hill above the village. I inhale deeply the rich scent of the Mediterranean flora and I look over the sea towards other islands that dot the horizon. I look over the roofs of the village and the church tower. And I have to admit that I am glad that I do not just see a quaint village with ancient stone houses and red roofs. A holiday place. A shallow place. The sneak peak I got into the workings of the village has allowed me to see another layer of messiness of human lives. It helps me to better understand what the few kids who still live out here are up against, if they are to bring change to the islands in this part of the world. And much needs to change, if this village and many others are to survive in the coming decades. I hope I am able to be a part of that change.

How long can the metaphorical stones of uljarnica keep turning?

4 Comments on “You are a woman!”

  1. In my minds eye, I am catching a drop from the tap and feeling its richness between my fingers and am intoxicated by the smell of fresh olive oil.

    I can only imagine your incredulation at being told you could not work there because you are a woman 🙂

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