Why I fancied the idea of hard labour
Cape Town - Before gap years were called ‘gap years’, and were just an overseas wander one took in order to end up sleeping on a rooftop in Turkey, I had always wanted to go to a kibbutz.
My friend J went to one and she wrote me letters about a basil sorting table and an Australian boy called ‘Kyle’. They did herbaceous things on that table that would have made even the boldest chilli blush.
I had always fancied the idea of hard labour. After five years of being trapped in high school learning about mitochondria and the Middle Ages, I yearned for days spent outside performing an earthy task that didn’t require a pen or a notebook or the sight of Mrs Davies’s bun.
I pictured myself picking stuff off trees, becoming tanned and lean. I would fall for a local boy who played the kazoo and read Albert Camus. In the evenings, we would walk through clicking groves and he would show me the oldest pear tree in the world and whisper something in Hebrew that may or may not have meant “You look just like Melanie Griffith, except a bit thinner”.
However, J’s stories about heatstroke, backache and blistered fingers put me off. The whole Kyle-on-the-basil-table thing also disturbed me. I’ve never understood the combination of food and carnal pleasure. There’s something weird about people in movies who get all swampy-eyed while smearing each other with whipped cream or pesto. What’s wrong with a good scone or a nice bowl of tagliatelle?
Instead I signed up to be an exchange student, made a terrible hash of being an exchange student and returned home a year later 30kg heavier and smelling faintly of wet llama wool. Then I got pens, notebooks and a nose piercing and went to university for five years and learnt how to play the kazoo and avoid reading Albert Camus. But the desire to pick things off trees never went away. I blame DH Lawrence for that.
Last week I volunteered to help harvest olives from 14 trees. I procured a suitably bucolic basket, wore sandals and a skirt. I spent the night before harvest day planning the schedule. We would break for home-made iced tea at 10am and lunch would be a casual affair involving salad, hunks of freshly made bread and those bottles of wine with the straw bits on the outside that every Mediterranean family drinks from – even the five-year-olds. We would be grubby, content and lusty (in a traditional, non-Kyle way).
In the morning, I waved away the sunscreen, determined to emerge tanned and speaking at least elementary Latin. I whistled O Sole Mio. I cooed about the colours and kneeled before the low branches, imagining Caesar with his olive-leaf tiaras and the millions of olives that have been picked over thousands of years. After half an hour, I felt very Zen as I plucked individual baubles off the branches and pulled at clusters of the fruit.
Two hours later I felt very cross, hot and started hallucinating that the olives were bunches of frozen grapes and would taste delicious. They tasted like nail polish remover. My shoulders ached, my arms felt like old mutton bones and my palms were the colour of spider phlegm.
Olive trees are kind of like our government. Just when you think they have been stripped of all their secret nuggets and there is nothing left to hide, you look up and there are thousands more, taunting you from the highest branches. And once you’ve stretched up and sorted those out, you discover hidden pockets of sourness deep within the foliage pretending to be sweet grapes.
By the afternoon I had a peculiar tan, three insect bites on my right cheek, a hunchback of Notre Dame gait and a hearty loathing for anything black and spherical. I also had new respect for professional fruit pickers who labour in orchards and fields across our land, often with little job security and paltry pay. I vowed to remember them the next time I bought an apple or some tapenade.
When we finally called it a day, we had filled 11 plastic bags with olives from seven trees. I trundled down to the Olive Boutique in Riebeek Kasteel and the nice woman there showed me how the olives are crushed and spun in a centrifuge to extract the oil. We would get seven litres from the olives we had brought in. There were still seven trees to attack.
Like a good Roman dictator, I offered my nieces and their friends R50 each to finish the job. I promised them home-made iced tea, a lunch straight out of Il Postino and live entertainment featuring a kazoo. Then I lay in the sun and read a book, occasionally looking up and pointing at the trees with my toes. “You’ve missed a spot.” The kids moaned, hallucinated and spat out raw olives. After two hours, they gave up.
Now just five trees await me and I would rather study chartered accounting than return to stand in the sun. I’m hoping if I ignore them long enough, the olives will ripen, shrivel and fall to the ground and birds will carry the pips far away.
And in 10 years’ time some other poor sucker will don a skirt, procure a bucolic basket and have their romanticism cruelly cured.