Saturday, May 23, 2009

You'll never get out alive

The Life and Times of an Olive Farmer (and his wife!)
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but I prefer to think of Eddison’s line that “to invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk!”
So it was Eddison who was standing alongside me the other day whispering in my ear when, after three hours in the blazing sun and very high wind trying and failing to fix my main irrigation pipe , I said a few rather choice words of Anglo Saxon origin, moodily chucked my tools (ha!) in the back of Hank the Pick-up and went off in search of a pile of junk.
Now, if you’ve read other episodes of our saga, you’ll be aware that I’d previously blown up the same pipe and spent hours effecting a repair because I didn’t know what I was doing. Needing now to replace a section I’d taken the advice of experienced farmers and went equipped. The trick, they told me, is to use a blow torch to soften the 7.5 centimetre diameter plastic pipe, then using a “Mythos” beer bottle in a circular motion widen the mouth of the pipe sufficient to be able to put the 7.5 cm diameter steel joining piece into it, clamp it down with a huge circlip and “Robert est son oncle” as the French would say. (By the way, it has to be a Mythos bottle for some reason. Other non-Greek beers’ bottles just won’t do!)
So, well equipped (and refreshed as I’d drunk the Mythos first, aaaah!) I set to in a confident way. The high wind didn’t help, as the blowtorch kept blowing out and I had to rig up a wind shield, which kept blowing over and hitting me on the head as I crouched to my labour. However, the first bit of pipe duly softened, I got stuck in with the Mythos bottle. Carefully. After 5 minutes of shoving and twisting I’d almost got the thing in far enough for the job when the pipe, evidently insulted by such rough handling, just sort of disintegrated under the pressure. The resultant deformity had to be sawn off, and I started again. Three hours later, with a pile of sawn off pieces of pipe about my feet, I thought “there has to be something better than this!”
On the way home I stopped at the large co-operative farmers shop where you buy all of the stuff us farmers need. Girly it ain’t , although my olive farming wife loves to scour the shelves. I got hold of the guy who speaks English in there and explained to him what had been happening, expecting him to guffaw and point out some hidden mystery that would have saved me all the frustration and effort. Not a bit of it. He just said “Yes, that happens”. I explained that I’d done it not once but about 20 times. He smiled ruefully, lost in some memory of the same thing happening to him, or of his grandpa stomping home in a rage and reaching for the Raki bottle, and said “Yes, that happens”. Comforting in a way, but no flipping use at all.
Taking Eddison’s advice, I resolved to go off in search of a pile of junk and spent the next hour or two driving round the building sites in the town and peering into skips and dustbins, for I’d had an idea and needed just the right thing. Oddly, I found what I wanted quite quickly but discovered so many other riches (especially thrown away bits of steel reinforcing rods that I have a need for on the land and had been thinking of buying) that I carried on rooting about, musing on the vagaries of life that take an unhappy suit wearing company apparatchik and turn him into a very happy skip monkey in just 30 months.

The device I made, sitting on the terrace that evening sipping at a Raki or two was simplicity itself. Whittling with my knife and lovingly smoothing with some sandpaper I turned a 10 cm square piece of lumber into a 7.6cm round pipe bodger with a rounded bit at the end to ease the initial entry. Combined with the other element of the invention (some grease, a tin of which I’d weirdly carried all the way from the UK in the van when we escaped in case they didn’t have any here) I was sure it would work. The next day Anne joined me and I tell you no lie we’d done the job in about an hour! A quick warming with the blowtorch, stick the “patent pipe bodger” (registered design, patent applied for) in the pipe, bang with a mallet, cool with water, slip out the bodger and pop in the joint, tighten the clip, job done! I really ought to approach a manufacturer with it. We sang on the way home. To a Tamla Motown cd, which tells you something.
The olives are looking fine at the moment, despite only having one watering so far this year and that just recently. If you’ve never seen it, an olive tree that’s had no water will sort of pull in it’s leaves and the olives look dry and sort of wrinkly. Apply water and the next day the leaves will have resumed their normal appearance and the olives will have swelled and look all shiny, smooth and healthy. (It’s a pity we can’t undergo the same miracle). We wish the same were true of the other “baby” fruit trees and grape vines we have in our “orchard” plot that need much more care and attention. Despite our careful ministrations and the back breaking , shoulder wrenching graft of carrying water to the tender souls we have lost about ten vines and the Avocados have given up the ghost. Each time we go to the citrus trees they look on the brink of death but are still with us by the skin of their teeth, along with the pomegranates and the walnut. It has been a surprise that the most resistant trees are the peach and nectarines, closely followed by the cherries, bless ’em. You live and learn. We have about half an acre of land that’s just weeds at the moment waiting for me to find a month spare to clear them all and the “what shall we plant there?” question is increasingly leaning towards nectarines , for being as tough as old boots.
Whenever we’re on the groves we’re always keeping our eyes open for a new delight of nature and had a rare treat at the spring the other day whilst filling up our twenty 35 litre water containers ready to water the orchard. Without a care in the world and as nonchalant as you like a hedgehog wandered past us and lapped at the stream where it crosses the road. We were able to stand and examine him closely, take a photo and a little video, chat and coo at him and he just completely ignored us for about 20 minutes, during which he continuously lapped away (probably taking the first drink he’d had in an age and making the most of it). We used to have hedgehogs in our garden back in England but they disappeared , as a result we think of folks chucking down slug pellets (snail eats pellet, hedgehog eats snail, hedgehog dies). It was great to get reacquainted with one of these smashing little characters. In the end, thirst quenched, he wandered back into the groves, still ignoring us, cocky as you like, blithely indifferent to our presence.
One of the nicest things about having stumbled upon Sitia when looking for our new life is that the place is so nice and yet unspoilt by hordes of holidaymakers - and hordes of expats too ,with apologies to our readers (especially the aromatherapist and her hubby, you know who you are!). It’s so nice that people we care about from the UK can’t wait to visit. Our son and his fiancee are over at the moment and have brought with them four of their friends (all from Dublin, mind, where a pint of lager costs 6 euro and a packet of fags 7.80 euro!) Needless to say with the prices for beer and other essentials they’re pretty happy with the cost of an evening’s entertainment. With such a large group to entertain we’re looking forward to the bucolic pleasure of a picnic on the land. As some readers may recall, a while back I approached the local customs office about a large piece off a cable reel that has leant against their wall for at least two years. For those that don’t know, a cable reel is that super-size cotton reel that electric cables come on when they’re laying new mains wires in the streets. This was just one side, a heavy, 2 meter wide circle of timber, looking for all the world like some giant solid timber wheel off a 17th century farm cart, perfect for a skip robber’s picnic table. It looked so nice leaning against the customs house that I’d assumed they’d say no and explain that they wanted to plant flowers around it and use it as a feature, but interestingly they didn’t. Into the pick-up with it, make some legs for the table and two hours later we had an all weather, seat about 15, rustic farmer’s picnic table. We’ll be christening it properly this week with the Dublin contingent, some friends from the village and a mate or two from Sitia. And of course, our fun won’t get ruined by the bad weather, because we just don’t get bad weather (he said, smugly).
A word or two about the higher regions of the olive oil world following a slightly disconcerting chat this week with one of the higher ups at the Sitia farmer’s cooperative. It’s fairly widely known that the poor old Italians, who can’t make good olive oil for the life of them but certainly know how to make shoppers believe that they can, buy up the best oils of Crete from Sitia and from Kolimbari to mix with their own inferior mush, stick a fancy label on it and flog it to the housefraus of Europe with a slick advertising campaign depicting lots of peasants going happy about their work in the groves and getting stuck into the oil on their salads and bread with gusto. Mamma (still attractive for her age) is usually there smiling at the bambinos. Not a sign of bulk tankers and huge blending factories and fat cat millionaire suits on their yachts shouting down their satellite phones at their advertising executives in New York. Anyway, the bad news is that the Spanish, it is rumoured, have been buying up the Italians. The Spanish do have some good oil. The worry is that our traditional customers may suddenly stop buying the thousands of tonnes they currently source from here. When you look at the reliance in Sitia on the humble olive you very quickly realise that the local economy could have a disaster on its hands. Unfortunately, that local economy also means us!
Still , you have to be philosophic about it. As somebody once said ;
“Don’t take life too seriously, or you’ll never get out of it alive!”

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