‘What else am I supposed to do’, he says, his voice angry and cracking. ‘You expect me to sit in front of some cafe with a bunch of the boys and await my own death? Is that what you want?’ He rattles the back of his hand at me, in the tell-tale Italian way. As the tears spill down his cheeks, I swallow hard and reach down into my pocket, turning the tiny digital recorder into the ‘off’ position. I spin my camera around onto my back and close my notepad. I put the cap back on the pen. Our eyes connect, and it’s such a moment of intense intimacy that it triggers my flight response: I want to turn away, or even run. And there it is again, the golf ball. Lately, it won’t seem to go away, no matter how hard I try.
I’m starting to wonder if it’s my fault that he’s upset, that this is the fourth time today I’ve had some old man in tears. I’ve seen anger too, and profound frustration, the kind that borders on the suicidal. And all of this has come about from the same question, a question that I thought was so innocuous that no one would really think to answer it, that no one would take me seriously. My question has been this: How long have you been working these olive fields?
Olives in hands I saw it earlier today to when I pulled over and leaned my bicycle on an old stone wall, not far from a group of men all laying nets on the ground. ‘What else do we know’, one finally asked as he pulled a swath of cloth from his pocket to wipe his flooding eyes.
And I saw it even earlier still when I asked a man on a tractor. We talked for half an hour before it occurred to me that I was holding him up. ‘I’m not in any rush’, he said, and then he started asking me silly, small-talk questions, the kind of questions you ask when you want to prolong a conversation, so you don’t have to return to the thing you were doing before. Even at 10.am I could smell the grappa on his breath. His smooth forehead, yet heavy lines around his mouth and eyes told me that he spent the last 60 years smiling, yet he never once smiled as we spoke. ‘This used to be favourite part of the year’, he said, implying that now, it was anything but. We said goodbye and he pulled up to an empty intersection and just sat there for four minutes, his shoulders shaking. No cars passed. My own eyes began to fill. Eventually he popped his tractor into gear and slogged on, to the mill, I hoped. But it just stuck in my throat again, that sandy golf ball that won’t seem to go away lately.
Olive nets. This is not the story of a type of people that we may be tempted to call ‘peasants’. These people don’t whistle on their way to work, any more than you do. The thing is, is that if you live here and speak their language, these people have names, mortgages, colour televisions and children that live up north. They catch colds. They cut coupons. They’re people like you and me, so I want to resist the notion that they’re any happier over bad situations, any more than you or I would be. Why am I telling you this? Because ever time you buy a litre of olive oil, you become involved in all of this, whether you know it or not. And the odds are good that you’re being swindled. You’d be mad if you knew.
The price of olives in Italy has fallen so low that it often no longer makes any sense to pick them. Those that still do often feel embarrassed, ashamed that they have nothing better to do with their time. They feel that they need to explain themselves and many stories start with, ‘Well, when Margherita died’, or, ‘When my children moved away I was very alone but I just kept picking each year’. ‘I don’t know anything else’. And olives in Puglia are not just another crop. They’re everything. The olive is to Puglia what the cow is to Normandy, Ireland or Texas, what the soy bean is to China, what petrol is to the Middle East. And life here is changing fast.