On a chilly Saturday morning this February, I found myself standing beneath a canopy of tents in a restaurant parking lot. The best description for the operation would be something between a farmer’s and a flea market. On a table next to me, atop a colorful tablecloth, lay a spread of olive wood utensils, French chocolate, and neat rows of olive oil bottled in dark green glass, among other things. The practical Italian kitchen tools next to the kitschy French confections was an amusing reflection of the parents I was filling in for.
Thanks to hours of slow traffic, I eventually struck up a conversation with the vendor to my left. We quickly discovered we were nearly the same age. As those in their mid-twenties are prone to do, we compared our post-college years to see if we’d stumbled across the rare circumstance of someone who’d “figured it out.” Much to our relief, we found we were both among the comfortably lost.
Yet, the funny thing about these years is that most of us have an innate desire to travel as far and as much as we can, although most of us lack the funds to do so. We often harbor grand plans that we trade with others willing to listen. Despite living in over two dozen homes over the years, my neighbor admitted that she’d never been to Europe. Her grand plan was to take at least six weeks to visit her top destinations, spending a week in each one. Then, she added a well-used resolution that’s often confused me.
I want to experience as much cultural immersion as possible.
What exactly does this declaration mean? Immersion is defined as deep mental involvement. Culture itself is even harder to pin down. What does it truly mean to experience such deep involvement in all the intricacies that describe a nation or group of people?
Is it as broad a sentiment as feeling apart of a world that’s not your own? (Whatever that means.) Does it mean learning a language? Is it taking part in a significant tradition?
With so much on my mind, it’s no wonder we didn’t linger on the topic. Yet, it did get me thinking. Could I answer this question within the context of a singular experience? Perhaps.
Last November, I spent my 24th birthday harvesting olives on my family’s property. In a corner of Tuscany where the hills are covered in olive orchards, it’s a tradition deeply embedded in the local culture, and throughout Italy itself. It’s as good of a place to start as any.
The harvesting process itself is simple, and has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. The terminology of “picking olives” is also inaccurate. Instead, the bounty is more or less beaten out of the trees to fall on nets blanketing the ground below.
While electric harvesters do exist, they’re heavy and leave your hands buzzing for hours after you use them. The prongs are also ineffective on thicker branches. Instead, the preferred tools are long bamboo poles. The main sound that echos through the countryside during harvest season is the soft thwack as they hit the branches.
From there, the nets are gathered up, and their contents emptied into plastic crates. A large portion of my job was helping my dad carry the 40 lb crates up the steep incline of our orchard and load them into the back of our trusty Fiat 500. Rinse and repeat for all 250 of our trees.
If the above description didn’t clue you in, it’s a lot of hard work. Thanks to some clever marketing, the process has largely been romanticized to many Americans. It is wonderful to gaze out over the rolling hills of Tuscany for a moment, but then, it’s head down and back to work if you have any intention of getting something done. This is not to deter you from the experience, but you should know what you’re getting into.
With the car stuffed to the gills, it’s only a five-minute drive to our local frantoio (oil mill) to press our olives.
For weeks, the facility is constantly bustling with activity as quantities of olives from the surrounding hills are weighed, recorded, and consolidated into larger crates. Those with smaller yields are added to a communal batch. Larger yields, such as my family’s, are pressed individually.
It’s a unique scene. Vehicles, from Fiats to tiny ape (three-wheeled utility vehicles with a name that translates to “bee” due to the buzzing sound of their engines) crowd the dirt parking lot. Men in work clothes shout over the drone of machines. Cascades of green and black olives thunder into crates, while a mountain of olive pomace (material left over from the pressing process) grows at the rear of the building. It’s also largely a family affair, with wives, children, and even the occasional dog tagging along to view the spectacle. Joyous exclamations are exchanged between neighbors, the harvest unsurprisingly dominating local gossip. And in the middle of it all are two Americans trying their best to act it out.
To say I felt eyes on me would be an understatement, but it was only out of curiosity. I’ve written before of the difficulties in feeling like you “belong” in a new place. However, this may have been one of the few instances where I was living too “in the moment” to notice. With my hard work on the table, I didn’t want anything about my participation to feel like a novelty.
The olive harvest wasn’t a tradition intrinsic to my existence, but there I was, playing my part, and even learning a thing or two.
That’s where it clicks.
That feeling where what you’re doing during your travels has real meaning, instead of merely checking activities off of a list. That, to me anyway, is cultural immersion, or as the old adage goes, the difference between being a traveler and being a tourist.