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Olive Picking in Crete

Updated: May 1

Writer's Note: This story occurred many years ago and is part of the memoir I'm putting together about my early years.

Athens and Crete

Youth hostels were inexpensive in Athens, so I spent about a week deciding how to proceed for the next two months of '82 and beyond. I targeted the Acropolis, Zappeion Hall, Lycabettus, and the old Olympic stadium as the key sites to see while in Athens.


While in Athens, I met a German man, and we clicked immediately. He was called Igor, originally from Slovenia but later became a German citizen. Igor and I would hang out at a local pub in Athens, drink Retsina (Greek white resonated wine), and smoked our rolled cigarettes, talking about philosophy, travel, sports, politics, and life. Once tired of talking, we took a boat to Rethymnon, Crete, looking for work and a possible break from vagabonding. I had been traveling for six months and needed a break from the constant movement. I was physically tired then, but more importantly, I was emotionally exhausted. 


For example, during the last month or so, I toured churches, museums, historical sites, and old architecture, which would no longer resonate with me. I'd be a bad American tourist by popping into a church, snapping a few, and abruptly leaving. The significant threshold came in Athens as I yawned near the Acropolis. It was grand and majestic, but I felt nothing. Something had to change with too much movement. The smell and feel of olives were likely forthcoming.


Camping Employment 

After we reached Crete, Igor and I camped in Rethymnon. On that same day, we met the owner, an American woman of Greek ancestry who asked us if we wanted to work odd jobs at her campground for a week or so. The work was not physically demanding or challenging, although one would not call it glamorous or a long-time profession. Our camping fee was compensated, and we made some Greek drachmas (Greek currency) for our future travels.


We had no more work once the tourists stopped coming and the forthcoming rainy season. The campground owner seemed conscientious of our plight and asked about our plans. We had none. She mentioned that some olive farmers in the hills inland were looking for help harvesting olives, which piqued our interest. She stated the only caveat was that we had to stay until mid-January to ensure we collected most of the olives. We both committed to this, so the following day, I used the limited bus service and my legs to make my way up the steep hill to my destination for the next two months: Messi, Crete. Igor stated he wanted to spend about one week in Ierapetra to meet up with his girlfriend. His other goal after traveling south of Crete was to catch some remaining sun of late autumn. Once finished, he committed to coming back for some manual labor.


Life in a Small Village on Crete

The adjustment to this small Greek village was both challenging and enjoyable. I had free room and board and was paid about $10 per day (for 8 - 9 hours of work), which in 1982 was still a paltry amount, but I was hoping this respite was what the doctor ordered.



I stayed in a white brick home near the center of town. I was hired by an older Greek man, Challenbus, who was married to Orania. They spoke no German or English, so we made a lot of hand gestures for limited communication. I worked in the fields, and my strength came in handy as I worked with Orania, as her husband felt he was no longer fit to work in the fields. His primary occupation was drinking Turkish coffee, playing backgammon, and talking village gossip at the town's kafenio (coffee house). I worked six days a week and had Sunday off. I spent the first ten days hardly saying a word to anyone but would occasionally try to converse with their mule. At this point, I doubted my friend would ever come to this village.


The next day, while sitting in my local kafenio drinking Turkish coffee, a young, excitable Greek boy tugged on my shirt and asked me to follow him up the hill to the only other kafeneia in this small village. I initially wondered what the boy was up to. Once I opened the door, I looked around and didn't understand what was happening, but then I began to fixate on one patron, who had buried himself in a non-Greek newspaper, and seconds later, he put the paper down, and there was Igor. I was ecstatic that he finally showed up, as I had a companion I could work and talk with for the remainder of our time.


Our Greek farmers didn't have indoor plumbing, which was an adjustment, but when you're young and adventurous, you are more adaptable to foreign circumstances. The outhouse was outside the living quarter, so efficiency came into play as the days got colder and rainier in November. I wasn't expecting soft toilet tissue but quickly realized they had small stacks of old Greek newspapers to finish your business. It was a language I couldn't speak or write, so it was all Greek to me.   



To bathe, you'd scavenge small twigs and logs, create a fire in the white brick fireplace, hang a kettle filled with cold water over the fire, and wait for the right temperature before washing yourself. We didn't shower or have a legitimate bath for about two months. The rainy season began late in the fall, so sometimes, we were completely drenched at the end of work, providing an easy option to build a fire and clean ourselves. I never once saw our hosts bathe, so it appeared hygiene was not a priority to them.


Besides the large living area, the only other place was a long, spacious bedroom where one could sleep at least four. All of us slept in twin beds. Igor and I were on opposite ends of the bedroom from our hosts. Sometimes, we'd hear Orania get up in the middle of the night and use her bedpan to relieve herself. This was a sight not to be seen, so I focused on getting back to sleep. After a few nights of this, it was a ritual that I got used to. Without communicating with the other locals, Igor and I would drink Turkish coffee at the local kafenio and play cards or backgammon after work. We'd sometimes write postcards or make entries in our journals.



How did we pick olives in Crete? When I mention picking olives, I don't mean we picked them off the trees. I refer to our work as collecting olives. Nets underneath the olive trees would collect the fallen ripe green olives. Large stones had been placed far outside the nets to keep them in place. To collect, we'd remove the rocks and then roll the nets to consolidate the fruit before collection. We used old rusty metal containers to scoop up as many olives as possible and put them in large burlap bags that exceeded 100 pounds. Typically, we brought along two mules, and besides grazing, their responsibility was to transport two large bags of olives to the processing center to make olive oil. Besides the rocky and hilly terrain, the other challenge was getting the mules to cooperate and pulling the mules up and down the rocky terrain without incident. 


Blitzed on Christmas Eve 

On Christmas Eve, a villager gave us local moonshine to help us celebrate. We decided to hike in the steep, rocky hills away from the village as we drank the moonshine. I consumed the moonshine like regular alcohol, although that was a big mistake – I was utterly intoxicated and eventually stumbled back to the village instead of walking. Igor helped bring us back to our village as my sense of direction was completely disoriented. With such a rocky and steep topography, I was fortunate to return to the village unscathed. My only remembrance was conversing with some goats nearby and watching golden eagles soar above the rocky canyon, looking for their pre-Christmas meal. 


Time to Resume Travel 

As I mentioned, we had committed to working through the first half of January but realized cabin fever had set in and became anxious to get going. The weather in Crete in late December became damp and cold. Besides, we wanted to see the sun again. Not having been paid, we were worried that if we had left a day or two before the end of the year, our takeaway would have been an incredible experience without compensation. As luck would have it, a Greek man who spoke perfect German stopped in our regular kafeneia about a week before we wanted to leave. Fantastic, we now had a translator who could cut us a deal. Our hosts accepted the offer, which provided us with catching a ferry to Israel on New Year's Eve. It was an international celebration on a low-budget ship to Haifa. Few could afford cabins, so we slept in a large room with many others for the two-day journey to Israel. I learned quickly that many internationals celebrate this holiday with joy and enthusiasm. Most guests on this ship appeared to be young travelers seeking adventure in Israel. Some were going to work on a kibbutz, and others wanted to scope out Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the West Bank. 


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1 Comment

What an adventure, I really enjoy reading about your experiences! The story roped me in, I could imaging being on that farm working with a host that never takes a bath😆. I’m curious, did you ever here from Igor again? Looking forward to more adventures👍

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