When I ran away to Greece two years ago I had a vague idea of where I’d end up. It was February; most of the country was at a standstill with the tourism season being over. I spent a month in Santorini, watching sunsets over Oia and indulging in mezedes – olives swimming in oil, tender pieces of octopus, fried halloumi. But I was healing a broken heart and I wanted, more than anything, some reprieve from my thoughts. Something to keep me occupied.
Then I made friends with a Greek who suggested I spend a few weeks WWOOFing with her parents on their olive farm on Lesbos, an island in the Northern Aegean.
WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. You volunteer five or six hours a day to perform manual labour in exchange for a place to stay, and food. It’s an ideal arrangement for anyone seeking a culturally immersive experience in a rural setting. And Lesbos, a major producer of olives and ouzo, is one of the least visited islands in Greece. It’s one of the few destinations that can survive without tourism.
I didn’t think much about how I tend to fail spectacularly when it comes to anything hands-on. My mother has been a stay-at-home mom my entire life, and I grew up being blatantly spoiled by her good care. When I left for university, I had no idea how to do laundry; I barely knew how to hold a broom. I didn’t know the first thing about cooking, and I had no interest in it. I was always the book-nerd – the academic overachiever. And here I was about to devote my time to labour.
Things got off to a rocky start.
My route from Santorini to Lesbos involved two different flights via two sketchy airports and one tiny aircraft. I weighed my luggage on a slider scale. Being terrified of flying, I popped two anti-anxiety pills and settled in. Unfortunately the travel time wasn’t all that long, so I showed up at the olive farm high as a kite and hardly able to hold conversation. There was a German girl there as well, Greta, and I’m sure she thought I was insane.
As far as WWOOFing goes, mine and Greta’s accommodations were plush. We had our own private rooms, and private bathrooms. We had high-speed Internet. We had full use of the kitchen. We’d pick oranges in the evenings, and make fresh juice in the mornings (something Greta actually successfully taught me how to do). Our hosts, a wonderful elderly couple named Milos and Sophia, often invited us to hearty meals in their dining room. The farm was a stunning sprawl of olive trees, rolling hills, and views over the sea towards Turkey. I can still smell lavender on the breeze and hear the tinkling sheep bells.
But I was extraordinarily bad at everything.
Our first duty was spreading natural fertilizer around the trees. We carried buckets of the stuff uphill and downhill all day, the bucket handles biting into our palms. Most of the time we were half stooped, and my lower back ached. Greta never complained – her tall and thin frame never cowed. Then we’d trim the olive trees and toss the branches into huge piles for burning, because the trees needed room to breathe. We did all this under the guidance of Michael, the farmhand who spoke no English and was the epitome of a burly Greek man. He wore plaid and heavy work boots, and sported an impressive black beard. Since we couldn’t exactly communicate, we didn’t learn a great deal about organic farming. But bit-by-bit, we got things done.
The worst task of all was weeding the vineyards.
It was while working in the vineyards I came to realize how ill-equipped I was to handle these tasks. I’ve always been active – I’ve always attended the gym regularly, and I’ve been an avid hiker. But crouching in the cold soil pulling up weeds was absolute sheer agony for me, heightened by the fact I’m more terrified of spiders than I am of flying, and there was nothing I could do to fend off the hundreds of fuzzy little bodies crawling up and down my legs and arms. I cried a lot.
Meanwhile Greta worked quietly and peacefully, humming to herself, sitting comfortably in the dirt. She always finished way ahead of me while I stood in the rows of vines smearing mud across my face, wiping sweat from my forehead, trying to straighten my stiffened back. My insecurities started wearing away at me – I felt more incompetent as time went on. Sometimes I could sense Greta being frustrated by my slowness, by my inability to keep up. She had to teach me so many things. At the time I wondered whether or not we were friends out of loneliness – we had nobody else on the farm except our hosts.
Later we’d weed the vegetable garden, pulling out the choking vines and setting aside some greens for our evening meals. The olive harvest doesn’t happen until the winter months, but there was still an endless amount of work to do. Sometimes we’d get kicked out of our kitchen so that other farmhands could work on making cheese. Sometimes we’d watch Milos tend to his new beehives, taking great pains not to be stung.
And for all the kindness and love that Milos and Sophia put out, I could never connect with them. Sophia was amused by my lack of cooking talent. One day she showed up in the kitchen with a jar of sausages. She thrust them at me, saying, “Here, I know you don’t cook.”
I admired Greta’s take-charge attitude. She wasn’t shy; she had no trouble walking into our hosts’ home and helping Sophia with cooking and baking. One day I watched them clean octopus together, me standing awkwardly in the doorway pretending to be learning. They exchanged recipes and then spent hours working in Sophia’s jewelry shop together. I’d always try to step in, offer some helping hand, but I never knew how to do anything and then I’d fall back, feeling dumb. Or I’d join Milos on the couch, hands folded, making small talk. Greta could use the basic ingredients around the kitchen and the garden to make a spectacular meal. Once she made handmade ravioli stuffed with squash, and a decadent orange cake. She taught me carefully how to fold the ravioli, but mine still fell apart. I was on dishwashing duty.
One time after leaving Sophia’s jewelry shop, I was close to tears as I made my way back to my room. I was useless; I couldn’t seem to stop fumbling my way around. I considered leaving the farm.
A few hours later, Greta showed up with a pair of earrings for me. “From Sophia,” she said. They were heavy black stones wrapped in silver metal; they were beautiful. “You should go thank her,” Greta said.
I knew she was right but the awkwardness sat so heavy in my chest, I wanted to avoid it. “Maybe later,” I answered, but I knew Greta disapproved. After some time in silence I got up and put in the earrings, then headed out to Sophia’s house. I knocked, and stepped inside. Milos and Sophia were both sitting on the couch, watching television.
“I wanted to thank you,” I said, touching my left earring. “These are beautiful!”
Sophia smiled her bright smile and said, “You’re welcome, dear.” It only struck me then that Sophia hadn’t been able to reach me either – I had closed myself off to her, allowing the gap to widen so far that even she couldn’t approach me first.
Greta left the farm before I did. A year and a half later, I’m living in her old apartment in Berlin. By some odd twist of faith, she had a room available for me just as I moved to the city. We’ve stayed in touch, and I’ve come to realize that some distances are created only when you place them there yourself.
When I did leave the olive farm a few weeks later, Sophia hugged me tight, and said: “From time to time, you’ll send us a postcard, won’t you?” And happily, yes, I have.