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Monday, December 31, 2007

Valencia Oranges

I finally got the opportunity to do something that is as embedded in the culture of Valencia as anything; I was able to go to an orchard and pick oranges. Oranges are as synonymous to Valencia as paella, something a short drive in the countryside here will quickly confirm. The entire coastal plain in this corner of the Mediterranean is packed with orange trees. I have been bike riding through these orchards all year, smelling the hypnotic blossoms and almost tasting the sweetness of the fruit in the air. In December the trees are almost breaking with the weight of the harvest and anyone with an orchard is screaming for pickers.

We drove south of Valencia, past Xátiva to the village of Chella. The family of an acquaintance has a small huerta with a few dozen orange trees near their home in the village. The parents are a bit beyond doing their own harvesting but the trees are still producing an absolutely prodigious amount of oranges and persimmons. Someone needs to go out and pull them off the trees. When I was asked to volunteer I fairly jumped at the chance.

Just seeing the countryside out this way is enough reason to take me away from the city for a day, or the rest of my life. The valley is dotted with lonely village church steeples and defensive towers built by the Arab occupants a thousand years ago, but mostly there are orange trees—another product left behind by the Moors. The mild, frost-free winters assure a strong yield, year after year. It was sunny and warm on this late December day, perfect for picking oranges.

We arrived a bit later than scheduled and I was ready to head out to the orchard and start filling bags with fruit. I quickly remembered that I was in Spain and that there would have to be a bit of eating before anything else could be attempted. Not only was this Spain, but a Spanish country home, so I walked into the middle of something resembling an American Thanksgiving dinner. After introductions I was seated at the table and force-fed dish after dish. All I could think about was the futility of someone trying to go on a hunger strike while seated at a Spanish grandmother’s dining room table. I’m sure that I would be able to resist whatever cruel tortures the CIA could dream up at Guantánamo much better than I can refuse to accept anything in the way of food offered by a Spanish host.

There were three kids at the table, ages 3, 4, and 8. The 8 year old girl could barely contain her disappointment in me when I admitted that I didn’t know anyone from High School Musical, and she would have been completely devastated to know that I don’t even know what that is. I’m never too shy about eating and I was only too happy to be stuffed like a Christmas goose with shrimp, rice soup, and cocido. I ate at least twice as much as anyone else at the table.

I don’t know if it is just because I like kids or that my Spanish skills are more suited to conversing with the little guys, but I always seem to gravitate to the playground when I am in these sort of mixed-generation, social settings here in Spain. I was quickly recruited to go outside and play pilla-pilla which seems to be a sort of hellish Spanish version of tag where I was cursed with being it no matter how many times I caught one of the kids. I think that Spanish kids take advantage of me in games because of my status as a foreigner. Just the other evening I was trying to teach my 5 year old friend to play chess when he invented his own rather Machiavellian version of the game in which all of his pieces on the board seemed to have super powers enabling them to take out my players at will. I didn’t stand a chance.

The late afternoon sun was threatening to slide behind the mountains to the west when we finally drove about a half kilometer out to the orchard. This area is a collective of the village with each family having their own trees, some of which were already completely stripped of fruit, others in desperate need of harvesting. When we began picking I was immediately astounded by the output of every tree. It is common for a single orange tree to yield 100 kilos of fruit. After less than a half hour of picking we had more oranges than 50 people could consume in a week—now I just need to find about 45 more people, either that or set up my own stall in the Ruzafa market.

I think that I would really like to have my own bit of land here in Valencia. I would like to have a few fruit trees and enough olive trees to keep me in oil and olives for the year. The odd-shaped raf tomatoes that are grown here would also be a lot of fun to grow on my own. I also need to grow my own basil as this is my favorite herb. I’ll have to find a garden that I can commute to on my bicycle from downtown Valencia. Perhaps I’ll just get my own country estate with free pilla-pilla games for the kids. Cheating encouraged!

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