Have you ever seen that funny map of Europe with a line drawn horizontally right through the middle? The word “Potato” is written across the upper half, the word “Tomato” is written across the lower half. That’s no joke.
One day at dinner, during a week long workcamp made up of Spanish and Italian volunteers, there was nearly a riot.
“Potatoes again?! Every damn meal, spuds!”
“Why aren’t there any tomatoes in the salad?” Colm asked. “Actually, I haven’t seen any tomatoes on the table for ages.”
Turns out the southern Europeans had been sneaking into the greenhouse and pilfering all the cherry tomatoes. Then they had the gall to show up at mealtime and complain.
Fionn and I drove to Cork Airport one drizzly autumn day to pick up a new volunteer, one that would drastically alter the course of both of our lives, but first we had to do some grocery shopping. We grew a lot of food at the farm, but the place was far from being self-sufficient. There was a two acre walled kitchen garden where we grew lettuce, cabbage, spinach, chard, cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots, turnips, zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli, broad beans, garlic, onions, potatoes, leeks, beets, strawberries, raspberries, black currants, apples, and lots of herbs. With a single cow there was enough milk to make cream, butter, yogurt, and soft cheese. Every year a cow and a pig (and the occasional geriatric sheep) ended up in the freezers, but the typical Irish diet (lots of spuds and dairy) was a bit trying on the stomachs of some of the non-Irish volunteers.
Whenever word got out that somebody was going to the big city a list was quickly passed around. Oranges for the Japanese girl, a bottle of olive oil for the Italian guy, paprika for Llorenç’s stews, three bottles of white port for Kaatje… Plus the basics like flour, salt, honey, sugar, spices, etc.
The shopping out of the way, we headed for the airport. The typical volunteer arrived looking as if they’d taken the brown acid and had been sleeping under a bridge for several weeks. Lola, on the other hand, sashayed through the arrivals gate dressed to the nines. She looked like she’d just stepped out of the pages of the Zara fall catalog. She was pushing a trolley, which she referred to as a wheelbarrow. (Hey, she was coming to Ireland to improve her English). The trolley contained three enormous suitcases.
“Uh, you do know we’re going to a farm, right?” Fionn said.
“Wait a second.” She unbuttoned her swanky trenchcoat to reveal a hot pink t-shirt with a drawing of a pig and the word OINK! written on it. I can’t say it was love at first sight, but it was pretty close.
We had a bonfire planned for that night, so on the way home we stopped to see “the brothers”. Dan and John were two bachelor brothers, well into their seventies, who lived in a rough old farmhouse near the village of Rusheen. They loved their horse, their dog, and their poitín.
John came out of the house in his tattered old overcoat, adjusting the sock that he wore on the mangled remains of his left hand. As a young man he flipped a tractor in the ditch coming home from the pub one night. His arm was trapped and he desperately tried to free himself. The doctors weren’t able to save his hand.
“Fionn, how’re things?”
“Sure, you know yourself, like.”
“Heard Colm’s got a new calf up there.” John leaned on the Land Rover to take advantage of the heat coming off the engine. “Make sure it gets plenty of Orofac 20.”
Dan came towards us from across the yard with a squinty, hesistant friend-or-foe? look on his face. Once a year Dan went into Macroom for a haircut. You didn’t have to be a professional barber, you just had to have a pair of scissors. From the stories I heard, nobody ever agreed to cut his hair a second time. He’d walk in, peel off his cap, and a greasy, matted, yellow mop would spill out much to the horror of anyone present. After the job was done, he’d place his cap back on and, as far as anybody could tell, didn’t take it off again until his next haircut.
“Heard Colm’s got a new calf up there.”
“That’s right, that’s right.”
“Make sure it gets plenty of Orofac 20 right from the start.”
Fionn cut straight to the chase. “You wouldn’t happen to have any poitín at the moment?”
Dan smiled and walked over to one of the sheds. When he came back he looked around suspiciously before taking the bottle out of his overcoat. This was quite comical as we were in the middle of nowhere and there was absolutely nobody around. I think Dan liked to fantasize about the police organizing a sting operation against him and his little distilled potato moonshine business. A little wishful thinking, something to occupy his mind.
We handed over six pounds, jumped back in the Rover, and gave Lola the bottle.
“Welcome to Ireland!”
“Were they speaking Gaelic?”
That night, after the beer was all gone, the bottle of poitín was passed around the bonfire several times. When Lola stood up to go back to the house she attempted to lean against a tree. She completely missed it. Fwump! She went down like a sack of potatoes. Six of us were down on our hands and knees in the middle of the forest searching for her glasses. She stumbled and went down two more times before she made it back to the house. Welcome to Ireland, indeed.
So that was the first night on the farm for Lola, the new volunteer that was going to drastically alter the course of our lives. In Fionn’s case, Lola taught him some Spanish, then organized for him to spend six months in Monfragüe Natural Park in Spain as a volunteer. In the mornings he helped out at a youth hostel; in the afternoons he worked on a project that monitored and studied the park’s vulture population.
Fionn finally got to see a bit of the world outside of Cork. It did wonders for him. At Colm’s farm he was always meeting people from all over the globe, and hearing about their travels and adventures. His cocky teenage response was, “Why would anybody ever want to leave Cork? Cork’s the best place on earth!” After six months in Spain, he returned to Ireland. Now he had his own exciting tales of foreign adventure. When Fionn tried to tell his old pals about his experiences he was greeted with the same old response, “Why would anybody ever want to leave Cork? Cork’s the best place on earth!”
The experience changed him. Profoundly. He ended up finishing high school, and look at the bollocks now – with his fancy PhD and a passport filled with exotic stamps.
In my case, well, Lola taught me a bit of Spanish, too. She also sent me to Spain, but not as a volunteer. She sent me in search of a ring and some respectable clothes, preferably something that wasn’t covered in shit.
In the end, Fionn discovered that, instead of “getting locked with the lads” every weekend in the pubs, there was going to be a different kind of lock in his future: Life Outside CorK. And I met my soul mate. So, yeah, deciding to go plant trees for a weekend was quite possibly the best decision I ever made.
the end (for now)