We take our fruit seriously where I come from. We've even built a 'Big Orange' as a tourist attraction (that's it on the left). Growing up, everyone around me seemed to be connected by fruit. You either grew it, packed it, picked it or distributed it. My father worked for a Co-operative that sold and marketed it, my mother for an engineering firm that made the machinery to label and pack it. If the growers weren't making any money, we all felt it. We had 'Orange Week' in Spring, I was so desperate to be an 'Orange Girl', handing out souvenirs to the visitors, yes, I had big dreams. Those who lived on fruit blocks were envied by the 'townies' for their week off school for Harvest Week, in December.
As a child I heard the frustration and concern in my father's voice as he talked about imported fruit with disdain. Turkish apricots, Californian oranges and raisins flooding our Aussie markets. They were the enemy. Never to be eaten. Never to be trusted. The day the Turkish apricots showed up on our local supermarket shelves was a dark day in our household.
My sister and I had cut apricots every summer for as long as I can remember, knife in hand, as fast as we could go (she was always better) cut, flick, place, cut, flick, place. It was often over 40 degrees, standing in a hot tin shed, cut, flick, place. Cut the apricot in half, flick the stone in the tin, place the apricots on the tray to dry.
When I made my parents particularly proud, and dropped out of University to come home and spend quality time with my boofhead footballer boyfriend, I went back to working with fruit, but this time it was full time.
My sister and I both worked in the factory together. We sorted moldy apricots (she was better at it), we packed oranges (she was faster), when you became really good, you made it off the line and in to quality control (she did, I didn't), you were given a different coloured apron to mark your seniority (she had one, I didn't).
It was mostly women in the factory. There were a few men to drive the forklifts and do the heavy lifting but the women were in the majority. Bev, Tina, Lorraine, Shirley..... I can see them all sitting around the laminated table in the lunch room. My sister and I in fits of giggles as one of the women told us about her husband coming home from the pub, wanting a bit more than a cuddle "it just goes on and on and on...bloody hell, hurry up will ya".
We'd play cassette tapes in our Walkmans (remember them) hoping the batteries wouldn't run flat. As we worked on the line, to make time go faster, we'd plan how we were going to spend the money we were about to win at Lotto. Naturally we'd all quit our jobs. "I've just planted my entire garden" someone would say during the break, "I've completely redecorated my dream house" another would say. I was young, I was just thinking about going out that night.
When we packed citrus for the export market there were rules. New Zealand couldn't have something called Mealy bug, it showed up with a black sooty appearance in the navel oranges. They were sorted carefully, pushed on to different conveyor belts. I realized I was starting to go a little batty when I found myself talking to the oranges, sometimes with concern "sorry sweetie, you can't go to New Zealand with that mark on your tummy", or with great excitement "Yay, look at you, you get to go to New Zealand!"
Consequently, I'm one of those people you see at the supermarket studying the fruit and vegetables for just a little bit too long. In our travels, each country, every city, has meant a trip to the markets to decipher and discover where everything is coming from.
Our time in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur provided a lot of warm fuzzies for a girl from Australia, familiar labels and boxes to be found everywhere. This definitely wasn't the case in Libya. Arriving in August in the height of summer, I went back in time to a world where all produce was seasonal and it was slim pickings. As I stood at a vegetable stand on the side of the road (no Carrefour, Safeway or Coles in Tripoli) the carrots were the size of my little finger, they were too small to peel.
When we finally found a house I learnt the rituals of the "vegetable man". A few times a week he'd drive past my house with a truck full of seasonal supplies. The women would come out of their houses and with a mixture of broken english and sign language, they would explain to me what I should and shouldn't buy. They'd scold him when he tried to charge me too much or sell me something old or unripe. G and I were the healthiest we'd ever been. A world of seasonal vegetables and no processed food. There were no happy meals, no home delivery. Heaven.
In North America, I stood perplexed at how far the fruit and vegetables had traveled. In the land of "Cheese Wizz" no one questioned why strawberries and cherries appeared in the height of winter. I think it may be similar in Australia these days.
Here in Qatar, I marvel at my desert options. Often the Little Travelers will go with their father to the markets on the weekend, but at the supermarket, they become my little helpers. Yesterday I asked number 3 to find some carrots, "do you want Indian, Chinese or Australian? he asked. I asked him which ones looked yummier and he began singing Waltzing Matilda. When it comes to mandarins, our choices are Argentina, Lebanon, Turkey or Pakistan, all different colours, sizes and prices. The oranges are Spanish and Egyptian, the avocado's are from Saudi and Kenya.
I have a feeling the person who packed the mandarins in Turkey, may be working under very different conditions and circumstances to the factory worker in Australia. Does the union representative visit? Have they set up their enterprise bargaining agreement? How about Occupational Health and Safety?
Is there a woman in Turkey right now, standing at a conveyor belt, chatting away to herself....."you can go to Qatar, sorry Sweetie, you can't".