"Backs broke bending digging holes to plant the seeds
The owners ate the cane and the workers ate the weeds
Put wood in the stove and water in the cup
You worked so hard that you died standing up" - The Work Song lyrics (Kate & Anna McGarrigle)
The chorus from a seventies song plays in my head as I pick plump berries beneath a hot summer sun. At times the playlist goes centuries back, to chain gangs and sweet chariots, but it keeps returning to The Work Song as I make my way along a seemingly endless row of raspberries.
Less-traveled roads have brought me to this hill on Jabuka Mountain in southwest Serbia, helping with the month-long raspberry harvest on a friend’s family farm.
Travelers in the area will see these ribbons of green and brown on the hillsides and down in the valley floors, speckled with pale white flowers in the spring and vivid red fruits in the summer. The only foreigner, I’ve got one ear tuned to the background chatter, a soothing stream of Serbian, 9/10ths of which I don’t understand. As the day wears on, and the sun and temperature rise, silences descend, each of us picking at our pace, thinking our thoughts or singing our own work songs in our heads.
Preparing for our ten-hour days began months earlier with the cutting out and burning of the old canes and stringing up of the new. Then the waiting, with an eye always on the weather. This year, a late snowfall battered the young plants on the higher hills, devastating the household finances of those who’d counted their berries before they were picked and took out loans in anticipation of a good harvest.
The damage the snow did to ‘our’ crop was nothing in comparison: a lack of raspberries wasn’t something to worry about. Just the opposite. They were easy pickings, the ripest falling off the stalk and into the bucket, but the sheer mass of maline (raspberries) could damage the morale. At season’s height, you’ll pick 20-30 kilos from a single row.
We are a mixed bunch: a teenage brother and sister, joking, bickering, as siblings do, spending their summer vacation earning some spending money. Miloš is saving for something special but won’t tell us what. ‘It’s a secret’ he says. A widowed mother, a fast and furious worker, fills her trays at twice our speed.
Another picker rides his bicycle up from town each day: an hour to climb the nine kilometres and twelve minutes to fly back down. An older neighbour smokes and chatters as she picks, often provoking fits of laughter which she echoes in a croaky cackle.
The road we work next to is busy in summer with holidaymakers using it as a scenic route to the Montenegrin coast. Motorists regularly pull up, wanting to buy some berries. If we are nearby then nema problema, but if we are high on the hill everyone shouts ‘Ne, ne’, no one wanting to walk down and back up again.
I soon learn the word pauza. The boss calls it out and it repeats over the rows, ‘pauza, pauza’, a signal to stop work and head for some shade.
My friend’s father is a good boss with his pauzas (breaks), unlike ones who barely give their workers time to sit down before it’s back to the berries. We get paid the best local rate per kilo and, within reason, can work as hard or easy as we choose. Down the lower end of the scale, I am more than satisfied when the old hands judge me a ‘serious picker’.
Breakfast and lunch are picnics of pita, today’s bread and tinned tuna, home-grown tomatoes, raw onion, hard-boiled eggs liberally-salted, and washed down with yoghurt or ice-cold water straight from a spring. Apples, too, of course, Jabuka, the name of the mountain.
Pauzas are also a time for translated chats, to learn a bit about my colleagues and share some stories of my own. One day Jelena tells me where to buy cheap tobacco: ‘Go to the man outside the supermarket. Name is Bojan. You must ask. Tell him I sent you.’ I do, feeling a little like a minor player in a Cold War thriller on his first mission.
Temperatures are usually in the mid-30s and by day’s end we’re too tired to do much but compare numbers of trays picked and complain about our backs. Then it’s shower, eat and sleep before another seven o’clock start.
We might not be morning creatures but the rows are alive with them: spiders, grasshoppers, bees, bugs, even some baby birds. I’ve been keenly following the growth of four starlings, from scrawny, semi-naked hatchlings to chubby little chicks that barely fit in the nest.
A few days ago, leaning in for a close-up, I startled the starlings and they leapt out en-masse, hopping across the ground in different directions. I tried catching and putting them back but each time they’d just jump out again and soon they’d vanished into the summer undergrowth. I felt terrible all day, a killer, until Professor Google assured me they are fledglings and ready to leave. Perhaps not at that precise moment, but close enough.
Berries are big in Serbia, one of the planet’s prime producers. Most of the ‘red gold’ is snap frozen and shipped overseas, but the money stays home, going back into the hill communities where the mostly small-scale cultivation takes place. Keen eyes can spot pickers across the valley, a reminder we are just a few of the 200,000 workers employed each season.
During July, the region’s centres are semi ghost towns, half deserted during the day with the people out picking, scattered around the countryside. In the evenings, the bars and cafes are quieter than usual: the temperature is lovely and there’s a cool river to sit or walk beside, but most raspberry workers want to be in, not out, or not out for long. In a place with high unemployment and mostly low wages, a month’s hard work to earn some decent money is welcomed but not on little sleep or with a hangover.
Younger people, seeing the benefits of berries for their parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, are getting into the raspberry game. Either by leasing a bit of land or using family plots, they’ve planted young canes and are now waiting, probably impatiently, for their first harvest in two-year’s time.
Payday atones for everything. The long hours under the blazing sun are nothing now as we pick the last of the berries to take home. A long pauza, some reminiscing, and then Admir hands us our envelopes. They look thick. Miloš’ smile on peering inside his shows he easily earned enough for the ‘secret’, which his sister told us weeks ago was an iPhone. Everyone is happy on this last day of the season.
Singing The Work Song helped me through those long days on the rows but the lyrics weren’t true. We never ate weeds while the boss dined on cane. Admir was always refilling someone’s glass or cutting them another hunk of bread. It’s just a song, a good one. Like picking raspberries is just a job, but a good one for giving you that type of tiredness you feel you’ve earned, and at the end of it all, an envelope you know you have.