This past Sunday, I rose early for autumn’s first chill dawn. I dressed and waited for my partner Anna’s call – she was hitchhiking in from her village. She rang from the cemetery. Though we had planned to meet at my place, her ride had dropped her early and unceremoniously. The walk to my director Olga’s house would be faster if Anna didn’t have to meet me.
I sighed, and trudged alone the 20 minutes to Olga’s home, where I joined the ladies and Olga’s parents for breakfast. We waited longer than we had planned for two neighbors, but we needed them – it’s wine season in Moldova!
Anna, Olga, an older woman (the “toothless grandma,” as she referred to herself with a chortle later that day) and I squeezed into the back seat of Olga’s father’s car. Her father drove us out west of Comrat, where his family’s fields lay.
It was my first time working with grapes and I had to learn how to pick. I wanted to start with my hands, though Olga’s father had given me a paring knife. I’d pinch bunches off from the stem or pull when resisted. But I soon realized there was a sweet spot for the tool-less picker – the grapes couldn’t be too ripe or too green if they were to fall into my hand. Worst case scenario, the grapes came away in my fingers and littered the ground. Such a waste. So I learned to maneuver the little knife methodically to sever the stem – and it turned out to be faster, too.
I paired off with my partner Anna for most of the morning. We chatted through the vines, and I learned that she was quite the connoisseur. She could identify grapes by taste alone although three of the four sorts we picked looked identical. When I asked why it seemed so intuitive for her, she explained that she had done this kind of work as a high school student – during school hours.
I asked Anna to tell me about her experiences, so we sat in our office the next day to chat. Like always, Anna was multi-tasking: she interviewed in English, eyes never budging from her computer screen as she edited a few pictures from that weekend.
Anna’s class used to go from school to pick in the fields. Usually, the students were from the 9th, 10th and 11th grades, but Anna recalled participating as a 7th grader. It was a little unusual, she said, and most likely not allowed, since the students “were not very prepared for physical labor.” But that time they only worked for a week, unlike the older students who would pick for three.
The teenagers were paid by the bucket, and Anna was the fastest. A woman, either a teacher or a school employee, would sit at the back of the tractor and watch. She counted how many buckets students unloaded. Anna couldn’t tell me where the school got permission to send the students to the field, and she didn’t remember them asking her mother. She speculated, “it was just based on your own physical ability. And your own initiative.” She thought the school would encourage the students to go, though, since “they had the agreement with this (sic) owner of the field.” But they were always paid, so Anna and other industrious students continued to attend.
And once – her first year picking – Anna flirted with good fortune. There were always other women who worked at the same time as the students. They were critical, and “would just scold [the students] sometimes, and they would ask [them] to do a more proper job.” But that year, Anna made a friend.
“There was a woman that helped me, and I remember one day I was walking with one [bucket], and she says… and she would just give me all her buckets. Like, so I would empty two buckets instead of one. So she just wanted me to make money. I was like, I can return you the money. I can give you your share. But she’s like, I’m going to be paid by the end of the day anyway, because no one will know how much I made, you know?… Because they worked on another system. They are paid per day, they are not paid per bucket or per kilogram. So she said, I’m going to be paid anyway, so you can just make some extra cash. And I remember, I made around two hundred buckets that day, so like, some people asked me… what happened to me that I went beast mode! Because it’s physically not possible to make this many.”
When I asked why Anna thought the woman had helped her, she laughed.
“I don’t know why… she didn’t know me. She just liked me. She said that I was a hardworking kid, and she says, ooh, I need such a daughter-in-law for my son! You know, like a hardworking girl!… Yeah, and you know, women here approve. Especially when they are working in the fields, so they like hardworking girls.”
But our little group of seven was not quite as professional, or as lucky, as Anna in her school days. As I emptied my buckets of grapes onto our plastic tarp (the tractor driver was having an issue with the wheel, so he rode off somewhere for half our picking time), I kept thinking I smelled goat. I mentioned this to Olga later as we bungled the last of the grapes, many of them sweating juice from the manhandling, from the tarp into the tractor’s trailer. She told me that her father is always fighting with the shepherds. They bring their sheep to the fields, and sometimes the hooved beasts end up trampling the grape vines. It’s stunning, the staying power of that rank sheep smell!
We finished our labor, and I wondered how much the fruit could possibly go for – we’d stored up a mountain. I asked Anna, and she responded that grapes generally sell to the local wineries for 3 lei per kilogram. Olga’s father had decided to send everything directly to a winery this year. He’s made wine in the past, as is common in many Moldovan households, but it’s such a hassle that the family decided to spare themselves the effort. It took two and a half hours for 7 people to pick the whole field – effort enough, and not a bad run for a 3-lei kilo.
Transcription of Interview with Anna Celak (interview conducted in English):
Haley: Okay Anna, tell me about grape picking at your school.
Anna: Okay. So um, they would take us to the field first of all, they had a bus. They would take us from the school and they would take us to the field.
Haley: Was it a school bus?
Anna: Yeah, it was like a bus, not school…. We don’t have a school bus here. It is just a special bus, which has been organized to take the kids from the school. And so we would start working, so there would be like a teacher or a special person who would sit somewhere behind the tractor and would, you know, once you empty the bucket, she would see and she would record. There was like a list of the students, and in front of the students, of course she had to know, “who is that?” But usually, if we saw that the person… like, this woman or teacher is new, like she doesn’t know us. So we would tell her our last name, and she would just finds us, and she would just put, like, a cross or something. They had like a certain system of, like, recording. I don’t know.
Haley: Was she always a teacher?
Anna: I mean, yeah. Most of the time she was a teacher, or sometimes it was just somebody of the school staff. And yeah. So usually, I also was – I don’t know about the others – but I also was counting myself, like, you know, so that in case, like, they didn’t see or didn’t hear. So at least I could correct her, you know. Yeah, but usually it was fine. Like I almost never had, like, a problem. So we usually, my countings would be the same as the teacher’s. You know.
So yeah, usually we would be there for two weeks, I think sometimes even was up to three.
Haley: It was every day?
Anna: Yeah, it was every day, because if you refused you would have to go to school. And because some students were sick, or like, you know, due to some health issues they wouldn’t go, so they have been attending school. So like, they have been…. For them, there was like lessons organized, so they wouldn’t stay just at home. Yeah, so at the end of this grape picking service, we would just return to school and after a while they would just pay us. But there was a year when they wouldn’t pay us, and they paid the next year when we returned after summer vacation. We got our payment one year later because the field owner got corrupted, so he couldn’t pay us, so we were a little frustrated about that. But eventually we got our money because the school demanded from him, so he had to find money to pay us.
Haley: How much money did they usually pay you?
Anna: I mean, it depends. It depends on the amount of work you did. For example, I was paid the most always because I worked, like, much more than the others.
Haley: Do you remember the price per bucket?
Anna: No. It wasn’t per bucket, it was per kilogram. So like the average bucket, it was like ten kilograms. So then they would just multiply ten kilograms on the amount of buckets you did a day. You know, so, it was, for example I could do up to 90 or 100. So they would just, it means that I would collect, like, 1000 kilograms or something like that. So it wasn’t bad. Yeah, it was also great motivation for most of the kids that wanted to have pocket money. I was one of those kids, obviously. And yeah, I mean, like, it was fun. We would get dirty by the day because that type of grape was extremely sweet and very sticky. Like, I wouldn’t wear gloves, you know, so like my hands and my fingers would get really sticky and dark sometimes. If the grape was dark, like, I wouldn’t be able to wash that off for days. And you know, it wasn’t the easiest job because it was the first weeks of September, so it still was quite hot here. So all day under the sun, and then sometimes no water… But we would work until 2, like, because, like, average people, like, when adults go to work they work until 5, but they have lunch break. But we didn’t have lunch break. But we would work until 2, so we would have normal day, as it was in school. Like at school we usually would go home at 2.
Haley: What time did you start in the morning?
Anna: Like 9. You know, we… they would pick us up at 8:30-ish, so we would just arrive at the field by 9.
Haley: What grade level did they start picking?
Anna: It usually started from 9th grade until 11th. I think, but yeah. Because I would go first, I would go, I think I went 3 years. I went when I was in, like, 9th, 10th and 11th. But actually, I think in the 7th grade I also went once. Yes, in the 7th grade they also took us once, but it was in another village. But I don’t think you are allowed to do that, because we were not very prepared for physical labor. But, I mean, like, we did that but I think just for a week.
Haley: Okay, so did they have to get permission from your parents or did they just take you?
Anna: They…. No, I don’t remember them to approach my mom and say, “hey.” No, they wouldn’t ask anything. I think it was just based on your own physical ability. And your own initiative, like, if you want to go, just go. But usually it was not, like, a volunteering stuff. Like, they would kind of try to encourage us to go, because, you know, they had the agreement with this owner of the field. But I mean like, of course I was motivated after first year to go the second because I got some money, which I was satisfied with, so I also was motivated to go next year as well. But when I didn’t get paid on time I was thinking whether I would go next time, but I went because it was another person, so they paid us right away.
Haley: Do you remember, was there ever anything interesting or unusual that happened? Like, do you remember any stories?
Anna: I don’t remember, because almost ten years passed since then, so… Ah, I mean, like, maybe it was just me, like, nothing particularly interesting didn’t happen, like, I was trying to follow the rules of safety because it was very important because we would work next to the tractor all the time. So it was very important not to stand in front of the tractor, not to stand behind so that, because in case it goes behind somehow, like, you know, just pull back, so you could also remain under the wheels. So it was, like, they would instruct us a little before we would go. Because it was – I mean, we were underage kids. So they also, we were like, under their responsibility. But yeah, it was fine. I mean, there were, like, stories. Women would come and work with us, and they would… they wouldn’t like how we picked the grapes. They would just scold us sometimes, and they would ask us to do a more proper job.
But there was a woman that helped me, and I remember one day I was walking with one [bucket], and she says… and she would just give me all her buckets. Like, so I would empty two buckets instead of one. So I was, so she just wanted me to make money. I was like, I can return you the money. Like, I can give you your share. But she’s like, I’m going to be paid by the end of the day anyway, because, like, no one will know how much I made, you know?
Haley: Oh, so she helped you with the buckets! She gave you her buckets so the woman would count the extra kilos…
Anna: Yeah, it was just one day. Because I didn’t know whether, I mean like… what if someone notices or just learns about that? And she says, it’s okay. I was, like, I mean, how… she says like, I’m going to be paid by the end of the day, so like, no one will know how much I gathered. Because here, because they worked on another system. They are paid per day, they are not paid per bucket or per kilogram. So she said, like, I’m going to be paid any way, so you can just make some extra cash. And I remember, I made around two hundred buckets that day, so like, some people asked me, like, what’s, what happened to me that I went beast mode! Because it’s physically not possible to make this many.
Haley: Do you know why…?
Anna: I don’t know why she, she didn’t know me. She just liked me. She said that I was a hardworking kid, and she says, ooh, I need such a daughter-in-law for my son! You know, like a hardworking girl! Oh my God, it was like… it just, ah, yeah. It was when I was in the 7th grade, I remember. Yeah, and like, you know, women here approve. Especially when they are working in the fields, so they like hardworking girls.