Flowerland

Tulips in window

Shall we have a happy story, or a miserable one? Happy, I hear you cry!!

OK, well my work is about people who work with nature, and how that is organised. The people involved are often those who have moved to work, or migrants. The nature I’m talking about usually becomes some form of food. But not in this case, because I am in Holland: land of flowers.

Although flowers are not food, they fall bang, smack in the middle of the narrower category of supply chain products that I’m getting nosy about: horticulture. That’s fruit, veg, medicinal plants and cut flowers, which like strawberries or tomatoes can be grown outside in the warm, or inside in the hothouse. The earliest seasonal work for horticultural workers in the UK for example, are in the daffodil fields of Cornwall. So although you can’t eat (most) flowers, the process of producing them is quite similar.

And so to our story. Here in Holland there are flowers everywhere. People buy flowers, give flowers, have flowers in their nicely furnished houses and in their quiet public spaces. Although I came to be on holiday, I’ve been doing a bit of work on the side. Like the opposite of going to a conference and taking an extra day to go to the beach, in my extra couple of days I had a few meetings. In one of these meetings I met Rashid.*

Rashid prepares flowers for export. He’s Moroccan, but also speaks English, French and Dutch as well as Arabic (classical and colloquial) and a version of Tamazight (Berber). So we were able to have a coffee and chat slowly, and in a mixture of those vocabularies (I’ll be honest, mostly in English). At some points the sugar sachet also had to be held upright and pretend to be a flower stalk as he explained to me how the flowers are potted, spread out, prepared, picked and plasticked for purchase.

So Rashid is one of the people who several decades ago, responded to a European short term need for ‘seasonal’ workers. He came on a three-month visa to pick grapes in France. That was in 1974. Since then the work has never dried up. Rashid came to Holland, which he said is ‘flowerland’. Thanks to an authorisation programme pretty soon after the move, Rashid was lucky, he said, and didn’t have to go through the sometimes decades-long process of applying for residency whilst existing on minimum, or lower than minimum wage.

This didn’t mean that he was living in luxury. For the first ten years of his time in Europe, Rashid lived in a room that the manager made him inside the ‘firm’. I’m not sure if that means a concrete room next to a greenhouse as I’ve seen elsewhere, or whether it means a room in a factory. What’s clear is that it isn’t something that would give you much space or any autonomy whatsoever from your boss, or your beckoning flower crop.

This is a happy story though, because the ten years ended and Rashid not only was able to return home and get married but also to settle in Holland with his family, and even stay with the company for longer than the boss. He kept his place as flower-packer, picker and organiser when the owners changed their make-up. He was also a member of the union in the company that had been going since he started.

Last year Rashid celebrated his 40th year with the firm, he showed me a photo in which he was presented with an enormous bunch of flowers, by the flower firm.  He has just two years before retirement which he seemed happy with. Will someone replace him when he goes? Possibly someone on a ‘seasonal contract’, which is limited to just two months here. That seems strange when the flowers are grown all year. Or maybe he won’t be replaced at all. The company now has a machine which plants the flowers directly into the trays, replacing 8 people with two.

So will there be more happy stories like Rachid’s? Told with smiles and reminiscence? Flowers are cheap at the moment in the Netherlands. Exports are low, the cash-strapped British with a weak pound are one reason for that, they want less flower heads and more greenery. And they often prefer the flowers from further away (perhaps Kenyan or Peruvian roses) rather than the colourful but well-known tulips.

Perhaps we should turn back to food then to see where the jobs are then, after all we can’t stop eating. But I won’t tell you about the worker I met from a slaughterhouse for chicken, because he works 15 hours a day, and you wanted a happy story.

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*The name was changed

Sugar

sugar granules

Sugar, sweetness, rush. Smile for the beet and the cane, but too much sugar and you get just a black beam, with the sugar-lump-like teeth gone from the grin. Ah, teeth. Just a smile can reveal so much about social status, about struggles and tastes. There is that typical top and bottom post-braces smile of those with the private dental plan and the private education. Then there is the embarrassed closed-lip smile of the four-year-old in my fieldwork site who has already lost all her front teeth to a diet of sugary tea, bread and donuts.

It’s time to write about sugar. Not just because I am bouncing off the walls with the stuff in its caffeinated accompaniments of tea and coffee. Not just because sugar in the UK provides such a clear comparison to one of the key cultural ingredients of life in Morocco. The main reason that I have come to be thinking so much about sugar in recent days is that I have been taught about it: by my students.

I’m not sure that there is sufficient recognition in academia, or in education in general, that teachers learn from students. You might already be an expert in climate change but surely if you get 60 essays considering the same data from different perspectives, and filling in the gaps, you’re going to come away all the more confident that you know what you know.

And so I now know about sugar. Over thirty student reports into the connection between Bristol and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade have left me in no doubt that the wealth of this city (Bristol) is at least in part founded on the trade in sugar, and slavery. Bristol, with its access to the Atlantic via the Bristol Channel, its shipbuilding trade, and its merchant class, not to mention its burgeoning financial sector, was a hub for commerce of all kinds that linked back to the slave trade.

Bristol managed to find its corner in this ‘triangular trade’. We can hold Bristol ships and merchants to account for selling an estimate of 500,000 Africans into slavery on the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. That was 1/5th of all British slaves. This put Bristol in a perfect position to develop a sickly trade and a sweet tooth. The sugar processing, the rum, the glass-blowing for the rum bottles. These and many other industries were helped along by these ventures and the money that sloshed up the Avon with them.

I would point out, that like any good academic, I am not simply relying on the things that I have learned from my students, but on my first hand research. That’s right, I have been eating a lot of sugar and visiting a lot of buildings which were built on the shillings of the sugar merchants. It’s not hard in Bristol. I don’t have to even leave my own institution in order to find an example of that trade on which it was at least partially founded. The University doesn’t explain the providence of its founders’ wealth in its own narrative history though, so we’ll have to be more specific.

The Cabot Institute and the Wills Memorial Building are both named after philanthropists who were slavers first. Wills dealt in tobacco rather than sugar, but it’s not such a big difference. Too much sugar and you are sick. Too much rum, the same. Too much tobacco and your teeth are stained rather than rotten. Bristol is sick of the sugar. There is a petition at the moment to change the name of at least one of those magnets that brings people to Bristol year around: Colston Hall. The national media are even interested in the debate (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC).

Perhaps it could be re-named. Why not? Hally McHallFace could work well. If that doesn’t go down well with Bristolians, I think I know a group of students who could come up with some very good counter proposals. One pointed out that the Hall wasn’t even built and named until well over a hundred years after Colston had died. So, so much for editing history, this seems to be more about revising the bad revisionism that led to the Hall having this name in the first place.

With sugar on the brain it’s quite difficult to write a thesis. Teaching though, is every bit as much a part of the PhD process as is thesising. Too much and you get very tired. A little and not a lot of teaching, like sugar, is a welcome luxury that takes the bitterness and the loneliness out of the 80,000 words: to be written.

Lettuce con courgette spaghetti

courgette-spagetti-tescoAs it is valentine’s day, I will start with something very un-politically correct in the post-grad-researcher world. We are naturally expected to complain, over-heat like any over-used computer and more than anything, suffer for our doctorate. Well I defy you culture of suffering, this is fun. On a day of love and emotion, I admit it: I love my PhD.

Yes, OK, I am in the post-fieldwork honey-moon period, pre-thesis and post research proposal; no, I haven’t yet entered the hell of synchronising data charts with pages of contents, and no, there are no chapters ready to go in the book. Let’s be honest, there are pretty much no chapters at all. That, however, my PhD and more normal friends, is not the point. The point is, that even though hard days in this relationship are still to come, I am still interested.

This last month or so, everyone else is interested too. There has been a #lettucecrisis and a #courgettecrisis and questions are being asked. “Why are Tesco rationing lettuce?” people are asking. “What can I do without courgettes for my veggie no-calorie lasagne?” And (big jump here), “Why are we even eating all this salad in the middle of winter?” And so the nation makes the mental jump from Tesco over to the greenhouses of Southern Europe, perhaps even beyond.

Now, since I don’t yet feel ready to move on to serious data analysis, I thought I’d go and do just a last little spot of fieldwork: a research trip down Park Street, in Bristol’s city centre. Sites visited were: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. Clearly the limitation of the study is that Park Street is not representative of an average UK shopping street because it is big and really quite posh. Nevertheless, let’s see what we find.

A man in Tesco confirmed the national news, and what I have personally verified about summer vegetables really and truly depending on the situation in Southern Spain and not just on what we expect to see all day, every day, without exceptions. “Haven’t had lettuce for about six weeks” he said. Now lettuce is interesting to me, because it is counter-seasonal. That means that it is grown for us abroad at exactly the time when we can’t grow it here. So we can forget about seasons altogether and pretend that lettuce just is. Full stop. Thought stops there.

But no, during these last six weeks, the thoughts haven’t stopped there and in the UK people have been thinking about where their lettuce comes from and even briefly considering how the farmers of our food produced at the wrong time of year might be struggling to do that. But even more than that, there is discussion and help on how we might deal without lettuce in February. Personally I’d prefer porridge on the beach in August, but I’ve already admitted I like my PhD so we shouldn’t let my proven-radical opinions deter anyone from the crunch of an iceberg whilst shivering next to the radiator.

More interesting than lettuce however, to me and my counter-seasonal blinkered brain, are courgettes. Courgettes are vegetables that are not just counter-seasonal, but that are grown as part of the same supply chain as tomatoes. So in Spain from around the end of September until late June, and in Morocco from the beginning of November until the end of April, we get not just tomatoes but also courgettes, peppers, aubergines and more.

 

Tesco didn’t have any courgettes when I visited. Or did it? That depends on if we count the ‘courgette spaghetti’ that sat pre-prepared in a plastic box next to the loose veg. Sainsbury’s did have courgettes, for the quite considerably higher than normal price of £1.90 kilo, and also had the [ridiculous] spaghetti version too. Finally, Waitrose, rose above the spaghetti trend but also only offered the re-valued crop in semi-packaged form, this time in a nicely designed bag of three for the notable price of £2.59, or £5 a kilo.

The courgette spaghetti, or ‘courgetti’ is interesting – I can understand Tesco’s choice to prioritise its few courgettes for courgetti production because you get to sell it for a far higher price (£4 kilo) and perhaps just as importantly you can get away with absolutely no information about where the trapped and grated courgette comes from. So profit is accumulated in our humble convenience supermarkets on Park Street, and we don’t get any further forward in this radical process of thinking about where the courgette in the box is from, let alone who grew it.

Tomatoes will at some point get a blog of their own, but for the moment suffice to say that those I found on my little jaunt down Park Street were without a shadow of a doubt produced by firms and people that I encountered during my (proper) fieldwork in Morocco. The location confirms it, as do the codes on the packaging. We don’t know where the spaghetti courgette originates but I suspect it is from not so far away. On valentine’s day, I’m more than happy to think about this, and I’ll sacrifice the courgetti dinner for two.

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Proper Spanish Lunch

menu-del-diaThe proper Spanish lunch is no small or fast affair. It can’t be eaten with one hand, nor at your desk, and it isn’t accompanied by a cappuccino. The Proper Spanish Lunch is composed of two main courses, as much bread as you need, a glass of wine, and dessert. If you also need coffee, you can swap your dessert for one or pay the extra, but don’t assume it’ll come with chocolate sprinkles.

The Proper Spanish Lunch is a meal that symbolises an in-between space in my research, and, naturally, in my life. It is eaten with people who have helped me get from one place to another, and with whom I’ve enjoyed the time (moments and years) in between.

You don’t get anywhere without in-between spaces. If you go from a place you know to a place you absolutely don’t understand, you’re lost. But if you have a stepping stone, you can follow the familiar paths into the unknown space. That’s my route for weaving my way from understanding English and Spanish into French. It’s also the route I’ve used to reach Morocco: using what I understand about Spain to help me cross the Euro-African cultural divide. When you start from Spain, that distance is only 8 miles.

Lunch in Spain is quite literally called ‘la comida’ The Food. This is a very accurate description, because if you play the eating times game well, ‘la comida’ will be The Food of your day. Lunch is at about 2pm. For your first course (equal to the second in size) you have something like an enormous salad/lentils/soup, therefore meeting the RDA* for vitamins (hopefully). For your second course you have something of higher protein and prestige accompanied by even more vegetables, and even more bread. An example of this is the magnificent fish my friend effortlessly whipped up for us even just for a hungover Sunday lunch. Follow with dessert: either choose one of many different variations on the theme of ‘custard’, or alternatively a piece of fruit. Finally, coffee, to help you move again after The Food.

After Proper Spanish Lunch you are absolutely free until about 10pm because if you followed the instructions above, you won’t be hungry until then. Hence, if it’s a working day, far from being lazy, you can work until 6, 7 or 8pm, and then go out for a drink afterwards and then get home for 10pm to have dinner. Amazing. This only happens in the UK one day of the year, Christmas Day, when we indulge so much in the accompanying drinks we are good for nothing by the time it gets dark.

So what’s the relation with Morocco? Well this is where Northern Europe meets Northern Africa. Remove the alcohol and Proper Spanish Lunch looks less like Christmas Day in the UK and more like the salad or beans followed by Tagine in Morocco. More importantly, as in Morocco, time is made for eating in Spain. Someone has also made even more time: this is properly cooked food. I have yet to have a Proper Spanish Lunch with boil-in-the-bag rice, a pot noodle or boxed sandwiches.

Finally, the ‘in-between’ role of Spain, not only in my life, but also in my research, came into real relief this past week. It is extremely difficult for a Moroccan to get a UK visa, however, for some, it is not so difficult to get to Spain. Spain is part of the Schengen Area and so the close ties (linguistic, business, educational, family) mean that many Moroccans can get long term visas of several years to travel to countries like France and Spain with whom there have been very long term ties, and therefore the wider Schengen Area.

So although I had said goodbye to Morocco for the time-being following fieldwork, I was able to meet my Moroccan colleagues at a seminar last week in the very fitting, and in-between, Spanish context. So I’ve done a bad job of coming home from Morocco and staying put (the first week of term might have been easier without such opportunities to keep the doors open to research and maybe my sister should have confiscated my passport after all). Yet I can also see that Proper Spanish Lunches, and particularly this time with my Moroccan colleagues, are going to be absolutely key to keeping my research alive, and to keeping me going, perhaps until 10pm.

*Recommended Daily Allowance

Crisps

balsamic-vinegar

My food landscape has drastically changed. I have been back in the UK for 3 weeks and there are still things of the reverse food-culture-shock that grab my attention. OK, ‘shock’ is an over-dramatic word, but re-encountering food in the UK offers plenty to chew on. So the blog will continue into my brave post-fieldwork research world.

Both my mind and body are adjusting to the return from North Africa. I had become used to the feeling of being full from bread, and now even things like a stir-fry and rice seem to be lacking a broken round loaf spread about the table. Drinking water from the tap is still a luxury. I have a slight sense of doing something borderline wrong when drinking alcohol, like getting into a pub when you are still under-age, you’re fine, but secretly hope that a friend of your parents doesn’t walk in and catch you.

The biggest change though is that I’m not researching alone anymore. I am still alone on my PhD project because let’s face it that’s the nature of the beast, but I’m surrounded by others and their counterpart theses. Back in the office theories are being considered, data is being crunched, chapters compiled. It might not have the scents of mint tea and the spices of tagine, but this new research environment is by no means food-free.

We have snacks. At 10.55am there is a rustle of foil. There is the crunch of a crisp. We have lunch. At 1pm there is the twinkling of packets, catching the light in the common room as these little features of lunchtime in the UK formulate the third element of the corporate balance of a ‘meal deal’. We have drinks. At 5pm one is torn open, splayed across the table and shared in the pub. At the weekend I had friends over for dinner. Three of the big special packets arrive with the guests. The ones that you buy for other people, as a treat, to share, to mark your contribution to the feast and which bear the hallmarks of taste.

So I noticed crisps. Are they a reflection of our country on the run, no time for the kitchen, in love with corporate promises? Or are they bought as part of our desire to share ideas? We buy a packet in the pub, tear it open and invite everyone to keep their thoughts going with a few calories and some salt, the salt encouraging the flowing of more drinks and more thoughts. I’m really not sure, so I thought I’d call on the advantages of being back in the office and working in company. Who better to contribute to a post-fieldwork exploration of crisps than someone else just back from fieldwork?

My fellow PhD friend Ed who was nice enough to let me interview him on the abnormal topic of ‘crisps and fieldwork’ admitted to being a crisp fan. His favourite brand: Monster Munch. He’d been back for just four weeks, and so the details of his experience were still fresh. He went to Brazil, he enjoyed it. There was “samba on every street corner and the beer was cold”. What did he eat? I was curious. “Meat, rice and beans. Buffet food sold by weight” he hasn’t found anywhere here yet where food is sold by weight. “Crisps?” I asked? “Did you eat any crisps while you were on fieldwork?” “Yes”, he said. He told me they were in big bags with flavours like “Churrasco”, “Pacanha”, the usual suspect brands, but with adaptions to their flavours to suit the particularities of the Brazilian market. The same was true in Morocco, big bags with local flavours, sold on trains and at service stations. They didn’t make it much into Thursday though. So did Ed find crisps in the same places in Brazil as he does in the UK? “No”. The big bag wasn’t gutted in the pub by many hands all at once. Instead the beer was shared directly, one big bottle and lots of glasses. Crisps reduced to their rightful status, junk food; “comfort food”.

I’d point out here that I quite like crisps, there is something slightly exciting about buying a bag of cut up potato slices. A bag containing a whole potato wouldn’t quite be the same. You could try sprinkling it with some culturally appropriate flavours, but there is something about the work being done for you, the cutting, cooking and packaging, that seems to fit in well in the UK. I wonder how long the excitement will last. I asked Ed if he’d be going back to Brazil. He told me, “Yes, I’m sure I will, but I’m not sure when”. I agree.