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

Thursday

pomegranates

I have moved to Thursday. When the taxi was going to the town I was going to, and was going to Thursday, I thought nothing of it. Then, on the first Thursday I was in my new flat, my landlady said that the landlord had gone to Thursday. Right. Then I heard my lovely new Moroccan friend here tell some people that no, I didn’t live in the city anymore, I’d rented a place here in Thusday. So, the case is settled, I live in Thursday.

What I had been told that helped me make sense of this was that in each of the towns there is a big market one day of the week, and in this town, that day of the week is Thursday. So although I didn’t realise I was moving to Thursday when I moved here, because the town has a proper name too, I was able to work out (and I’ve checked this with people) that the town is known as Thursday because the market is on Thursday. Needless to say that the market is a big deal.

So if you are outside of Thursday and you go to Thursday that means that you are going to my town. If you are in my town and you say you’re going to Thursday that means you’re going to the market. Everyone goes to the market. So everything seems to revolve around Thursdays, and the market. It’s the day that people get off work (if they work in agriculture which most people do), it’s the day that they buy their food for the rest of the week. I should say we. It’s the day we buy our food, because I live in Thursday now.

Food isn’t the only thing at the market, but I think it is the main event. You have to go through the clothes and the stationary and the pots and pans to get to the food and everyone is headed for the food. Let’s take fruit for example. At the moment you can get apples and bananas (grown in greenhouses too nearby), the last of the grapes, the odd melon, and oranges and pomegranates. The oranges are small and green so I would have thought they were limes if I hadn’t eaten one the other day. Very nice. My taste-buds feared the acid of a lime but got the sweetness of a small orange. Not even the bland taste of a nectarine. Orange it was called and orange it was.

What else do we need to know about Thursdays? Well, there is no water. I think this is quite an important detail. On my second day here last week I mentioned that the water had been off for several hours and my landlady said (you guessed it), “yes, that’s because it’s Thursday”. Whenever too many people are trying to use the water at once it cuts off, but on Thursdays it seems everyone higher up the water-chain is using the water because it doesn’t come back until about 10pm.

Things have changed now I’ve moved to Thursday. I am now the only foreigner in town and so getting extra special care and attention, in both good and annoying ways.  Although I haven’t changed, the Morocco around me has, and that’s changed me in it. While the me in Morocco in Rabat was comfortable walking around with a modest pony-tail, and covering my hair would have made me feel like a fraud, the me here fits in a bit better with the pony-tail under a scarf. There doesn’t seem to be anything fraudulent about it. Apparently the baby downstairs was afraid of my hair. So covering it doesn’t feel like wearing a cross if you’re not a Christian any more. It feels more like taking your shoes off in someone’s house when that’s what they do. Things have shifted a little and I need to fit in a bit more here in order to be comfortable, and for others to be comfortable with me.

What was that I heard someone in some seminar say? Meaning is subjective. Maybe that’s the research moral I’m dragging out of this…. What does Thursday mean? Well it looks like it depends where you are, doesn’t it? And the headscarf? Well, right now for me it means I get a few less cat-calls and the baby downstairs looks slightly less frightened.