Summertime meant to me the nicest part of the year, except for some bitter taste I got with a task I am going to share here. Associated with the longest school break, summer was the time of doing what I wanted, most of the time. “Most of the time” because my childhood’s summers also had their downsides.
Summer always started with the closing ceremony of the school year, which very often fell right on St. Peter’s Day. That was another reason to look forward to enjoying summertime!
The bitter taste actually came while carrying out the task of growing and maintaining tobacco plants. Why that? During the collective farming period, in the years of communism, each family member of the local collective farm had the possibility of using a 15 are piece of land for growing vegetables next to the house (An are means 100 square metres, so that piece of land was about 1500 square metres: Let’s imagine a square of about 38 m x 38 m).
In theory the collective farming meant a common ownership of resources and results or benefits. In reality everyone owned everything and nothing. A family who committed to take that piece of land for personal use needed to provide something in return, a sort of “paying back” for the favour of growing vegetables.
The “paying back” job was to cultivate and deliver the full tobacco production growing on a similar piece of land, somewhere outside the village. It was common practice in our village to have children in charge of both jobs. The nearby piece of land with vegetables was always a sort of pleasant work for us. Watering and doing the maintenance work during the day was enjoyable as we witnessed the entire life cycle of the vegetables from the fragile starter plants stage in early spring to late autumn when they simply died. It was somehow rewarding seeing that what we worked for ends up on our table.
The work to set up and maintain the tobacco field required a lot of time, efforts and … commitment. We got starter plants early in spring. We planted the tobacco plants in rows at a regular distance by making a hole in the ground with a sort of stick where we placed each small plant in a hole. We needed to keep some room around each plant to allow enough growing space.
Next, we needed to water the plants regularly if no rains would have done the job meanwhile. As there were no watering systems around, we used to carry water with our hands from long distances. I felt blessed each time when the rain did our job and saved our time and efforts.
The plants matured in about five-six months. Tobacco plants were harvested manually by hand in my region. Harvesting was in five-six stages and it meant to collect the mature leaves starting from the ground level. The remaining leaves were collected once they matured, little by little. We packed the leaves in some huge burlap sacks and we were waiting on the roadside for a carriage of a villager, who might pass by and could give us a lift to our place.
The most annoying part of the job was to get up very early, at about 3 o’clock in the morning to be able to arrive at the tobacco field at about 5 o’clock. The work should have been done early in the morning to avoid getting the sunlight above us. Another unpleasant aspect was the dark gum, which covered our hands while removing the leaves. We were able to get rid of it by washing our hands with a strong soap, several times, after completing the job by midday.
As soon as we arrived home, we placed the sacks somewhere in a shadowed place to again avoid the sunlight. We immediately started to put leave by leave on a 2-meter strong string and pushed them on the string with a huge needle. As soon as we finished with the job of distributing all the leaves on strings, we hung them outside, but not in a sunny place since this could again damage the leaves quality.
I remember we experienced so many funny moments. The summer showers came almost each afternoon and we could not leave the tobacco strings in the rain, otherwise their quality would suffer. When a shower was closer to our place, the village children were running and running from all corners to shelter the strings somewhere, in a safe place. As soon as the rain was gone, we needed to place the strings back. In between we used to enjoy some breaks and play games. While playing all of us had a sort of natural reflex to watch the sky closely and monitor any cloud move to be able to alarm everyone on any potential “rain” threat.
After drying the tobacco strings, the next job was to remove the dried leaves and put them in small piles to bind and place them in the attic to be ready for delivery somewhere before Christmas.
Removing the mature leaves was a job to be repeated five or six times. And the funny moments were also part of the daily rituals, when all of us were running to shelter the tobacco strings. We tried to be faster than the rain. This type of race to fight the nature speed was somehow unfair. At the end we always had some strings touched by the rain and wind.
Our parents kept encouraging us to do the job properly. In return they promised us different things, somewhere in winter, when the payment followed the delivery work. I often talked to my mother about my wish list and she promised me to do all her best to buy something but not everything I wanted.
The delivery day was always a long quarrelling dispute between the villagers delivering the tobacco and the guy who was in charge of the job. He always underestimated the quality and therefore the authorities would have paid less for something, which had a higher value. The payment day was the most disappointing moment, when seeing how our work and efforts were simply ignored. We were four children working from early spring to late autumn for almost nothing. Of course we were discouraged but our mother kept telling us that the most important was to work the additional piece of land to get the regular vegetables on our table.
I grew up, left the village and came back in the summers from time to time. The tobacco string were part of the landscape and that brought me back in time and made me remember so many summers full of hopes ending right before Christmas in a huge disappointment.
That was the time when I figured out that life does not only mean a land flowing with milk and honey, but many unpleasant and ugly things. The story with the tobacco leaves job was a good exercise of dreaming and making wish lists to keep me motivated to carry on. What I also learned was that one should be able to cope with any kind of difficult and unpleasant tasks. Many years later, as adults, we were recalling those moments of our childhood and shared funny stories with our parents. While sharing those moments we still felt the bitter taste of those summers with the rain threat, the tobacco smell and our hands full of dark gum.
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