We all have a story to tell and these pickers are no different. Each of them traveled thousands of miles to be in New Zealand and somehow we all ended up picking apples at the same orchard.
Who are these pickers? What’s their story?
Valentina is 27 and grew up in Heerlen, Belgium with three brothers. Her mom is Indonesian and her dad is Italian, which means she is not only beautiful but can also speak multiple languages and cook incredible food. When she speaks English, she has an accent that sounds like soft, sweet honey. At first, I doubted that a person could ever unintentionally sound so sweet, but Valentina is nothing but authentic.
She studied Fashion Design and Art in Amsterdam and Canada. Her love of art is apparent in every aspect of her life. On the orchard, she lives in the better-than-it-looks-on-the-outside camper that was a bit shabby until she decorated it with paintings, drawings and photos.
She probably has more style than anyone I have ever met. Anytime I ask where she bought something, her answer is either “my grandmother’s closet” or “a second-hand shop,” which proves that she can see something in clothes, style and design that my brain cannot even fathom.
Damiano likes to point out that while he is also 27, he is two months younger than Valentina. He grew up in Paliano, Italy – just outside of Rome where cooking has always been an important part of his life. By watching his mom cook, he learned many of the basics at a young age. Since then, he has dazzled the taste buds of diners in Italy, Australia, London, Amsterdam and now all the pickers in a New Zealand orchard.
Damiano and Valentina met in London at a time when they were both perfectly happy being single. Their friendship turned into love after they let go of their stubbornness to be single and decided that life was just better together.
It seems like anytime they try to do something, it turns out better when they do it together. At our Mexican fiesta night on the orchard, they figured out how to make homemade churros that I still have dreams about. When they got tired of store-bought bread, they would take turns waking up early to bake fresh bread. Every. Single. Day.
When it came to picking apples, Valentina doesn’t always move quite as fast as Damiano would like and sometimes she talks so much that Damiano worries her hands might stop picking apples all together. An apple orchard is quite good at projecting sound and we would always laugh when we heard Damiano sweetly shouting (yes, sweetly shouting is possible) in his smooth Italian-English accent at Valentina to, “hurry your ass up” “you talking so much I’m going to burn your tongue.” Their sweet bickering kept us laughing and entertained all day long.
Alice is far wiser than you would expect from someone who has been on this planet for a mere 21 years. Maybe it has something to do with the way she looks at the world, through the lens of a camera and the mind of an artist.
She grew up in the north of France, with a world-renowned photographer as a father and a mother who made his fame possible with a sense urgency and organization that perfectly balanced the creative side of her husband.
Denis is tall, blonde 22 year-old who grew up in an orchard in France. Initially, he comes across as quiet and shy, but the façade melts away once you get to know him. One minute he will be standing quietly in the kitchen, and the next he will be dancing a little jig to make Alice smile. He knows and proudly sings all the songs from The Lion King as he picks apples and somehow defies all logic in the kitchen, mixing ingredients in ways you could never imagine, but somehow still want to eat.
Denis and Alice have an enviable relationship. They somehow survived sleeping on a single-person air mattress, in a single-person tent while working exhausting 50-hour weeks in the orchard for two months. Together, it seems the two of them can survive it all. It may have something to do with the secret handshake we witnessed one morning just before work started. That day, they went on to pick 10 bins of Jazz apples – a feat that has yet to be duplicated by any other team.
Before they began picking apples, they hitchhiked around New Zealand for a couple months. They caught rides with all sorts of interesting characters, none more interesting than the allusive Pineapple Man.
Jakob hails from Newhaus, Germany and at 20 is the youngest in the crew. As luck would have it, he met Damiano and Valentina at a strawberry farm and they have basically adopted him as their own.
Jakob isn’t a picker like the rest of us, but he does drive the tractor that shifts our bins down each long row of apples. Most days, we are jealous that he gets to sit and listen to music as we walk up ladders with a 40-pound bag of apples. But, on other days, when 24 pickers are shouting “Jakob, Jakob, Jakob” from all corners of the orchard, we don’t envy him in the least.
Chase and Jakob spent almost every evening fishing in the river that runs behind the orchard. Jakob seemed to have all the luck when it came to the fish and caught at least one lunker every week for all of us to enjoy. We would stuff the trout with herbs, breadcrumbs and lemon, wrap it in aluminum foil and grill it until it was falling off the bones.
Jakob is like the rest of us, still trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He is considering studying photography but is having a good time seeing the world at the moment.
Clemence grew up in Challans, France. She’s 21 and has a Marketing degree, but has chosen to travel for as long as possible. In 2014, she worked as an au pair for a Canadian family living in Australia. She went back to France for the blink of an eye, before deciding that she was going to pack her bags once more and head to New Zealand.
She met her apple-picking partner, Quentin, on a travel website in France. They met for the first time at the airport in Paris and have been traveling together ever since. They are now taking the ferry to the South Island where they will rent a motorcycle and see the countryside.
Quentin grew up on a vineyard in the south of France, in the town of Frontignan to be precise. He studied carpentry for a year and used his skills to build himself a holiday house near the beach. It’s his version of tiny house living and the place he loves most in the world. As he is traveling, he is thinking about what career to peruse when he gets back to France. He doesn’t want a job where he gets stuck in one routine.
Geiska! It seemed that Tony was always yelling Geiska’s name in the orchard. There were a couple of miscommunications between the two when we all started, and they quickly discovered that sometimes it’s easier to communicate with a simple thumbs up. Geiska is in charge of driving the forklift. He stacks our precious 850 pound bins of apples, day in and day out, onto semi trucks bound for the pack house. Each day, our group of pickers fills close to 100 bins, which meant Geiska is always busy.
He comes from the proud and famous Basque region in Spain. He grew up in Pamplona, which is famous for the annual running of the bulls.
Geiska’s English improved every day at the orchard, but we had plenty of laughs over mistaking the phrase “I’m selling my van” with “I’m selling my bum.”
We will miss our orchard family.
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