I returned home to Minnesota last week and haven’t had much time to write in the interim, what with packing in as many thank-yous and goodbyes and last-chance experiences as I could before leaving Georgia, and now soaking up the comforts of home and family while getting ready for Christmas and an imminent move back to DC. I’m watching the snow fall in true winter-wonderland style as I write this, and I’ve got chicken stock simmering on the stove for a warming dinner tonight. How far this world feels, in some ways, from the one I just left.
Daily temperatures this month in Batumi hovered above 70 degrees F–abnormally warm, even for this subtropical region. They say 2010 is on track to be the warmest year ever recorded globally. That could spell bad news for polar bears, island nations, and life on Earth as we know it, but it’s great for a tangerine-picking party, which was one of the highlights of my last weeks in Georgia.
Citrus fruits stretch like a necklace of juicy beads along Georgia’s Black Sea coast in November and December. Most families tend their own groves in nearby villages, and rural schools shut down for anywhere from two days to a week during the tangerine harvest. My host family keeps tangerine, orange, and lemon trees on a hillside overlooking Batumi, just behind the home where my host father and his ten siblings grew up. They don’t sell their produce, so they can pick it at their leisure. A team of us assembled one day in early December to bring in the fruit.
Assorted relatives were awaiting us outside on the porch when we arrived. After a short welcome featuring Turkish coffee and–what else?–tangerines, my host sisters Diana and Teona, their husbands Irakli and Zauri, host brother Dato, Teona’s four-year-old son (also Dato), and my friend Anna and I grabbed buckets and clippers and fanned out across the hillside. Each tree holds several pounds worth of fruit, most of which can be pulled off easily by hand. The grade was steep and holding my balance while picking wasn’t always easy. I sent an avalanche of tangerines rolling down the mountain from time to time when I had to grab a branch to steady myself. Though my fingers were dark with dirt before long, I couldn’t help but pull the peel from one of the firm, tart fruits and pop its wedges onto my tongue now and again.
After two hours of picking, we turned over a few crates in a small clearing between trees and enjoyed a satisfying snack of kiln-baked bread, salty cheese, tangerines, and beer. Big Dato spun Little Dato in death-defying circles above his head and looked happier than I’ve ever seen him. Buckets overflowing with fruit soaked up the afternoon sun. An hour or so of picking after lunch finished the job: Teona estimated the harvest at one and a half tons of citrus. No wonder my host father tried to send me back to America with a five-kilo bag of tangerines! I wish I could be there to see what will become of all that luscious fruit. I’m tempted to whip up a batch of lemon curd just thinking about it.