Mike Madison is the author of Blithe Tomato, from which these blog posts are excerpted. He is a farmer in California’s Sacramento Valley.


January 25, 2008

In August and part of September, when apples are in season, an apple grower is next to me at the market. About every 10th customer holds up an apple and says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” as if this profound observation had never been made before.

If I’m free at that moment, I tell the apple joke. I say, “Yes, and an apple every eight hours keeps three doctors away.” The customers regard me strangely. I seem to be the only one who finds it funny.

One Wednesday in late September, I pulled into my spot at the market and noticed that the apple vendor wasn’t there. Apple season was over. In her place, a woman was setting up a display of beautiful dried fruit. There were the usual sorts of things — dried apricots and Mission figs and Thompson seedless raisins. But she also had dried white nectarines and yellow nectarines, and half a dozen varieties of peaches, and pears, and apples, and Calimyrna figs, and golden raisins.

I introduced myself and we shook hands. Her name was Marika, and she spoke with a strong accent that I didn’t recognize. “Where are you from?” I asked.

“Petaluma,” she said. I raised my eyebrows questioningly.

“The farm isn’t in Petaluma, though,” she went on. “It’s down in Tulare County. I actually haven’t ever been there myself. I just work for them, doing six farmers’ markets a week. They drop off the fruit at a storage place in Petaluma where I pick it up.”

At this point a customer interrupted me, and it was an hour later before we could resume our conversation. “So where are you from?” I asked.

“Petaluma,” she said.

“No, I mean, you speak with an accent. Where are you from before that?”

“Bulgaria,” she said. I had never met anyone from Bulgaria, and had only a hazy notion of what the place was all about.

“So how are things in Bulgaria?” I asked.

She held her hand palm down and toggled it back and forth in a universal gesture meaning “so-so.” “Fifty years under the communists were not so good,” she said. “Work is very hard to find. That’s why I’m here.” She paused. “On the other hand, here it is easy to find a job, but people are all stressed out by their work, and take it home with them, and go in on the weekend. At home, you do your job, and at five o’clock you’re done, and then you don’t think about it anymore and go lead your real life. I think that’s better. Americans are very strange about letting their jobs take over their lives.

“My parents have a little farm in a remote place, and so politics and the economy don’t faze them much,” she said. “But I wanted to get away, at least for a while.”

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“Would you go back there and work on their farm?” I asked.

“I might,” she said. “I’m going back this winter for a visit. I’ll see how things are.”

A while later there was again a break in commerce, and we found ourselves idle for a moment, and I asked her, “So are people in Bulgaria happy?” Even as I said it, I realized it was a foolish question, but she didn’t brush it off.

After a minute she said, “The people who have a talent for happiness are happy, and the rest . . .” She turned her palms upward and shrugged.

I said, “Just like here.”

She said, “Like everywhere.”

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