One day I stopped, looked around me, and with 19 year old eyes, could only see people sitting behind desks waiting for their pensions. I panicked. Surely there had to be more to life than this. Luckily for me there was.
My boss was understanding, and knowledgeable – and from behind a large oak desk in an executive suite in central London informed a rather shy young man about a volunteer movement, an ideal, and a different way of life. To me it sounded perfect – an opportunity to escape the humdrum of every day life, to experience new things, new ways, new horizons.
With his assurance that I could have my job back in a years time I headed off, case packed, stomach full of excitement – a head full of warnings from those who knew me vaguely gnawing at my brain.
And suddenly I was here, sunburnt face, sun bleached hair, (long), nervous tummy – jet lagged legs climbing concrete stairs in anticipation of what might just lie ahead.
The building looked new. Two story, white, rooms to the left of the corridor, a shower at one end, a class room on the ground floor, and a place to collect work clothes, cigarettes, chocolate and pocket money. Over night I had become a kibbutznik, a volunteer farmer- the great outdoors beckoning. How exciting!
When you are still a growing young man food is very important, and the dining room didn’t disappoint. So much to choose from, so little time. But I did my best in the 15 or so minutes I had to eat Porridge, bread, fruit and yoghurt- drink coffee, tea, and ice water – all consumed with an insatiable appetite. ‘Come, we are waiting’. And so I was forced to stop, still chewing as I followed a swarthy man, muscles bulging from a dark blue work shirt, down dining room steps to the awaiting canvass topped flat bed truck.
‘My Sweet Lord’ cackled from a speaker hanging loosely from inside the drivers cab as we glanced at each other with dazed, nervous eyes – bodies dressed in inappropriate clothing, bobbing up and down on a dirt track journey to an unknown place of work- the already hot day heating up to boiling point as we arrived in the fields beneath The Gilboa Mountains – their fat mounds bulging into impossibly blue sky as we sank further and further into the shade of the tree dense Jezreel valley.
Grapefruits, big fat fruit eventually stamped with the words ‘Jaffa’ – once we had filled a very large chest with them that is – hung low from trees struggling to bear their weight.
And so we were handed the tools necessary to relieve them of their burden, instructed by our leader in how to clip the fruit at their stalks, never to pull them free, and then on how to place these lush juicy spheres into the wooden chests provided without bruising them.
We picked in silence, our minder keeping a close eye on surrounding mountain slopes with a chunky pair of industrial binoculars meanwhile. Occasionally he would announce that we were being watched, his observations turning our heads to try to see what he had seen. But did we care? Of course not. We were young, immortal, on a great big adventure – our pioneering enthusiasm only waning when city limbs flagged and homesick stomachs rumbled.
Back at the dining room we tossed bare chicken bones into stainless steel pots soon filled to overflowing, gulped ice water, placed dishes onto trays on a conveyor belt trundling off into the distance before we ourselves trundled back up the path to our Ulpan.
Friendships began to form, language proving not to be a barrier in our enthusiasm to learn about each others cultures – why we were here- who we liked and didn’t like on the Kibbutz. Some made us welcome we agreed, even became our friends, others looked down on us. And some even shouted at us in a language we hadn’t learnt yet.
But try we did, aided and abetted by a large busty teacher, a woman bursting with enthusiasm and given easily to laughing – especially at our attempts to pronounce impossibly sounding words. She paid no respect to personal space either, her proximity often causing me to blush. But in truth she only had eyes for Steve, a Canadian, a brutish hunk with red neck charm and very little interest in learning. Was I jealous?
Trips were arranged, a bus organised, a desire to teach us about the country we had come to visit taking us to Massada, Kiryat Shmona, to a bunker beneath a kibbutz on the border with neighbouring Lebanon. Families would have to flee here when under attack we were informed, a reality causing me to shiver despite the red hot humid day.
But in truth we were the luckiest people on earth – working the land, bathing in sunshine, feasting on fresh organic produce long before it had become fashionable.
And then of course there were the huge water melons devoured whilst we chatted, the friendships, the getting to know people from completely different back grounds – the partially shaded Ulpan lawns an adopted meeting place where we could get together and set the world to right. And swat flies, and look upwards, drawn by the deafening sound of jets flying low above us. We’d always assumed that they were friendly, and continued with our banter untroubled as they disappeared over a hazed horizon.
Saying goodbye was hard, but after a year and a bit it was time for me to explore new horizons. And so I left, full of knowledge and different perspectives, healthy, strong, and with an overwhelming sense that I had been a part of something special.
I never did return to my job in London – ended up in the United States instead. But that is an entirely different story.
But what I would like to say now, that I didn’t get to say then to all those people who supported me, laughed and cried with me, is this: ‘Thank you for a wonderful experience and for all of your kindness and generosity. Good luck and every success with whatever you are engaged in now. Where ever you may be, I hope the memories bring you just as much joy as they still do me.
Happily remembered, never to be forgotten, long live the days of the pioneering spirit.
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