(or how I bloomed in the midst of the bulbs)
I was 11 years old when I started my first – and only for about the next 5 years – summer job. Growing up in a country that is famous for its flowers, I was right in the middle of it 🌷
Some of you know I grew up in between the famous flower fields in The Netherlands, right at the – west – top of this small dab of a land. If you’ve ever saw those pictures of fields stretched out with the most colorful tulips, you know what I’m talking about. There were other flowers of course, but the tulip is as much a symbol for Holland as are the wooden shoes – never wore those exact ones, though I did others – and the windmills. The latter strewn about the country and definitely a part of the scenery where I was living.
Other common flowers littering the fields would be, hyacinths, crocuses and daffodils. The scent I can still remember and the colors were overwhelmingly beautiful this time of year. Spring time could be magnificent, even if the weather wasn’t cooperative most of the times. For someone who’s kind of obsessed with colors, there hardly could have been a better place to live 🌈 Driving to the next town to go shopping was a joy, what with all the lovely views.
It took me years to actually understand the basics of how the flower business sort of worked and I was still very young when my brothers started their first summer jobs there. At that time, age was not looked upon very strict, as long as you did your job and did it right. They started with topping the flowers in the fields, in full bloom – actually taking off the flower from the stem – which was quite a tough job as far as I could tell. This was done to actually make the bulb grow bigger. This is now mostly done by a machine. However, my summer job only came into the picture when they started another one: ‘peeling’ flower bulbs.
The topped daffodils were saved and stringed to long, very long, garlands, which were used later: At the beginning of May, around my Mom’s birthday, the village was decorated during a week long of ‘flower days’ – for a lack of a better translation. Our street used to participate in that and stringing those flowers together was a total drag, though the end result was awfully pretty. The hyacinths were also saved, the petals plucked and used to make the loveliest mosaics. We used to either take a walk or a ride to look at them. This was an annual contest and some of them were freaking amazing 🏆
Now I’m speaking in past tense, but this is still done to this day, although I know a lot has changed in the process of how it’s done. The peeling was done inside and I will try to describe what it looked like and how it was done back then.
11 years old and eager to earn some money, which I could spend during my summer holidays preferably the ones in Spain. It was The Best Thing: after having worked real hard a couple of weeks – mostly 4 – the reward would be bringing my own money to a land where I could spend it all on things that were way cheaper and more exclusive, than the things I would find in my hometown 🇪🇸 Not that I didn’t spend some there, during those years, I already told you about some of my most prized possessions: a fancy red bike and a freaking boombox. I enjoyed both so much, because I knew all too well what it had cost me physically. The reward!
With a multitude of farmers who were into growing flower bulbs around us, there was enough work for all the young (and older) people in the region. I guess it is still a much wanted summer job, since it will only last so long and will make sure you end up with some serious money – if that’s still the case 😅 By the time I started, my brothers had found a farmer that was really friendly and fair to their workers, because yeah, that clearly wasn’t always the case. They had already spent a couple of summers there, so it felt pretty safe for me to go and ask if I could have a job too.
Now I’m fairly sure I will not relate my memories in chronological order, but you’ll get the idea. Inside a big hall, there were large wooden crates filled with flower bulbs – a volume of 1 cubic meter – spread around. On each side was a ‘table’ attached, where 2 people could be seated and work. The crate had slides, opening to both sides and letting the bulbs fall on the table. And that’s when the work started: picking up bulb for bulb and peeling them, gathering the peeled ones in another, smaller crate, which were placed on pallet. This pallet would carry 8 crates at the most, before they were moved to another hall, to keep the bulbs cooled and prepare them for shipping.
It’s definitely done a bit differently today, but at that time it was a pretty physical job, especially for an 11 year old sprite of a girl 😂 Not the peeling itself, which was done seated – or you could stand if you wanted to – but moving the crates and stuff, luckily there were always the farmers sons or others, to help out with the lifting of the crates.
At the beginning, the farmers wife, a sweet but strict lady who basically ruled the hall and all the peelers, would check if I did everything correctly and as soon as she was satisfied with my work, I was left on my own. See, peeling doesn’t sound too difficult, but you could obviously damage the bulbs and when done repeatedly, that would make them lose a lot of money. In short: you had to remove the little stalk and attached roots, which was considered garbage, as well as the newly growing little bulbs, which were added to the neatly peeled ones. They would be separated later by size and the small ones were obviously to be planted again.
It took a little time to get the hang of it, so I was really slow when I began. Time was of the essence, seeing I was paid per crate, but there wasn’t much I could do, but go on and gain speed while getting more experienced. My brothers could easily do 15-20 crates per day and there were always a couple of real show-offs, who could do 20+ crates per day. Ka-Ching! 💰 It also depended on the sort of bulb we had to peel, since they obviously differ in size. It was generally known, the smaller bulbs would pay better, since it would take more time to fill up a crate. Another important detail was how dry the bulbs were, the dryer the bulbs, the easier to peel.
Though I did peel crocuses sometimes – the start of the season – I mainly worked with tulips, which always contained the largest part of the farmers fields. And yes, these also come in different sizes, but even the smaller ones, aren’t as small as crocuses. I also peeled hyacinths once, which are a real pain, since chances of getting itchy all over are real and the smell can be a tad too much. Basically, peeling bulbs will make you feel like one: the smell and the dust – sand – creeps into your clothes and skin and your nose will not be able to smell anything else for hours. At the end of the weekend, you might have just lost it, only to dive into it again starting the new week. But hey… No Pain, No Gain.
Wearing protection for your hands was imperative, I don’t think I ever saw anyone working without any. The more experienced people would cleverly wrap their fingers with a specific brand of Band-Aids. I tried that a couple of times, but for me that just wouldn’t do and not only that, the time spent on getting that right and the mess of it in the end was not my cup of tea. They most often didn’t even last the whole day, which meant people had to re-do it after their lunch break. Just No. Rubber gloves were taking care of everything just fine 🧤 That was, until holes appeared, first in one finger, slowly spreading to the rest, which would still leave my fingers wet, cold, well they were always cold, and very dirty – the bulbs were hardly ever dry, coming straight from the land. It was an especially rude awakening, when you got your hands on a bad – read; rotting – bulb. Just had to always make sure there was a spare pair in my bag.
Speed and I never went well in one sentence, and I think getting that very first crate filled was nothing short of a victory, it took foreeeeever. If I remember correctly, the first days I managed to get 2 crates done and then I slowly got to 4-5 crates a day, half a crate was accepted. I maintained this for a long time, which in my opinion wasn’t all that bad. It still meant I was getting about 70 euro’s at the end of the week, a lot of money for a kid those days lol. And a lot of money at the end of the season!
Once I got used to it, the work was boring as heck, but it definitely helped if I had a nice enough ‘neighbor’ sitting next to me. Must have been weird for most people, since they were all older than I was. A nice neighbor could be helpful in more ways than one, it also spurred me on to up my game and become faster. Nothing more frustrating, than seeing someone next to you peel away 3 times more crates in the same amount of time 😤 I was in awe when people got several pallets driven out even before the morning was done.
What also helped A Lot: the radio was playing the whole day! Me and Music whaha. There wasn’t much choice back then, but luckily the farmer had it tuned on the most popular station, playing top 40 songs throughout the day. It was particularly funny, when peeps started to sing along out loud, when one or other hit was on. We did everything to make the job more interesting than it actually was.
Through the years I got faster of course, earning more money every summer, which made it possible to buy some stuff I really wanted and was not getting from my parents. At some point, we almost made it a family business, since more family members found this an easy way to earn some extra bucks to enjoy the holidays afterwards. One year, one of my aunts joined the club and we used to cycle to our job together. I’d just gotten her old bike – yes this was way before I bought the fancy red one – a pretty purple one, with a little basket attached at the front.
It took about 15 minutes to get there and we had to cycle alongside a ditch with a fairly steep slope, on a pretty busy road. When some crazy driver passed us way too close and started honking at us too, we got startled, which lead to our handlebars getting stuck in each other – thank you nice basket! 🤐 – and me heading straight down that slope. I barely managed to keep myself from diving head first in that lovely ditch, but it was cloooose. After that, we got to work in one piece, but with shaking limbs.
It was always nice to see some familiar faces return every year and by then most of them knew who I was too. The end of the season/work, was always celebrated with a treat by the farmers wife: she would go to one of the best bakers in a village nearby, to buy the most wonderful, very Dutch, cakes. They were still warm when she was handing them out to us. And as if it was devised by a higher power, the end of the season also meant the annual fair that would descend upon our village. Such a great way to spend all your hard earned money in a couple of days too haha. Apart form the fair, nothing really spectacular ever happened there, so yeah…
Our kids had a go at it too, a couple of years ago, but they didn’t have to fill crates anymore. Standing along sort of an assembly line, they were paid per hour. The smell didn’t change, but I guess rules and regulations became more important. It was still a nice pay for a job that only lasted a couple of weeks. I do miss the sight of those lovely fields this time a year, there’s really nothing quite like it. Flowers Galore. Colorful Expressions For real 🌷
Wishing y’all a very Flowery Weekend, surprise a loved one, but not with the bulbs. Though that might actually work. Leaving a comment below would be a surprise too ❤