They’re melon farmers from the southern part of Romania. Summers are dry and hot there, plus there’s open endless fields. Perfect for growing melons. And they do. Come mid-summer, the farmers turn into sellers. They travel to a city or town in a different part of Romania, they find a spot where they set camp for the summer, whether in a farmer’s market or in a certain neighborhood, and there is no going back until all the melons are sold.
I’ve known of the melon farmers since I was little. We’d go to the farmers’ market in the summer with my mom and the melons were the last item on the list, but they were never forgotten. I always thought the sellers were a bit pushy trying to sell their stuff, I almost felt bad when my mom would leave one of them yelling “Ma’am, it’s sweet, come on, I’ll give you a good price.” I guess there was a certain art in choosing the right pile of watermelon or so it seemed to me back then. Of course I always wondered if the sun-burnt sellers ever freaked out looking just behind them at that huge pile of melons and thinking “Am I ever going to sell that?” The fact that they were back every year with an equally intimidating pile was proof enough that the melon-selling business worked just fine. Back in the day, there was no way people would buy a melon unless they tasted it. How do you taste a melon right there in the middle of the farmer’s market, you wonder? Well, as soon as you choose one and before you pay for it, the guy takes a big knife from a sheath he carries around his waist and with swift sure moves he makes three cuts to for a triangle that goes deep towards the centre of the watermelon. He stabs the melon triangle right in the middle, lifts it with great pride and you taste the bright red flesh dripping with red juice, ideally not on your shirt. As a kid, I was always too shy to taste the red triangle, enticing as it looked. If the melon was crisp and sweet, then you pay and take your prize home. If it feels soft and too much like you have sugar crystals on your tongue, then you say no thank you and look for another one. Of course the wicked street-smart seller would always try to convince you that the melon is perfect, just a bit overripe to which the wise customer would say “nope, I really want another” and the meek one “Oh, alright, if you say so…” Like I said, it was hard to feel intimidated. Back then my negotiation skills were as good as inexistent so hiding behind my mom was simply the best I could come up with.
Yesterday we decided to buy some watermelon on our way back home. So we park the car and walk to this wide sidewalk, where there is a mountain of watermelons with a yellow peak of cantaloupes. A sweet sight indeed, no pun intended. On top of the pile, just a bit tilted, a brown piece of cardboard says “Sweeter than love!” They mean the melons. Well then. The woman selling the melons stands behind an impromptu counter with an old-fashioned scale on it, a scaling system on the right and big metal cup to the left. In there you place your sweet find and the clanking of the scale tells you the melon is heavy with red sweet flesh. Her smile is nice and friendly. “Choose one,” she says, “they’re so sweet.” Sasha is already rolling a medium size one towards the scale and his grin is testimony to his love for watermelons. I turn the melon upside down and sideways but there is no real proof that it’s a good one, or I’m simply not educated enough on the matter. So be it. The woman offers us to taste it, I say no, I like this watermelon Russian roulette, you just go home and eat your pick. I wish I could say I know how to pick the perfect watermelon. I don’t, yet it’s always nice to hear people say “Wow, you picked a good one.” Just like it is humbling to come home with a so-and-so one that shows there are limitations to everything. My sister picks another big green and white striped one and then I add a cantaloupe to the mix. “Nah, not that one,” the woman says, “take this one,” as she places a bigger yellow rugged-skin cantaloupe on the scale. If she doesn’t know then who does.
I ask her about how long they’re staying here while she’s meddling with the round metal blob of the scale trying to weigh our pick. Till September or so, or until all the melons are gone, she says laughing. She’s here with her husband and twenty-year-old son. They sleep in a shack they put together behind the melon pile, a bed, another mattress on the ground, some waterproof fabric as cover, there you have it; they even have a tiny stove in there, they cook soups and stews. Showers and laundry are facilitated by a family in the adjacent apartment building. I don’t ask, but assume there is a watermelon-for-washing trade going on, which seems fair and I am tempted to say “What luck for those people, to wake up to that red goodness every morning.”
We chat about their farm back home, her daughter-in-law takes care of it. Isn’t she too young to have a daughter-in-law? 42, she says. She looks young. I know her life is not an easy one, but she is happy. I tell her about how I want to visit a farm like that once just to pick my own watermelon off the ground and eat it right there. She smiles and maybe thinks I am trying to be polite. Well, no. “Come back if you like the melons and we’ll chat some more,” she says. I will for sure.
Half an hour later at home the melons are sliced and the kids’ faces are adorned with red juice, their tummies full of goodness. Elegant eating is not a concept that applies to any of us right now. The watermelons here abound with black seeds and that slows down the eating but makes for good ammunition for a spitting contest. My watermelon farmer friend was right about the cantaloupe, it’s by far the best I’ve ever tasted. My cantaloupe standards are awfully high as of today. We gather the rind and handfuls of seeds in a bowl and take them to the chickens outside. They fight over it with gusto and that’s just another confirmation that eating watermelons mid-summer is a speedy, rather mannerless affair and that’s just the way it should be. Tastes better, you know? Try it if you don’t believe me, just don’t put on your best outfit.