The Spanish Olive Caper

By Pia Kraus Aitken


In 1984, I decided to take the whole family to Spain to celebrate the winter holidays. The whole family included my 6’ husband, two boys both 6’4” tall, one daughter, 5’10” and me at 5’8”. Height became relevant the moment we landed in Madrid.

Knowing how chaotic things can be when our family isn’t totally organized, I had made every arrangement down to the minutest detail, beginning with a van reservation for our arrival at the Madrid Airport at 8 a.m. Spain didn’t understand about meticulous planning. The Hertz desk? Hello! Nobody. . really nobody . . . was awake. I shook the shoes propped upon the counter. Startled, the rep woke up.

“Van, what van?” the sleepy-eyed agent asked. “Reservation for who?”

No reservation. No van. But he could provide two small cars. Small?

“How small,” I asked the agent, all of 5’4”, as he scanned the crowd of giants staring down at him. “Will two small cars fit all of us and our luggage?” 

He hesitated, probably considering what would happen if he returned a truthful No to this crowd of seriously large males. So he lied.

“Yes, of course,” he answered, trying to appear nonchalant. I caught the nuance and rolled my eyes at my husband. I had warned everybody that Europe would be about 40% bad and 60% good.

“Good to get the bad stuff out of the way,” I assured them.

We decided, after extensive pleading by the two boys, to let them take one car and my husband would drive the other with our daughter and me on board. No, the luggage didn’t fit in the shoebox trunks, so lots had to be piled on the back seat of the boys’ car. 

They stuffed their long bodies into the Spanish roller skates and we set off. Madrid in 1984 was 30 years different . . . quieter, more orderly and less difficult to drive in than it is now, but also less well marked. It was still a city where you could get seriously lost. And separated.  We did. Our car found the hotel in about an hour. Our boy’s car didn’t arrive until two frantic hours later. No cell phones. Just have a drink and wait. I’m a very cheap drunk. I was too far gone to be mad when they arrived.

Our first excursion was northwest to Segovia of the ancient aqueduct and Avila with its turreted walls. Next, down to magnificent old Toledo, the ancient hilltop city sitting in a moat formed by the Tagus River.  On the road south toward Cordoba where olive orchards cover the brown hills of La Mancha below the famous old windmills of Don Quixote fame, my husband started frantically honking the horn, our prearranged signal for the boys in the front car to stop and wait. Without a word to his puzzled passengers, he pulled off to the side of the road, jumped out of the car and dashed toward an olive tree that was crowned with a dozen men throwing olives down into a net below.  As he ran toward the tree, the pickers waved their arms and yelled, “No, no, no . . .”

“Uh-oh,” my daughter said as he headed back with two big handfuls, stuffing them into his mouth as he ran.  He threw open the car door and jumped in, jammed the manual transmission into first, and stepped on the gas. No sooner was in gear than he began to gag and sputter, throwing open the car door at the same moment he put on the brake. He leaned out, choking, spitting, and gagging all at once.  The boys had heard him honk and seen us stop.  They came running.

“Dad, what happened?”

At that moment, the two of the pickers who had descended the tree ran over. One carried a water bottle he thrust into my husband’s mouth.

Peligroso, Senor,” one said.  “Peligroso. Mucho acido!”   The other one was laughing. So were all the rest of us. The perfect punishment for thievery! Olives are like sulphuric acid until they’ve been soaked in vinegar and spices for months.  Who knew? The pretty shade of reddish-mauve spreading across my husband’s sheepish face matched the purple juice of the unripe olives running down his chin and shirt.

The boys headed down the road in front of us, a plan we had originally suggested so we could “watch” them.  More like so we could watch them disappear into the distance at whatever speed they chose. But at this point, two cars instead of a van were a godsend. Our daughter got into the car with the boys where they all laughed uproariously for the next hour.  That would not have been a good idea in our car where the sting of the olive caper lasted at least that long judging from the muttering coming from the other side.

That night, our waiter brought us a beautiful plate of tapas – ripe olives and bread. He couldn’t figure out why we all burst out laughing.


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