Croatian Olive Oil: You Moved Here From New York? To Pick Olives?!

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Written by our local expert Guru

Written by a local specialist we know and trust to bring you the most up-to-date travel information.

It’s a New Year, time to make of those silly New Year resolutions you’ll forget about before February. Or you could take the lead from Joe, who moved from New York to a small Island here in Croatia to fulfill a dream. Here is Part 1 of Joe’s very inspiring story.

“Ti boga! Pomozi mi!”

My grandfather’s cry cut through the serenity of an unusually warm October morning. “Oh, God! Help me!”

What the hell just happened?

I turned around to see the commotion. “Oh holy hell,” I thought. “What did I get myself into? I didn’t move to Croatia from the Big Apple for this!” Less than a week into my first olive-picking season and I had already experienced a slew of headaches. This was just the latest.

If I think hard enough, I can probably find the reason I fled New York City for Croatia in the span of ancestral generations. A long, proud lineage of green-thumbed housewives, factory workers, mothers thinking they’re alchemists, coal-shovelers on steamships, Partizan soldiers, communists, womanizers, drunks, sailors — womanizing drunken sailors — doctors, librarians, and coy merchants. All of them mixing together over the years on this one amoeba-shaped limestone lump called Iž, which sticks out of the azure waters off the coast of Zadar. Snippets of their genes merged to produce this world-weary and frustrated journalist in New York, who wanted to come back to the only place any of his kin ever called home.

Maybe I felt the constricting walls of the New York media scene pinch me into a corner. I realized the Balkans region needs more people chronicling its humanity, portraying it as something more than a haven for cheap stag parties or an escape for vacationers that also “just had a war.”

Or maybe it was because I grew up leading a double-life. The worst parts — school plays, puberty, getting scolded by mom and dad — happened in the U.S. The best parts — summers by the sea, grandma’s fish soup, nearly every first that ever matters — happened on Iž.

So I could hold my parents accountable. They both hail from Iž and left in their 20s, fueled by ambition and whimsy. They met in Queens, New York. I got hitched and produced a good student with something of a behavioral problem in grammar school. So they used Iž as the bait for the results they wanted.

“Get good grades, and we’ll send you to Nana and Dido’s this summer.” My entire life, the island was the reward for the toil. And maybe some misfire in my 28-year-old brain made Iž a permanent prize, pushing me to buy a one-way ticket in April of this year.

The island of Iž.
The island of Iž.

Iž was forever my summer paradise. But that wasn’t the full picture of my roots. The usual gang of vacationers, diaspora brats, and fair-weather fishermen weren’t real “Ižani.” Those, my friends said, came in November and endured the cold of the bura to pick olives. I wanted to be among them.

I could say all of that drove me back to Iž and to my grandparents’ olive groves.

But really, I had a promise to keep.

Fifteen years ago, I told my grandmother (always “Nana” to me) that I’d see her through an olive-picking season from beginning to end. It happened during a long lunch in which she regaled me with stories of how people used to pick olives and make oil.

How they spent hours carrying 40-, 50-, hell even 60-kilo burlap sacks on their shoulders over rocky terrain, dropping it off only to turn around and go back again for more.

How she used to push millstones around in a circle when she was a little girl, mashing the olives for others in the village.

How my stubborn grandfather vehemently ignores all safety measures when using a ladder to reach the taller branches…

This is why the source of “Ti boga! Pomozi me!” wasn’t in question. Nor was the reason. I turned around to see the withered husk of an 86-year-old man I call Dido dangling from a ladder, his right arm and right leg tangled in the rungs. His left appendages writhed in the air as he tried to stop the ladder from spinning around and dropping him ten feet to the ground.

I ran over and straightened the ladder until he managed to pull himself back into place.

“Take a break, Dido.”

“No! There’s some more left on this branch over here!” he said without even looking at me, climbing even higher on the ladder. “You don’t need to hold the ladder. I’ll be fine.”

“Dido, you just nearly fell off.”

“That was nothing. I didn’t even need your help.”

Welcome to the olive season on Iž… with my family.

Breaking open an island

Removing my experience from Iž itself is virtually impossible — specifically the village of Mali Iž [Little Iž]. The climate, history, and topography seem designed to discourage agriculture of any kind, making it a world apart from what others in Croatia experience during a typical season.

Iž’s olive oil tradition is the inheritance left by a gangly group of folks we can’t even name. People here call them “stari ljudi,” the “olden people,” who bashed, smashed, cracked, and rearranged the island’s naturally rocky terrain to their will.

Men working throughout the day, swinging mallets and driving wedges wherever they could, splitting open the rocky hillside to reach the soil. They were a largely illiterate bunch, resourceful and tough as nails.

Ižani speak of how “stari ljudi” tied large flat rocks to their torso, squeezing their stomachs, so they don’t feel hungry.

The rocks they cracked and broke were then stacked to create stone walls called “mocire,” [moh-tsee-reh], which parceled off the land and provided a somewhat safer way of getting around by foot.

You can ask anyone how old the mocire are, and you’ll largely get the same answer: “Who knows?”

One of the 70-ish olives picked this olive season. Note the "mocira" in the background.
One of the 70-ish olives picked this olive season. Note the “mocira” in the background.

But the result of all their work is, at best, roughshod. The rocky topography makes transporting olives a grind, as tractors and beat-up cars traverse paths bored into the rough hillsides—the jagged rocks of the mocire chew through the toughest of boots like a chainsaw.

The groves themselves aren’t large splotches of soil with tidy rows of olive trees. The island has no place for that.

Instead, the olives haphazardly burst out of the terrain, feeding off the occasional oasis of soil that needs to be fertilized in massive quantities.

Nothing — nothing — about the island makes growing or picking olives sensible. The habit remains as a sheer force of will; what happens when people damn logic and follow their basic urge to make something out of nothing. And sometimes, they’re willing to pay for it in blood. Which is where Mali Iž comes into play…


Feeling Low On High Branches

Nana waddled into the middle of a tidy grove containing five olive trees arranged in a ring.

“That one, that one, and that one. Those are ours,” she said while spinning like a lawn sprinkler.

“Who the hell do the rest belong to?!”

“Doesn’t matter. Just don’t pick the olives off of them.”

Nana and Dido kicking it old school: clearing up and burning the weeds under the olive trees.
Nana and Dido kicking it old school: clearing up and burning the weeds under the olive trees.

I quickly realized I’d need the memory of an elephant to get through the season. However hard navigating New York’s streets seemed, they were nothing compared to Iž’s western side.

Mali Iž’s centuries-old history includes generations of familial feuding, dodgy inheritance deals, and a lack of privacy that can only lead to fights over who exactly owns what.

My mother’s side of the family has been on Mali Iž, as far as I know, since the 1700s. Saw that in a book somewhere. Dido {Grandad} shrugs when I ask him for confirmation.

That first clan’s holdings were split with every successive generation. New orchards of olive trees were sometimes married in, once-large parcels are split among siblings. Some were bought or sold. Likely bartered. Subsequent generations planted new trees or rearranged the terrain.

Hundred of years of playing Tetris with land, and no real way to keep track of the changes.

The result? My grandparents have about 70 olive trees of total anarchy. Groupings of trees separated over six different, poorly-defined chunks of land on both sides of the island.

The collection is made of three varietals. An overwhelming majority of our olives are orkule, like Mrs. CtD’s, which produce large olives that can reach the size of golf balls. The rest are drobnjače and krambučele, smaller olives that fuel pollination and pack a potent punch in terms of flavor and color. At least that’s what I’m told.

Note: the names given for the varietals are mostly used on Iž and other Dalmatian islands. I don’t have a clue what they call them elsewhere.

While others go for the magic combination of still-green olives pressed almost immediately to earn the title “Extra Virgin,” Ižani tend to pick olives after most have ripened to a shiny purple. Virginity, as most teenagers will tell you, isn’t always a good thing.

What makes Iž’s olive oil different — some argue better — is the mix of the varietals, coastal location, storage, and antiquated pressing process. It gives the resulting oil complexity without bitterness and an almost buttery nature that makes you want to pour it onto everything.

But you have to pick the olives first.

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Old School Picking

Day one, and I’m antsy about getting started. Balmy, with a light breeze and a cloudless sky. Nana hands me what she calls a “klokanica,” essentially a glorified apron with a built-in pouch (its name derives from “Klokan,” the Croatian word for kangaroo).

“Go ahead. Start picking,” she commands.

I tie on the klokanica and turn to face my first tree. There’s Dido, already halfway up the damn thing, squatting on a branch like an ape.

Dido on day one.
Dido on day one.

The act of olive-picking itself requires almost zen-like concentration. You see an olive or cluster of olives, put an open hand underneath it, close your fingers and pull towards you. Dump them into the klokanica. Scan the branch for more. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Seven, eight hours of this.

The tedium involved, especially when picking the smaller varietals, can drive a man bonkers—no YouTube breaks. Phone calls are essentially forbidden. Text messages and emails interrupt your rhythm. You quickly learn to hate your phone.

Instead, you develop personal means of coping through the day.

Somewhere in that mess of branches and leaves is Nana, most likely talking to herself.
Somewhere in that mess of branches and leaves is Nana, most likely talking to herself.

Nana spoke endlessly to no one and anyone she thought was listening, jabbering and yammering and stewing over gossip and inevitably making demands that involve great-grandkids.

Dido, whose growing senility has robbed him of any short-term memory, spent most of his time confused.

“Did I already pick that branch over there?”

“What trees haven’t been picked yet?”

“What day is it?”

Being a brat, I took to my iPod; humming tunes and shuffling through playlists, I climbed up trees to find the highest branch that wouldn’t collapse underneath me.

The olive-picking process itself has evolved, modernized for maximum efficiency. I’ve seen futuristic devices that act like giant combs for branches, removing the olives with one swipe and sending them on a tarp spread below. Makes for easier gathering and sorting.

Pruning has become an art form as well. Some have realized young growth is fruitful. Old branches are inefficient and dangerous. Most olive trees are now a reasonable height that requires little to no effort to reach. Their tops not too high above your head. No ladders are required. This, at least, is the norm for a majority of Ižani.

My grandparents didn’t get the memo — any memo — about olive techniques in the last 70 years—no devices or tarps. No pruning. We still pick everything by hand on towering olive trees that have rarely seen a saw.

The process includes a low-to-high team strategy. Nana would often start by taking the still-viable olives off the ground, then work her way around the low-hanging branches. I’d start somewhere in the middle, climbing up the tree and along branches that supported my weight.

And then there’s Dido, whose adventures with a ladder have become the stuff of legend to me and most Ižani.

High olive branches are dangerous, inefficient, and frankly a pain in the neck. Dido doesn’t care. He’s as old as a family Bible but has the physical dexterity and devil-may-care attitude of an 18-year-old. The ladder is his domain. He refused to even let me handle it.

Dido, whose ladder antics make him part cartoon character, part Cirque de Soleil performer.
Dido, whose ladder antics make him part cartoon character, part Cirque de Soleil performer.

Dido’s sole purpose on a ladder is to break every rule printed on its safety label seemingly. Too proud to ask for help, he puts a seven-meter ladder on his shoulder and plows through bushes, props it up against a tree willy nilly, then climbs.  Helping him in any way is the fast track to a scolding. And taking away the ladder is tantamount to treason.

It was common to see him balancing himself at the top of a ladder that’s resting diagonally against a twig of a branch, reaching for the very top to snag a single olive. One extra wobble, and he’d come crashing down. And he often nearly did.

Aside from the first “Ti boga, pomozi mi!” {oh lord help me} experience, there was the time he went to step off the ladder onto a branch and missed, instead landing on it stomach-first. He laid there with the branch bisecting his torso while his arms and legs dangled towards the ground like some limp doll. He reached back with one arm and felt his way to an overhead branch, lifted himself up, and resumed picking olives — as if nothing happened.

Dido’s third near-fall left him spread across two branches and briefly dangling like a gymnast.

I angrily declared the start of pruning season.

No saw or ax on hand, I jumped off one branch and grabbed onto another, pulling with all my weight until it eventually snapped and hurled me down into a pile, nearly bashing me on the head.

The next day, my grandparents brought a saw.

Pruning involves a careful calculation of sunlight, proximity to the ground, and eliminating fruitless dry branches: a branch here, a snip there, and hope for a good season next year.

Or, as Dido calls it, “ruining the tree.”

The monotony, the physical dexterity required to balance yourself on a branch and pick at the same time, and the sheer volume of olives you’ll see in a day saps you dry. You become a soiled, emaciated zombie of a person who can’t talk about anything other than “olives.” You see them when you close your eyes. Your arms are covered in scratches from thorn bushes and propping against branches: your backaches and stomach caves in slightly. Your clothes smell tangy with sweat and soil. Your once-sturdy boots turn into a chewed mass of leather and rubber that might have been footwear at some point. Most Ižani get through an olive season largely unchanged because they’ve seen so many.

The pudgy American, however, was worse for wear.

After two months of work, we had picked almost 1,200 kilos of olives. I ended up feeling like a vagrant who hadn’t found his way out of the gutter. It’s easy to romanticize the whole process, but in the end, it still works — not fun.

But sometimes, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll luck out. Sometimes you’ll end up on a high branch, staring out at the glistening waters. And then, if the sun is just right, the sea and sky merge. The world opens into an endless blue horizon. And for a second, you forget the desk job—the cantankerous bosses. The deafening bustle of the iconic city you once called home. Everything you left behind that once felt so large — it’s minuscule. And you begin to wonder how you didn’t suffocate in the “Greatest City on Earth.” And maybe, just maybe, things make sense for once.

At least for a little while.

Lost in the draining work, every once in a while you get a moment of visual serenity.
Lost in the draining work, every once in a while, you get a moment of visual serenity.

Maybe there was some sense in letting the olive trees grow tall… Then your phone goes off, and you’re back in the world.

The sun’s descent on the horizon over the neighboring island of Dugi Otok marked the end of the day. A good yield would mean two full sacks of olives. About 100 kilos you can be proud of.

Throw the sack onto a shoulder and make your way over the mocire, to the car, and back to our “magazin” — a familial, communal storage house along Mali Iž’s main port, Komoševa.

It’s there that things start to depart from the norm.

Joe’s Adriatic Olive Adventure

The acrid-sweet smell of the olives. Boots gliding across a slick floor. The deep grind of millstones, the drone of the press, and a whirling separator. After countless hours spent picking olives and Dido’s freewheeling ladder antics, we were ready to press at Mali Iž’s olive mill.

Our olives spent about a month soaking in seawater. The practice cleans the olives, conserving them while removing the gorčina, or bitterness. It’s what separates Mali Iž’s oil from the rest. Makes it special. At least that’s what Nana and Dido say.

Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
The first view of our olive oil finally arriving.

The mill is a village-funded operation run by local do-gooders with nicknames you can only use behind their back. They like to complain about the time and energy they sacrifice for the village; martyrdom is a hobby around here, especially for the folks who work at the mill.

So as you drag your cart of olives into the mill, a sea of semi-gloomy faces awaits. Each worker — there are four-to-five in total — will claim their job is the key to making the olive oil great.

First comes the grind, massive stone donuts crushing the olives into a mash which is cached onto large nylon discs. The discs are stacked onto a spike, which is then pile-driven up into a press, soaking the crushed olives with steaming water. The resulting fluid is then gathered into metal basins and run through a separator, which centrifuges the water and remaining goo out until only oil and a bit of pulp remains.

Sound appealing? Well, nothing about the process makes your mouth water. Ground-up olives look like something that came out of the wrong end of a sick dog, with the texture to match. The din of machinery is constant—the kindest way to describe the smell: pungent.

Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
The old stone donuts that grind the olives into a mash.


Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
The olives go from brown, green, and purple orbs to just plain brown gunk as the millstones crush them.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
A worker (the author’s cousin Miljenko) spreads the mashed olives onto nylon disks before stacking them for the press.


Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
Ground olives being prepped for the press.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
Nana keeps an eye on things to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
Workers at the mill prepare the pile of mashed olives for pressing.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
The olives being driven up in a pile, squeezing out the oil.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
Business as usual for Nana and Dido as they argue over anything and everything at the olive mill.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
Steaming water runs through the press to get the last bits of oil out and clean the machine.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
The olive oil comes out a fluorescent yellow after being run through the separator.
Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
Dido, Nana, and my aunt carting home the dried olive mash, called “trkulada,” which will be reused as compost and kindling.

The mill is something of a time portal. Just two ports over in fancy-pants Veli Iž, a new-fangled press goes through the same mechanisms with much less fuss and mess. By all accounts, what happens on Mali Iž is a trip back to the days when everything about making olive oil was difficult. And yet we’ll all swear; our oil is better as a result.

But why does it matter so damned much anyway? And why haven’t we changed?


Early November, and we were halfway through picking the olives. Dido and I stood atop a mocira when he pointed down at a hole where a chunk of the stone wall had apparently taken a detour. I assumed we found an old pen for chickens or pigs.

“That’s where I hid for two days,” he said, pointing a nubby finger at the entrance of the stone cell.

“Hid? From who? When?” I asked.

“The Italians.”

By the summer of 1942, the folks on the other side of the Adriatic Sea completely controlled Mali Iž, as they did much of Dalmatia during World War II. Kids learned Italian in school; neighboring Veli Iž hosted the occupiers’ garrison; the once-thriving micro-economy fell under the rule of the occupying forces. Worst of all, a portion of each family’s olive oil was kept as a tax.

Then word spread of Italian troops coming to Mali Iž on July 26, 1942, to collect the taxed oil. A band of rebellious and obviously pissed-off Maloižani did what Maloižani consider their birthright: screw with other people’s plans.

They stole the taxed olive oil in the middle of the night and hid it in a cave on the neighboring island of Ugljan, spilling what they couldn’t take with them. They managed to make it home without being noticed.

Italians rounded up 80 able-bodied Maloižani the next day to transport them by boat to Veli Iž for questioning. It didn’t quite go as planned, though.

The Maloižani rose up, killed four of the eight Italian soldiers standing guard, took control of the vessel, and headed home. They then offer the Italian teacher assigned to the village and his elderly mother as well. In what must have been a fit of momentum or bloodlust, the group also supposedly killed three locals they just happened to dislike for various reasons.

Word quickly spread of the day’s events. What ensued varies according to who you ask. Everyone has their own story; Dido’s meant a stint in a makeshift bunker on the other side of Iž, awaiting transport to the neighboring island of Dugi Otok . He joined the anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi Partisan cause. Not out of any sort of political idealism — hell, he was only 14 when all this happened. Dido joined because Iž’s small act of rebellion forced its residents to pick aside.

He wasn’t the only one.

Before the rebellion against the Italian occupiers, Mali Iž was a thriving collection of artisans, craftsmen, handymen, fishermen, butchers, carpenters, masons, farmers, poets, historians, quacks, housewives, self-taught alchemists, coal-shovelers on steamships, womanizers, drunkards, sailors — womanizing drunken sailors — teachers, and coy merchants. All of them mixing together over the years on this amoeba-shaped limestone lump in the crystalline waters of the Adriatic. Its population was 1,300 and growing.

After the rebellion, Mali Iž was largely abandoned by anyone who could escape. Some able-bodied men joined the armed forces. Their graves still carry the trademark “Pog. 1942 NOB,” a Communist-era sign they died fighting for the Partisan side. The few left fled during the lean years of Yugoslavia’s embryonic stages for the lush shores of the U.S., Canada, Australia, Austria, and anywhere else they could find a new life.

The population of Mali Iž’s graveyard now outnumbers its living residents. Less than 100 people, nearly all retirees, call this village home.

Dido, through some luck, is one of them.

Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
The stone pen Dido made for himself as he hid from Italian retaliation during WWII.

As we stood over his makeshift bunker seven decades later, the stupid American habit of stunt photography took hold of me.

“Why don’t you go inside so I can get a picture of you in it?” I asked.

“I don’t need a picture in there,” Dido said, looking up at me. “I saw enough of it.”

Senility and age may wipe out any memory Dido keeps of his only grandson picking olives with him, lost to whatever mental black hole emerged in his brain over the last two years.

But those days of terror in the makeshift hideout? They vibrate in his mind as if they just happened.

I squeezed his shoulder. “You’re right. You spent enough time in there,” I said. “Let’s get back to work.”


The freshly-pressed olive oil sat in a plastic barrel for a few months, allowing the last bits of pulp and goo to settle at the bottom. Last weekend, I finally tasted the finished product. What do 1,200 kilos of olives, climbing branches, and Dido’s many near-falls produce?

Divinity in a bottle. Ižani often claim their olive oil has medicinal properties — I’m pretty sure ours can cure the worst case of the blues. But I’m a little biased.

I smiled hard at the dinner table with my grandparents after my first taste of the oil. Dido looked up and half-smiled. I felt some hope that he remembered all the work that went into it. That he was happy, I enjoyed the oil we made together.

He then turned to Nana. “Is that oil ours? Did we even pick our olives this year?”

I’d like to think Mali Iž’s refusal to modernize its olive oil process is part of some broader nostalgia. That it’s something genetic that seeks the most unforgiving route, then stomps through it.

But it isn’t. Mali Iž hasn’t changed because nobody has been there to grind the gears of progress since the day rebels stole off into the night with the village’s oil. Those able-bodied men and women who fled or died during the war never came back. Yet their ghosts are everywhere.

If you look past the weekenders’ sleek villas and the diasporas’ gaudy houses lining the shore, you’ll find the remnants of what Mali Iž could have been in abandoned houses and under collapsed roofs tucked in crevices. Time capsules of halted progress: set tables awaiting dinner to be served; abandoned armoires and kitchen cabinets filled with the remnants of someone’s life; family photos gathering dust since the door was last shut decades ago.

Well, the dwindling population grew by one last year when I made Iž my legal home. [Full disclosure: I’ve spent a substantial part of 2014 so far in the neighboring city of Zadar for professional reasons. I hope that’ll change soon].

The local skeptics say Mali Iž’s future will mirror Dido’s failing mind, where the dusty outlines of history wait to be swept away. I desperately want them to be wrong. And I’m trying to do things the old way, not because of nostalgia. Just to learn than teach.

I want to teach someone what Mali Iž has been and could be, the same way Dido taught me.

I want to pass it along as well, if only so one day some generation of Ižani will come back to sweep away the dust, undoing decades of stagnation and halted progress. Maybe make this village as great as its olive oil.

This one is for Dido.

Croatian olive oil - Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
A younger, more robust Dido bringing in the catch back, I was just a kid.

From the editor:

Joe is a freelance journalist based in Croatia. He poured his heart out into this personal 3 piece story for you to enjoy. We want to thank him for doing so and for being a part of the community like us, who want people to return to Croatia to help the country prosper.

Want Joe to write for you? You can find Joe’s contact details in his author’s bio below or contact us, and we will put you in touch.

Comments (20)

  1. Goodness I didn’t realise picking olives was such a pain! Thank goodness people still do it – the world would be a much worse place without olive oil!

    1. You don’t even know the half of it! But it’s the sacrifices we make that make the good stuff great.

  2. What an inspiration! It’s difficult leaving one life for a new one and I hope that the hard work and toil really do pay off in the end!

  3. I recently moved back to the town where I grew up, and we are attempting to produce apples, plums and soft fruit in our garden. You have reminded me that my challenges are small compared to those of many of the world and for that I am grateful.

    1. Oh no! I didn’t mean to diminish the value of what you’re trying to do. Trust me, my mother is an at-home green thumb and I have nothing but infinite respect and amazement for the things she can do with a small patch of dirt in a big city.

  4. This is an absolutely fasinating blog, I sit there open-mouthed, transported to your world.Thank-you for writing about it so eloquently.

    1. New York has a very big Croatian diaspora scene. Plus my family insisted on a more or less Croatian household and upbringing. But I can’t get over the view I have every day. Gorgeous waters and fresh air beat the concrete jungle any day.

  5. Sounds like quite the experience – I have the worlds Biggest 5 yr old olive fan here who spotted the tree in this post and screamed ‘OLIVES!’ in my ear!

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