Thursday, August 26, 2010

Field notes 2010: traveling to the field site

In addition to posting about science, I would like to occasionally write about the process of doing science in this space. This is the first in a four part series chronicling a short trip to my field site this summer.

We kept Joanie out of daycare for a few extra hours so I could get some special time before I go. This will be the longest time I have ever been away from my two and a half year old, though I’ll be gone only a week. For the most part, Joan is in good spirits, and she blows me kisses as she gets into the car.

“I love you so much,” I call.

“I love you so much,” she answers.

I fight the sensation of tears, and run to the front door so I can wave one more time as the car pulls out of the driveway, my husband doing the drop-off so I can pack.

Fieldwork is a different thing once you have a child.

* * *

I find myself secretly enjoying my short layover in Chicago. I know the airport well, and even recognize workers at my favorite haunts. I buy a New Yorker, which is very mature of me. I marvel at how much easier it is to pee in an airport bathroom when you don’t have a toddler strapped to your chest.

The next leg of my trip is uneventful, save for the wheat crackers served in both my labeled gluten-free meals. The flight attendant promises to make a note of it. I get annoyed, then realize I have really middle class problems.

At Frankfurt, I have to go through security again. I tend to feel a lot of anxiety at international airports, that I am doing it wrong and will lose my bags, or be detained or miss my flight. None of these things had happened to me before (but wait… there is more later!). I observe my fellow travelers, not as an anthropologist, but as someone who doesn’t want to screw up. The man in front of me takes his computer out of his bag; I do the same. The security officer asks a young man to take off his zip-up sweatshirt; I hastily remove my cardigan.

Again, middle class problems.

* * *

Waiting for my final flight, the one that will take me to Krakow, I turn on my phone just to browse through pictures of my daughter – Joan drawing with sidewalk chalk, lounging on the couch with Daddy, several shots of especially spectacular post-nap hair. I imagine touching that hair, and hugging my child until we both fall asleep.

I hastily pull out my book to think of something different.

* * *

My friends are being excessively kind to me, with one meeting me at the Krakow train station to get me on the right bus to Limanowa, and another meeting me in Limanowa to take me to the field site. It’s been five years: the train station has been renovated and is in a different spot, my Polish fluency has dropped precipitously. I am incredibly grateful for the help getting around while I re-train my brain to being in Poland again.

It is with this warm, flushed feeling of goodwill that I approach the luggage rack. I watch other peoples’ luggage go down the conveyor belt, I see people picking up their things. I stay and watch for a long time, until a worker walks over and turns the conveyor belt off. It’s my first twenty minutes in the country in five years and I have absolutely no idea how to say the word “luggage” in Polish.

So, I do the only thing I can think of. I give the worker my most desperate expression, hold my arms to the side and do an exaggerated shrug. Somehow, this was close enough to the universal language of “what do I do, I did not see my bag and I would really like it” that he knew what to do. He pointed fifteen feet to my right, where “Lost luggage” was clearly written in Polish and English.


Long story short, my luggage would likely arrive in another two hours, but they couldn’t guarantee it. So how about I give them the address where I’m staying and they’ll get it to me.

“The place where I’m staying doesn’t really have an address.”

The woman patiently looks at me. I try to explain, “You see, I’m an anthropologist, and…” I realize I am making things worse. “Look, I think it would be better if I got the bag myself. You won’t be able to find where I’m staying. It’s not in Krakow.”

The woman nods but tells me I really should go into town and just call when the bag is expected to arrive, in case it’s not there yet, so I don’t have to sit in the airport.

So take the train to visit my dear friend Ilona, who recently had both a PhD and a baby. She does brilliant work and we co-authored a paper together in 2006. After bonding and catching up, and sharing a whole lot of sensitive information about early difficulties we had breastfeeding, Ilona shows me how to use the bus system. Then I have to go back and get my bags at the airport, then I take the bus a third and final time to get myself on a small bus to Limanowa.

* * *

When driving to Limanowa, you want a trip with a big bus, not a small bus. The big bus is like any big bus anywhere – you will be relatively comfortable, not too cramped, you will probably be too hot but there are worse ways to get around. The little bus is like having your intestines squelched into a basketball, where the driver then dribbles it with his left arm out the window while driving twenty kilometers an hour above the speed limit along small, twisting roads, making frequent, fantastically rapid and dangerous stops. For the first time that I’ve ever seen since coming to this site, a woman (local too!) actually had to ask the driver to pull over so she could get out and vomit.

I spend the last hour of the ride doubting my memory. Is the Limanowa stop that I want the last one? What about that one at the hospital, should I have taken it? Or at the centrum? Shit, I should have stopped at the centrum.

But I stayed on until the last stop, trusting my memory, and as the driver pulled over to let me, his last passenger off (returning me my intestines as I disembarked), I saw Heidi. Heidi Colleran is a graduate student at UCL and should be an inspiration to every aspiring anthropologist. She is doing fieldwork the right way, she has an absolutely brilliant project, and she is now completely fluent in Polish. I can’t wait to see what comes out of her work.

Heidi says there are no buses to the field site after all today, so I must take a taxi. She manages to find a taxi driver who has taken her to the field site before and so knows where it is. I understand about every third word she says to him, which is a bit better than where I thought I’d be. Heidi packs me off and promises to see me later.

My student Laura Klein meets me at the field site. She has already been working almost two weeks and has 59 subjects out of the 100 we hoped to get, which is amazing. Everywhere I turn someone is telling me how put together, smart, and confident Laura is and how well her project is going; they can’t believe she is an undergraduate. I take all the credit (just kidding, Laura).

I meet friends, old and new, and we eat dinner. I bring presents of peanut butter, honey, and green tea… the peanut butter and honey are half gone by the end of the night, which means I chose well. Laura shows me her beautiful samples and questionnaires. I have known Andrzej, PhD student and the director of the field site, for eight years, because we met in my first field season in 2002. We talk about his work and find some ideas for collaboration. I am excited about his dissertation.

Dr. Grazyna Jasienska, godmother of the Mogielica Human Ecology Study Site, comes with her husband Michal to visit and check in. We talk about some methodological hurdles occurring in some projects, successes in others. Michal brings his usual offbeat humor.

I am staggeringly tired. After Grazyna leaves we hang out a bit more, then I check email (Check! Email! At! Mogielica! We have wireless now, at least in some parts of the apartment) and go to bed.


  1. I enjoyed reading about the first bit of your trip, can't wait to hear the rest of it!

  2. Thanks so much Theresa, and thanks for stopping by :).