Tuesday, September 14th 2010

Field notes 2010: The end of my trip

This is the fourth and final installment chronicling my visit to the Mogielica Human Ecology Study Site this summer. Here are parts one, two and three.

After our lumber adventure, we get cleaned up and start the multi-stage process of getting back to Krakow. I had planned on staying another night, until we discovered that the following day was a holiday and the buses wouldn’t be running. Heidi got a room in a hostel for her, Laura and I and we had a nice, relaxing afternoon drinking smoothies and talking (a good chunk of which involved me telling my birth story with Joan). Then Andrzej joined us and we did a little shopping at the new mall – I can’t go anywhere without looking for something for Joan – and then to a lingering, extravagant dinner at a very nice restaurant. We had kompot, which is water steeped in fruit and sugar, often plums and cherries. I had Lithuanian beet soup – it was exactly the way my grandmother used to make it. Then I got a salad with duck, orange and these lovely, dark pistachios. Laura found a friendly green caterpillar in her salad so it was on the house. Then Laura and I ordered dessert, which we all shared, and Andrzej and Heidi got some prosecco to celebrate his birthday. We lingered over Laura’s chocolate ice cream with liquer and cherries, and my mascarpone mousse and strawberries.

Laura and I headed back to the hostel soon after, for Heidi and Andrzej are made of tougher stuff. The hostel was a decent one, and even though I was horribly sticky from the hot, humid, motionless air, I slept well.

* * *
The next day all the shops were closed for a holiday, but we had a nice time wandering around, checking into my hotel, sitting in tea shops and reading. We met Ilona at Chlopskie Jadlo and I had wonderful golombki, or stuffed cabbage – they were able to make me a gluten free mushroom sauce that was amazing, and I don’t even like mushrooms. Ilona’s little son Karol was adorable and smiley and silly, a four and a half month old bundle of love. He made my heart ache for my Joan.

After that, Laura and Heidi had to go back to the field site, and Ilona had to take Karol home. I went back to my room and worked all night and into the morning.

* * *
The next day I worked all morning, showered, went out to lunch, shopped for my family, worked some more, then had one last tea with Ilona at Bunkier. Bunkier is a great café that is outdoors but protected by an awning – we were grateful for this as there were terrible thunderstorms – and faces the planty, the green space that surrounds the stare miasto, or old town. Bunkier is also quite kid friendly, with sandboxes and toys along the edge of the café.

Ilona and I had a wonderful time talking about work, children, our future plans. Ilona is so smart and funny, and though we hadn’t seen each other in five years we picked up where we left off, an easy, comfortable friendship.

I had wanted to do just a little more shopping, but everything was closed by the time we finished. My laptop was calling, and the rain was cold, so I gladly went back to my room to work.

The next morning I caught the five am train to the airport (which was not without incident, as I dropped my wallet on the walk over and didn’t realize until I got on the train. I had to retrace my steps at a full run with all my luggage, and made it back to the train just in time). I otherwise had a very boring trip home, thinking of the family waiting for me almost every waking hour.

Even though it was a short trip, my time in the field was invaluable. I learned a lot about how things have changed, how they haven’t; I renewed friendships; I explored the practicalities of my future project plans. I did all the things I couldn’t have done by phone or email, and this year’s grants and next year’s projects will be the better for it.

But it’s good, really good, to be home.

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Tuesday, September 7th 2010

Field notes 2010: if a tree falls in a forest…

This is the third of four installments chronicling my visit to the Mogielica Human Ecology Study Site this summer. Here are parts one and two.

My last day at the field site was rather eventful. I really wanted to hike Mogielica, the path up the mountain starting only a fifty minute walk away. The always good-natured Laura came along.

Fifty minutes along the path I knew came and went. I realized we were on a road that had been built since I’d last been here. New houses popped into view, then a store. I had no idea how to get up the mountain now that my old reliable path was gone.

Thankfully, Laura had driven to the base of Lopien to hike it the weekend before, which was another thirty minutes walk. So we changed plans to hike that mountain instead.

We get to the parking lot and Laura finds the path to Lopien. Up to this point, the road, though narrow, had had open fields, yards and homes along it. Walking through this part of the Polish countryside is like walking through an idyllic storybook farming village. The homes and yards are cared for, the hay neatly raked, stacked or rolled, only the guard dogs that bark threateningly from their pen or leashes breaking the spell (and the few allowed to roam free, who try to chase us, making our hearts race in a most un-storybook-like way).

If the countryside seems to reflect every storybook’s happy village, the paths up the mountain are part of the enchanted forest. Dark, mature trees line the path thickly, and the air drops a few degrees cooler as soon as you step in. Far less light gets in, and the dirt is damp and quiet under your feet. There is very little to fear in Poland, except the increase in recent years in poisonous snakes, part of a failed experiment to reduce the rat population.

I hate snakes.

We don’t get very far at all before we encounter a tractor. Its wheels are jerked over so that it diagonally blocks our path. Since the path is cut into the dirt a bit, there is a six inch lip on either side of the path. We walk toward the tractor to try to find a way around. Maybe if we grab one side? Maybe we could pull up on a tree?

The buzz of a chainsaw freezes us into silence. Thirty to forty feet in front of us, just past the tractor, an enormous coniferous tree comes crashing to the ground, landing directly across the mountain path. As in, a few dozen feet in front of us. The breeze from its descent rustles our hair.

Laura and I laugh, because what else is there to do? Two minutes earlier to our hike and we would have been crushed. We decide we have had enough of a hike and head back.

I guess there are more things to fear in Poland than snakes.

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Wednesday, September 1st 2010

Field notes 2010: back to fieldwork after five years

I slept like a log, showered, and had a traditional Polish breakfast with the research team: cucumber, cheese, ham and bread with tea (I brought my own gluten free bread with me). Polish spreadable cheese is really delightful (smietankowy is my favorite) – it is mild and smooth, and pairs nicely with cucumber. Cucumber is one of the most common vegetables here, the others being cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes. These are all favorites of mine, so no complaints here.

I haven’t done fieldwork in several years and I’ve missed it. Plus, I want to give Laura a chance to show me what a great job she’s been doing. One person I spoke with was surprised I was going, but what else am I going to do at the field site? It’s important to understand the data we analyze in context, and that means getting out of the lab, interacting with your subjects, showing your immense appreciation, and honing your skills and validating your surveys. I don’t want to just hire others to do this work, because building a relationship with the community is what will insure the success of future projects. Besides, it’s a beautiful location and a lot of fun.

So anyway, we pack up the gear needed for blood spots and saliva, for anthropometry, for surveys, and gifts of candy, tea, coffee and children’s books, and head out.

Laura and Gosia, one of Grazyna’s fine undergrad assistants, walk until they find where they left off the day before. Gosia does all the talking when we get to the doors of potential subjects because Laura’s and my Polish aren’t up to snuff for complicated interactions.

We fall into a nice rhythm. Several no’s and a yes, more no’s and another yes. Men are more likely to turn us down than women, and the reason is always that they have no time. We see one man having a beer (in the morning) with his family on the back porch as we pass his house only minutes after he declined to participate in our project due to how busy he was.

But we can’t expect all, or even most, of the folks in this village to invite in city (and international!) strangers simply because we are doing a study. In the US, we regularly turn down surveyors who visit our homes or call us without feeling a shred of guilt… and yet we are surprised when Polish people do the same. Plenty will say no, and I’m sure there is some selection taking place that impacts the distribution of the data from the fact that certain people are more likely to say yes (mothers at home with young children, for instance). If we got 100% participation, I would worry that we were unknowingly coercing our subjects. So to me, the no’s are actually a sign we are doing things right.

On my last visit we endlessly role-played first conversations with potential subjects, because even though a mix of yes’s and no’s are good, it would certainly be nice to maximize our chances of a yes. We found the following to be the most helpful: announcing our affiliation with Jagiellonian University, explaining the information we would like to gather and how it would be interesting to them, but would also further knowledge and contribute to science, being clear it was not compulsory, and offering a gift. The first is important because it lends us some sort of authority and safety; we aren’t random people off the street. The second, both the parts about what the subject well gain as well as how they will contribute to something bigger than them, is really crucial. I think people choose to be involved in studies if they seem personally interesting, and/or if they think their contribution will make a difference. If we can articulate both of those things well we catch the interest of a lot of people. The third, where it is not compulsory, relaxes people who have had a lot of compulsory activity foisted upon them. And offering a gift shows you respect their time and effort, that you understand what you are asking is a bit of a presumption, and in the case of this field site, that you know the culture well enough to know what they will appreciate. If we could get all of those points in the first ninety seconds and the person still didn’t budge, it just wasn’t meant to be, so why feel bad?

Once we found a willing family, Gosia would conduct the interviews, Laura would take the measurements, and I would at turns record Laura’s measurements and talk to the children (my Polish is only barely good enough to interact with kids these days!). Laura has learned a lot of Polish in only a few short weeks, and was able to convey her intentions to subjects quite well. It was fun for me to be the follower, to not be in charge and instead marvel at two young women leading well. Plus, I like playing with kids.

After a quick stop at the local sklep (that’s shop) for ingredients, we headed home so I could cook dinner. I wanted a way to thank the wonderful field workers and the great field manager Andrzej. With the help of sous chef Laura, I made carrot soup, yogurt-cucumber salad, and white bean, leek and kasia (buckwheat) salad. It was sort of nouveaux-Polish-American. I thought it pretty tasty.

Then field assistants Gosia, Monika and ever-amazing manager Andrzej packed up to head to Krakow and civilization. The rest of us stayed and worked. Night time is hard, because even though a part of me feels like I never left Poland, another one remembers that I am now a wife, a mother, a tenure-track professor, and this short stint in the field working, traveling and visiting beloved friends is keeping me away from other loves, and other duties.

I sleep fitfully, the heat and humidity keeping me uncomfortable, and the wild wind from thunderstorms making the doors rattle distressingly in their jambs for much of the night.