Fieldnote Excerpts: What do you ‘do’ each day?

People often ask me what I do everyday, how I spend my time here in Tirana. Many times I am making observations and taking fieldnotes, but those unfamiliar with cultural anthropology or ethnography may not know exactly what that looks like. This type of practice is extremely important for producing ethnographic literature, essentially for answering whatever theoretical questions about social and cultural formations. So for this post today I am providing some excerpts from my fieldnotes about a community I work with here. Note, I use single letter abbreviations for names rather than the actual names of interlocutors.

I told O and D that I would visit their neighborhood at some point in the afternoon. When I left my house for the bus station the clouds were graying and I only hoped that the sky would not burst with the spastic Tirana rain for which this city is known. I hopped the bus near the intersection of the Lana River and Elbasan Road. I had seen a white bus go by earlier with “Uzina e Traktoreve” written on it but I actually forgot to check and see if this was written on the bus that I had just grabbed. I was too busy trying to get a seat in the back, which proved to be a bad idea because this area was even more crowded than the middle. Usually the back is a good place to sneak a seat, but instead I was squished in between three or four folks, staring in disbelief as somehow at least seven or eight people got on after me. One man even slid bags of fruit and vegetables under seats as he somehow snaked in between stubborn passengers. We headed towards the area known as Ali Demi which comforted my thoughts, as I knew this was the right way; but just be sure, I asked the man near me if in fact this was the Uzina bus and he shook his head no, meaning yes. That tricky head nodding has gotten the best of many foreigners here, who often get confused as to what folks are saying. I tried to relax a bit knowing that I was on the correct bus, but I struggled to do so because my head was uncomfortably bent low so as to not hit the top of the bus. I soon became worried that due to the number of people aboard I would not be able to see clearly out of the window to know which stop was mine. Thankfully, a few folks soon began to disembark and I was able to snag a seat near the window.

When we got to my stop I fought my way off the bus and walked along the side of the road where a sidewalk maybe once was but no longer existed. I trekked over the gravel in the schoolyard and made my way to the dirt path nestled in between patches of grass. I followed the path until it led to a concrete road near the houses with vines peaking through the cracks. I remembered this as the turnoff point for the neighborhood. As I passed the back of the schoolyard I heard kids playing, football perhaps. I saw a couple of small children walking from a store, and a small car passed me on the road. “It’s O’s sister!” a group of kids began to exclaim as they ran towards me. Ever since my first visit to the neighborhood everyone referred to me as O’s sister because they thought we had similar skin complexions. My husband and I are not convinced that O and I look anything alike but everyone in the neighborhood seems to think so. Even the bus drivers, who often remark how much we resemble when we ride the bus together, say the same thing. O does not identify as Roma, she is Egyptian, a different socioracial and ethnic group in Albania that traces their lineage through Egypt rather than India. She is married though to a Roma man, and lives in a predominately Roma community. “Wow my sister,” I heard, as I turned to see O coming to meet me, her small daughter following barefoot behind her. She kissed me four times, an action I usually associate with people who have not seen each other for a very long time, as kissing twice is the norm. O always kisses me four times though, even if I just saw her four days prior. “D is waiting at her house, let’s go there and have a coffee,” she told me. She pulled out one cigarette from her pocket, a cigarette that she had just bought from the shop around the corner for 10 lekë (about 10 US cents). She never buys a pack, just one or two at a time.

We walked to the other end of the community in the direction of D’s barrack. We walked past the six, tall, colorful, empty apartment buildings, all connected around a grassy plaza area. As I have been told the apartments were designed for a community living space. I stopped for a minute to hear the kids screaming as they ran up and down the stairs and around the buildings. The apartments were built in 2010 and since then have been empty — not one single apartment is occupied nor have any of them ever been. They tower over this group of people that live inside of badly built barracks along the river shore. Over fifty families reside in squalor, in poorly constructed shacks with blankets and flags that serve as doors, and these new apartments sit right beside them. The apartments were designed for community living just not for this community.

We arrived at D’s house and she came over to greet me. She ordered her daughter-in-law to make me a coffee as I sat near two other women. One of the women, A, had just put a pan of water on top of the small gas pipe. The water slowly began to heat. D’s daughter had just married A’s son last week and everyone was still talking about the wedding. A’s younger daughter ran into the house and A barked at her, “Did Esa arrive yet?” “No,” said the young girl, chasing her cousin around. “Well go back out there and wait for her,” A said, “Ishalla she will have a diaper.” The water on top of the pipe was getting hotter, as small bubbles began rising to the top. Neither D nor A had a stove in their house so they all shared this gas pipe that they used for cooking and warming water. D’s daughter-in-law, referred to as the nuse (meaning bride), brought me a Turkish coffee and a gummy piece of candy that was sure to give me heartburn. Before the water reached a boil, A walked over to turn it off. She pulled her cranky baby from the makeshift hammock (a blanked strung to the ceiling by two large pieces of rope) and began to undress him. He cried and yelled as she softly began to wipe off his body, and then slowly his face and hair with the warm water. She cleaned him with such precision and care, both gentle and thorough. She sighed as she wiped his body.

D said that she was exhausted from the day’s work. She had traveled all the way to the center of town to collect cans and scraps. She also looked for used clothes. She said that she made close to $8, all of which went directly to food, for the eight people in her house. Today’s collection yielded a higher return than the previous day. As we talked D’s nuse was already using the recently purchased oil to fry eggs. D’s oldest granddaughter ate her egg on top of a piece of bread with a green onion that she consumed straight. They had jugs of water from a spout that the municipality installed two years ago. Another child said she was hungry and a woman fixed her a piece of bread with olive oil and sugar. Meanwhile A was still holding her young baby, swaddled in a towel. She stared in the direction of the television though her eyes seemed to be looking past it, fixated, but not necessarily on one thing particularly. Her demeanor was wistful and melancholic.

An hour or passed. A’s daughter ran back into the house with a single diaper and A immediately muttered, “Shyqyr (thank God)”. She took the towel off her baby and began to fasten his diaper. I was not sure whom Esa was but she had come through today. As I watched A with the diaper I was reminded of the first time I noticed packs of yogurt in stores that were missing a carton or two. In the beginning it took me a while to realize that oftentimes things can be sold individually, in a way that does not usually occur in the US (things like yogurt, cigarettes, pens/pencils, sponges, etc). This observation may come across as mundane or very ordinary, but it is connected to larger questions of socioeconomic disparities and “getting by” in everyday life. On this day Esa was able to buy that one diaper but I did not know how A’s family would get a diaper the next day. However they would manage to do so, it would more than likely be a single diaper, and not multiple ones or even a pack of them. They did not have money for them. They would somehow find a way to just keep going, to get by one day at a time. People often ask folks in the neighborhood about future plans, about long-term solutions, but as A reiterated many times that day, the only thing that consumed her thoughts was whether she would be able to find that diaper.

 

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Ethnographic Fieldwork and Female Dilemmas

I often write about my experiences as a Black woman researcher in Albania, and the intersectionalities of race and gender. When I use the term “intersectionality”, I am referring to the ways that my identity as both Black and a woman intersect, so that when discussing my positionality, it is critical to note how the two interplay. For this post however, I want to focus particularly on gendered aspects of fieldwork in Albania. Tonight after finishing coffee with my neighbors I felt very pressed to take note of the ways in which I feel my research as a woman is impacted differently than a male researcher, particularly in Albania, and so below I have gathered thoughts to share with you (please note that many scholars have discussed these subjects at length, for more information on sources, see my comments at the end of the post).

1. Very often my research is not seen as valid

Tonight while having coffee one of my neighbors asked me about my research, and while I discussed it, his mind seemed to drift towards another subject. Now I know that I can be very verbose and oftentimes folks stop listening to me when I go on and on. What he said next though confirmed his thoughts of my project: “Don’t worry, next time I will bring my wife and when you meet her, she can teach you about having a baby. You should have a girl. Don’t be afraid of children!” As I have noted in several posts, I am asked every single day why I am in Albania doing research rather than at home with my husband birthing babies. Generally speaking, folks here are usually perplexed that foreigners would come to Albania at all, especially from the US (everyone’s dream is to be in the US!), so both foreign men and women are questioned for even being here. Women, however, are more critically scrutinized and furthermore, are often instructed NOT to do their research, as they are better served as wives and mothers. Even before I was married, when I conducted research here people told me that I was losing time and getting older, and that it was important to head back to the States and find a husband. 

2. I have to fight for my voice to be heard

While having our coffee tonight I was discussing a subject with my neighbor that he thought he knew all about (a typical response). On this particular thing though, I happened to be more well-versed and as I was relaying my thoughts he was very disturbed by my apparent awareness. So he just started saying louder and louder, “Yeah I know, I know” though it was clear that he did not know much at all. I was reminded of a recent ride in a taxi in which the driver began to castigate my research in Roma communities, because as he said, “There is nothing special about them, they are all liars.” I told him that he could share his thoughts but asked how he knew what he knew, what type of research had he done, how often had he visited Roma communities, how many Roma people he knew, etc. There were two other people in the car, both men, and the driver began getting upset as I spat off statistics and talked about my research. So he then just started yelling at me, shouting that he knew everything because he just did, and that there was no way that I could know, besides he was Albanian which meant he must know more (again, gender is not the only thing at play in this example). 

3. My body is constantly surveilled and critiqued. 

My colleague and I once wrote a conference paper on this subject, and the way that we are physically perceived in the field, as few people talk about this aspect of research. The female body, especially in Albania, in not treated the same way as the male body. Sure people discuss and critique all bodies publicly in a way that we do not do in the States, but the female body is dissected and oftentimes publicly shamed for what folks perceive to be “abnormalities”. Women globally have made this case and have discussed it thoroughly (i.e. the various Dove campaigns, the Body Project), and this too has a big impact on female researchers, especially for a woman such as myself that packs a big more junk in the trunk. During interviews I sometimes have to describe and even defend my body for long periods of time before we can get to interview questions. When I say defend, people will ask many personal questions about weight and size, that in the case of a male researcher, he would probably be the big fun guy who drinks lot of beers instead of the the thicker woman who is subjected to harsh criticism for her body. This led me to begin a focus group with young Albanian women about body perception as this is a larger subject to be studied here. 

4. Many times I am now allowed to set my own agenda

Folks here are very friendly and very hospitable, so they often want to host guests and accompany friends places. As a woman however, many people feel that I should not be able to go anywhere or to do anything on my own. This includes going to cafes, traveling to nearby small towns for interviews, or even simply going home in the evening. Now I am not unaware of cultural norms, and I am also conscious of existing dangers. As some of you may have seen in my previous posts about a temporary stalker, I know there are issues that I should keep in mind, places to avoid, things like that. At the same time however, male researchers get to occupy a different space that women cannot, regardless of how much we may demand to do so. Which brings me to my final point…

5. Women are regular victims of sexual harassment and assault

After tonight’s coffee I once again received unwanted and somewhat aggressive sexual advances. I have shared with you all some of the problems I have had with men and verbal harassment, but problems extend well beyond this point. This point speaks to women broadly, not just researchers (in particular sexual and domestic violence are big problems in Albania, a subject that I will attempt to write about later in a different post as it is very sensitive and dense). Female researchers are more likely than men to experience these types of problems, and like what happened with my situation with Kuqi the stalker, I was blamed for even being here alone, for not being with my husband, for even walking around alone. This type of response is all too familiar for females, in that many people tend to chastise women for their behaviors rather than blame and correct men for theirs. 

 

Of course there are other examples, all of which I believe provide a window into the ways gender is constructed both in Albania. Many scholars have written quite a bit on this subject, and for those interested I encourage you to check out such works as Black Feminist Anthropology edited by Irma McClaurin, Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork edited by Diane Wolf, or Women Writing Culture edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon. All are wonderful volumes and feature writings from excellent scholars. Also I would also highly suggest reading texts by bell hooks, Lila Abu-Lughood, Kamala Visweswaran, and also Zora Neale Hurston. 

The ways to tell a story

I know that was a rather long winter break hiatus but I’m back to Albania and back to blogging.  I just recently finished a novel by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and have since become an instant fan of her work.  Reading her work about race and belonging was truly inspiring, and I only hope to be able some day to articulate my writings have as well she does.

I began more searches about Adichie’s work and came across a Ted talk that she gave several years ago entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” I am sharing a link to the talk below, and encourage all of you to have a listen when you can.  I feel that it is very relevant to my work here in Albania, as I somehow try to ethnographically capture the stories of the people and places here.  Now I know that for those of us that are anthropologists or social theorists, we discuss these topics regularly, but I do not think that these conversations occur enough in non-specialist realms.  For example, for my master’s thesis I did a lot of research on travel narratives about Albania and the Balkans, many of which have painted a one-sided picture of Albania for the world to see.  These narratives have often been over simplifications of people, of culture, and of history.  Many of them are also filled with prejudiced and offensive language, particularly the ways in which Albania has been constructed as Europe’s other.  A scan of some of this literature reveals how the danger of the single story operates, and continues to shape both people and places, as these stories are often told more regularly than those that present multiple views and voices.

The Danger of a Single Story

 

As always I welcome your thoughts and ideas.