01:42:16 pmCategories: Fieldwork, Post-fieldwork

One year ago today…

Leaving Paris by train

Today, it is one year since I packed my bags and left the field. I left a little earlier than planned because the field exhausted me and I wanted some calm. The last ten days I had lived in an hotel, because the letting contract had run out and I was not in the mood, nor had the energy, nor the extravertness to ask any of my acquaintances for a place to stay. After sleeping 6 months on the world’s hardest futon four floors above the madness of Rue du Faubourg du Temple, the crammed hotel room with thin walls and slamming doors almost felt like a relief. Instead, I think it was the nature of the fieldwork itself that exhausted me.

In London, I lived in a great flat share (in such a lovely British terraced house with blackbirds, squirrels and cats in the greenery outside my window), where I could withdraw from the maelstrom of the field for some hours or a day or two, with people to share my frustrations and find inspiration. In Paris, I had nothing but aloneness – and probably quite a lot of loneliness – when I refuged from the field. In addition, the field itself was several levels more advanced than what I had sharpened my anthropological tools on in London.

My command of French limited, but had I not chosen to study a group of people whose force was their command of language, game of words and poetry? In London, practically all my “informants” were my peers, in terms of level of education and to some extent social background, and they were no more than ten years older or younger than me. In Paris, the majority hadn’t even finished 12 years of schooling and only a handful had been to university. Instead, many had been through a whole different school of life than I could imagine. In terms of age, they ranged from 20 years younger to 35 years older. Moreover, while my focus of study had been of great interest to the people concerned in London, I never really felt that that was the case in Paris. Perhaps it was the language that made me qua researcher far more interesting to spend time with in England than in France, perhaps it was the subjects of concern, or perhaps it was just the French tradition of liaisons that rarely let me qua femme (et blonde et exotique en plus) retreat in favour of the researcher and even friend. I wouldn’t say that this fieldwork demanded black belt in professional and language skills and social sagacity, but it demanded enough to make me so exhausted in the end that I voluntarily left Paris more than two weeks before schedule. But it was really an awful summer anyway. And besides, I had important business to sort out at home.

After an autumn of absence, the field started coming back to me. When I hurried through my old neighbourhood in East Paris for a quick coffee by Canal Saint Martin on my way back from Corsica to Oslo in the spring, I realised how much I missed the atmosphere. What atmosphere? I can’t say for the moment, but that particular feel the streets of North East Paris instigate is something I grapple with in my writing at the moment. The sheer diversity of human beings and activities everywhere at all times, the history, beauty and grandeur emanating from the buildings and boulevards, the touch of anarchy and creativity in the street art and street life… I don’t know, but there is a difference. It was very hard to live it, but I really miss it. Now, for the time being, I’ll have to make do with trying to describe it.


Comment from: Rakel [Visitor]  

Cicilie! It’s such a pure and inspirational joy to read your blog. You’re writing is a fine mixture of academics and poetry! Hope you are fine. See you soon. :)

13/07/08 @ 14:21
Comment from: [Member]

What a nice comment, Rakel! Thanks a lot! See you in August, and njoy your holiday in the meantime :)

14/07/08 @ 11:49
Comment from: Mary [Visitor]  

Hi Cicilie,
I enjoyed reading this post as it very much echoed some of my recent experiences. I left Paris at the end of last September ahd have not been back very much. My field was rather different from yours - most of my informants whether musuem professionals or community heritage workers/activists had similar educational backgrounds to me and spoke in a technical-academic register in which I was also quite comfortable (too comfortable, perhaps).

But I was back in Paris in June for the weekend of the fete de la musique and I recognise your description of the uniqueness of this particular neighbourhood. I ended up in the same bar where I had watched much of the election coverage, with several performers fighting over a single microphone on the pavement to perform a range of (mostly political) songs, some they had written themselves, others by artists like Renaud, and some rap/slam. Almost everyone there knew each other and this was also the case when the next day I went to a neighbourhood festival out in Montreuil.

I find it very hard to put my finger on it but I do feel there is something unique about the broad political culture of north east Paris. Awareness of past struggles that have been fought there - from the Commune to battles over housing and evictions in the 70s and 80s - I think feeds this ‘identity’, although I find the impact of this very hard to measure. The past is certainly very present in the campaigns of people like the RESF, for example. But I sometimes wonder whether this broad leftist consensus also feeds a kind of complacency and/or channels political expression into cultural forms (e.g. slam, street art) rather than political action. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, it’s just a (very unscientific) hunch I have. Maybe because it’s something I see a bit of in London too; an area like Shoreditch thrives on a counter-cultural reputation but the dominant political culture is entirely capitalist-consumerist.

I’m really looking forward to one day reading how you manage to shape all your experiences into words. Good luck with it all!

29/07/08 @ 13:51

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