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return to laughter: i will not return a failure

mariël (μαρία) otten © october 2012

They told me before I left Amsterdam that "informants" don't unburden their inner secrets immediately. During the first couple of weeks "in the field", people talk one thing and another. It provides the researcher the opportunity to accustom oneself with the local tongue while gaining trust. I am confident this will be the case in Pindochori, especially since the topic of my research is rather sensitive. However ...

Getting off the bus at 6:45 a.m. in the middle of the village square, a woman approaches and tells me how she fled the village, where she found asylum and the year she came back. In Pindochori, people do not talk "one thing and another". I get the stories I hope for ... in words and sentences I barely understand. Two days later, I take the bus and run from the village taking all my luggage with me. I don't think it makes sense to stay if I don't understand what people say, but I can't go back to Amsterdam empty-handed either. I decide to scale-down my expectations and make the best of it. Another three days later I get off the bus in Pindochori at 16:45 p.m. in the middle of the village square. I hear shouting "Μαρία! Μαρία!" I am no longer a stranger, I have just become part of tο όμορφο χωριό μας.

I have spend many hours writing on a bench in that square. 1 hour interview = 4 hours writing.The villagers are puzzled by this odd behaviour. One should not sit alone, one should seek company ... and get married. Apart from (two) notebooks with data from the field, I kept a diary (three notebooks). Here and there I see the letters "RTL". At first I don't remember what it means, then it comes back to me. RTL is a book, "Return to laughter" (1964), written by the American anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen. It's a novel based on her field work in Africa. In it she says: "I will not return a failure". This catch-phrase is a perfect summary of my days in the field.

To go some place and carry out field work is odd business. One morning you find yourself knocking on the door of complete strangers, carrying with you a letter from the university saying that you will do your best. Being a student anthropologist, alone, out there in the field, struggling with the language barrier and more serious questions such as: "Who wants to talk to me where and when?" I feel more confronted with myself than occupied with "my population". This is, I guess, more or less why a village becomes "your village" and villagers become "friends" - and now and then you hate them. Not a single day passes by without someone telling me I should get married. And when they finally realise that I am here to stay considerably longer than expected, I might as well marry a Greek guy. That would be nice.

When we start preparing for the journey home several weeks later, we find out that the flight is half-price for students. The difference being 15.000 drachmes, an enormous sum. We decide to wait for my international student card to arrive from Holland. When the card finally arrives, I find myself shouting: "I don't want to go home!" and many villagers gather to see, touch and smell "the letter". On the morning of my departure, the village is covered with snow. A bit later I am on my way to Σαλονίκη with a rabbit in my luggage. The man next to me in the bus has a cardiac arrest. I arrive safely at my guest house in the city and deliver the rabbit. I think it is a good thing emotions do not count when they weigh your luggage in the airport.

Ρέθυμνο 1983 [img Annie]

Ζιάκας 1983, Επέτειος του Οχι [img Kostas Bubaris]

Ζιάκας 1986 [img Yvette]