This is no doubt an emotional week for me. After nearly 15 months of living in my field site (Albania) as one rigorous component of my PhD program in Anthropology, I am making my way back to the United States. I have dealt with cultural shock before, having lived for years in Rome as an undergraduate student at the American University of Rome, but this will certainly be a unique experience of transition.
Why? Albania is not Italy. Being in Italy is like being in a more cultural, historic version of the United States. You can get everything you want there, for the most part things work (I can hear the laughter, but try Albania before you laugh), and the cultures of Americans and Italians do not differ to any extreme degree. So, my version of culture shock after Italy was simply realizing that the espresso stinks in the US and that I missed being able to listen to the beautiful sounds of the Italian language everywhere. I could hardly say I suffered, although I without a doubt missed Italy with every inch of my being at (almost) every second of the day. No no, this will be different. Albania is NOT Italy, I repeat. Some highlighted moments of the past 15 months to emphasize this fact:
-Driving along the beautiful, curvy coastline only to realize that the compact car in front me had a live calf in the backseat!
-Not being able to find beef for the entirety of 15 months, except for when I ventured outside the country for a little vacation with my husband. I’m not exactly a carnivore, but living in Albania has forced me to remember beef and how much I miss a good hanger steak.
-Being able to buy the most incredible produce of my life, a week’s worth truly, for less than 5 dollars. The food is so unbelievably fantastic in Albania that even a week in Paris paled in comparison to a week feasting on home cooking in Albania. Seriously, food lovers, come to Albania!
-The garbage, the garbage, the garbage. I’m sorry, Albania, if there is one thing I will not miss it is the garbage everywhere. Albania is a developing country and its infrastructure, although improving, is still lacking, even severely in remote parts of the country. So, there is no recycling system (except for in Tirana), in some places there isn’t a waste management system, and there certainly isn’t environmental and health education. This ultimately means that people still dump their trash everywhere, and in many places of the country, people burn it. Yup, plastic and all.
I won’t drag on about the differences between Albania and Italy, because it is an unfair comparison in any event. The point is, I have been living in a developing country, conducting an intensive and independent ethnography for the past 15 months. Coming back home to the United States is certainly going to be a shock, not just on a cultural level, but on a professional level.
There are (personal) pros and cons to conducting ethnographic work for such a long period of time. The greatest pro is that you get to understand your field site like no other researcher possibly can. I don’t care who you are. Living and working with the people you are studying allows you to intimately know your field site in unimaginable ways. I have come to know and love Albania in a way that I never thought possible. I have been coming to Albania for seven years now, but always within the frame of 3 months or less. Sure I got to know Albania, and a bit of Albanian along the way, but 3 months was not enough time to really understand the inner mechanisms of society, to see how their history of communism dictates nearly all facets of society today, and most importantly to understand the subtle differences within the country, society, landscapes, etc. Albania has become multiple to me. It was once easy to describe, and now, to do so would not do justice to its plurality.
Yet, the greatest con is how removed you end up feeling from everything in your own world back home. The job of an anthropologist is to study the external environment and human behaviors within it in an intimate way through ethnography (observing, interviewing, immersion, etc.) without actually becoming a part of that external environment yourself. Well, this is much easier said than done. You have to have a heightened self-awareness and integrate with a new environment and people without adapting to your new environs. Some people argue that this is impossible, and I would agree. After 15 months of ethnography in Albania, I have changed. I succeeded in conducting my ethnography with limited biases (to the best of my ability) and I maintained my heightened sense of self throughout the entire process. I look at Albania through an Albanian’s eyes: I see the landscape intertwined with the history; I understand why Albanians burn garbage; I get why Albanians sit for hours having coffee during their workday, and I don’t judge them for it; I know why they think my love for dogs and saving the “street” dogs is crazy. In this way, I have succeeded in my work. But, am I the same person that I was 15 months ago? No. I am stronger, I am more resourceful, I am more culturally aware, I am more compassionate, I am sadder about the world, I am more introspective, but I am less introverted. And for this, I will always thank Albania and the Albanians for allowing me to live in their spectacular country as a researcher for such an extended period of time. But in the same vein, I feel so lost when it comes to imagining my sense of self in the United States. I have had Albanian goggles on for so long that I forgot in some ways what it is like to see the world as I once did before. Some things have become so normal to me that I have to ask myself, when I come home, will I feel like a stranger in a strange land? I can’t say, but I do hope in my next piece I can explore the homecoming aspect and my personal experience with it.
I will have more posts to come about my year+ in Albania. These will be reflection pieces for me, coupled with bits and pieces from my ethnographic diary (whatever I will be willing to share at least). But for now, I want to dedicate this piece to anyone who has had to prepare for a homecoming. I suppose I direct this especially at ethnographers or to those who have adapted to living in difficult environments, but really I feel there are take-aways for anyone coming home after such a long period of time.
So much is written about the actual homecoming process, but the process of leaving the field deserves some attention. I know many ethnographers feel regrets about their time spent. Did we do enough? Were we critical enough? Did we gather enough data? Did we gather too much data (i.e. did we not enjoy enough?) Did we learn the language well enough? But I say enough to the “enough”! Our ethnographies can never be planned to the point of quantifying what “enough” is. So, to the world of ethnographers out there who doubt their work as it comes to a close, I say enough. I say to have confidence within oneself that the ethnography was exactly what it was intended to be. I take home with me countless observations, hundreds of interviews, thousands of photos, copious amounts of survey data, hundreds of pages of diary entries, and so much more. For now, this will simply have to be enough.
So, farewell, Albania. I leave you with confidence in myself, with cherished memories, and with the hope that I will see you again someday soon.