"Something smelled funny..."

Notes on doing fieldwork

The most difficult part of being an anthropologist is in many ways accounting for the methodological aspects of the project. Even though it has been a long time since I returned from Tallinn, the fieldwork experiences still have the power to overwhelm me. The fieldwork in itself was intense because of a tight time schedule and a large workload, but also very demanding emotionally. The sum of these factors intensified everything that happened during my stay in Tallinn. It is thus difficult to distance myself from the six months the fieldwork lasted and try to retell the story as it really was.

It is hard to be completely honest about personal experiences, and it feels personal to present events which I was unable to share with anyone during fieldwork itself. Doing fieldwork was often a lonely and somewhat egocentric process (not necessarily in a negative sense), where you had few chances to share things that were happening. As a fieldworker one naturally finds oneself listening to everybody else, and not the opposite. I have received feedback on my analyses of the data, but no one but myself has ever read what I base my analyses on, namely my field diaries and the notes from the interviews. Yet another thing which makes it difficult to write about fieldwork experiences, is the fact that in many ways I changed into a different person during my stay in Tallinn. One example is that I became much more outgoing than I normally am. I had no social networks to lean on and had to establish new networks from scratch. At the same time as I became more outgoing, I disregarded parts of my personality in order to fit in with new settings and during the process of writing this epilogue, I often had a feeling that I was telling somebody else's story. The last difficulty I will mention is how hard it is to present this in a structured and organized way. The fieldwork was a complex experience, where data appeared in a confused order that never would fit the format of a thesis. But, on the other hand, I adapted my daily routines, and it is almost equally hard to be coherent about the obvious.

I met my first informant on the plane from Oslo to Tallinn. This was a Norwegian businessman who was on his way to Tallinn in order to inspect his Estonian printing press. From that time on, I had very few indifferent conversations just to kill time, at least from my perspective. I focused my concentration in order to absorb every word the businessman uttered. The fieldwork had started and everything was dependent on my ability or disability to attain data. I believed that if I managed to get the right data (and, more importantly enough data), I would acquire a thorough understanding. This was when I first noticed the intensity of doing fieldwork. Everything I saw or experienced became important and was transformed into data. I later realized that I sometimes lost the ability to see things in perspective and I am sure that it is important to be more relaxed than I was, and just let things happen without trying to analyze everything immediately. After a few months I slowed down, but a field break was out of the question. I tried going on a break by taking the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki and spend the weekend in Helsinki with friends. But the boat was filled with Estonians and Finns, and I was unable to read one word of my book out of fear of missing anything of what was happening around me. Even the stay in Helsinki was hectic. I was suddenly in the West and tried to understand how everything could be so different from Tallinn, after a ferry ride of just three or four hours.

The official language in Estonia is Estonian which is a Finno-Ugric language and has twelve cases, and is closely related to Finnish. Even though I studied Estonian on my own before I came to Estonia, took private lessons in Estonian in Tallinn, and tagged every item in my very sparsely furnished room with its Estonian name, I never really learned to speak Estonian. My limited language skills were, however, never my main concern after arriving in Tallinn. The business language among the Norwegian and Estonian parties was English or Norwegian, if the Norwegians had hired some of the numerous Estonians who actually spoke Norwegian. Estonians came across as extremely skilled in languages, especially those who were oriented towards the Western influences in Estonia, and this was the case for most of the people I socialized with. It was not uncommon for young Estonians to speak four foreign languages fluently; Finnish, English, Russian and either French, German, Norwegian, or Swedish. Most people did, however, not have many chances to practice their foreign language skills and I was never allowed to stutter in Estonian if Estonians knew that they could practice their English on me.

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Tallinn was the new smells. It feels disrespectful to mention the smell of Tallinn, but my room, apart from the lack of comfort, smelled terrible and I spent the first days scrubbing the ceiling and walls. Every morning a Russian cleaning lady came to clean the halls outside my room, and I had trouble eating in her presence because of the strong stench of sweat from her armpits. The corridors at The University, where I enjoyed the luxury of an office, were packed with tall teenagers who gave off a strong odor of cheap after-shave, perfume, and sweat. One time when I was riding a crowded troll (electric buss) to the city center the smells from the other people on the bus became too much for me and I got sick and had to leave the bus. But Tallinn also offered sweet smells from the numerous bakeries and cafés in the Old Town. These stories about my reactions to different smells might seem meaningless, but after two months I received a visitor from Norway. When my friend complained about the smells in Tallinn I had no idea what he was talking about. By then I had adjusted to the smells, something I did not believe possible during the first months of my stay. It was surprising to realize that I had become used to aspects of Tallinn without even noticing it myself. I no longer questioned some of the things which I reacted strongly to in the beginning.

Apart from having some difficulties with smells, everyday things such as buying bus tickets, finding a place to do my laundry, and shopping, seemed like crucial tasks during the first weeks. It felt like a personal victory every time I understood and managed something new, however insignificant. Even though many things appeared to be different and foreign in Estonia, I was surprised by the similarities to what I was used to from Norway. I started viewing my surroundings as a puzzle where I had the role as a detective who tried to fit all the pieces together into a coherent picture. Everyday tasks became important pieces of the puzzle. The fact that I made new discoveries and break-throughs every day made the stay exciting.

One example of how my knowledge developed was my view of the Estonians. At first I thought they seemed open-minded and happy. Even though the people I observed in the streets did not smile much, I assumed that they were generally satisfied with their situation. But as time passed, and I became closer to people and they started to trust me, my initial impressions were altered. I realized that Estonians often behaved differently in the presence of people from the West. They cracked jokes, greeted people loudly and seemed happy and optimistic. However, if there were only Estonians in a room the atmosphere changed and people talked and smiled less. At first I interpreted this as a Nordic temperament similar to how Norwegians will not utter a word to each other on a bus. Then I stumbled on a well-known Estonian proverb (see Chapter Two): «The favorite food of an Estonian is another Estonian». I started to view Tallinn as a competitive society. In many ways the «Estonian national philosophy» seemed to fit capitalistic ideologies much better than the Norwegian Jante Law(17)according to which you should never believe that you are better than your neighbor. Estonians described themselves as jealous of each other. An Estonian friend told me that «There are no satisfied Estonians, we always want more». He explained that if your neighbor owns a Mercedes and you only have an Audi, you will try to make more money in order to buy a better car than your neighbor. In more than one way it can be said that solidarity was lacking among Estonians. Estonia and especially Tallinn was a very insecure place when it came to both crime and future possibilities, even though the first impression was a post-communist society which had experienced an economic and social miracle in only a few years. The Estonian youth who seemed ambitious and successful often had to provide for their parents who made less than their children. Young people in their mid-twenties often worked full time and studied part time. At TTÜ, the university where I had an office, many classes were held in the evenings after the students had finished their jobs. It was not uncommon to meet students in the corridors with mobile phones and suits which often indicated that they were involved in commercial business, commonly their own. One example was a nineteen year old friend of mine who just had struck a profitable deal and now owned his own company and drove a brand new Mercedes. He had earned enough to pay for his own business education in the West and provide for his parents. Even teachers needed an extra job because of low salaries at the universities. This could result in situations where students and teachers were involved in business relationships with each other. Taking an exam on your business card, was a familiar expression among students at TTÜ. It meant that if a student was representing a firm that the teacher's company wanted to strike a deal with, it would not hurt your grades to show your teacher your business card while handing in the exam.

Towards the end of my stay in Tallinn I was asked in an interview with the school paper at TTÜ if I missed anything in Tallinn. I answered without hesitation that I missed smiles in the streets and satisfied and secure people. The Estonian interviewer agreed. In contrast to the smells, which I noticed immediately and forgot soon, it took longer to see Tallinn as a place where smiles were few and the daily grind was difficult to cope with for many people, because the surface seemed without problems.

As mentioned above, I became much more outgoing during my fieldwork. My greatest fears were of not becoming friends with any Estonians or of being unable to get in touch with the business environment. I was lucky and made friends quickly and in the beginning I was thrilled with the situation. Prior to my fieldwork I had thought about and discussed with my fellow anthropology students how I would treat friends during my stay in Tallinn. I was determined not only to be the one who received help and information, but to give something in return as well. I was used to viewing anthropologists as strategists who took advantage of their informants in order to attain valuable information for their academic work. It had never occurred to me that I would be the one who would be giving without receiving. My English skills made me popular. Apart from the discussion classes I organized together with a visiting American professor at the university, there were several Estonians who spent time with me just to practice their English (the missionaries in Tallinn used this demand for foreign language practice, by announcing services in English instead of in Estonian). Some people also saw me as their ticket out of Estonia. An Estonian friend invited me home for dinner. Over dessert she had told me that her daughter was very interested in studying dance abroad and that she wanted me to check the possibilities in Norway. Another friend frequently borrowed money. She never asked for large amounts, but it happened repeatedly and she rarely paid me back. After I left Tallinn, I received an inquiry about selling containers of Estonian fish to the Norwegian market from a woman I considered my close friend during fieldwork. The incidents where I did people favors, did not bother me the most. The worst part was when I needed someone to confide in and turned to someone I had previously listened to, and they merely responded that I was from Norway where everything was fine so what could possibly be troubling me (Estonians even have a proverb «Korras nagu norras», which means «good as in Norway»). Comments like this always shut me up. But I needed someone to talk to at times, as the intensity of the fieldwork experience, often lead to hypersensitivity. My feelings resembled a roller coaster (maybe it was a good thing that I did not share them with too many people). My day was perfect if I managed to get a new contact with someone within the business milieu or figured out details about how to buy buss passes. The day was ruined if the commandant (the female janitor at the dormitory) failed to greet me in the morning. I would spend the entire morning wondering where I had gone wrong for her not to greet me. Concerning my contacts with the business environment, I was the one who felt pushy and demanding. In most cases I nursed the contacts and at times it became tiring to be the one who constantly took initiatives. I did, however, also make friends within the business world in Tallinn.

Since my friends and informants belonged to different groups, I had to switch between different social networks. One of these was the group of Estonians with minimal contact with Western parts of Tallinn. The most extreme example was a girl who had only been in a car twice before when I met her. I took her to a café and to McDonald's for the first time in her life. I behaved differently among people such as her, than in a more Western oriented social setting. I must admit that I used the Western spaces in Tallinn, which also included Estonians, as get-away-places from the former environments, but it also worked the other way around. I also made a few Russian friends, a fact which I often concealed from my Estonian friends and especially from Western-oriented Estonians. Estonians with less contact with the Western parts of Tallinn seemed to be more friendly towards Russians. My switching between different groups of people was similar to what Estonians experienced. They had to relate to Russians, to people from the West, and to an increasing variation of categories of Estonians. There were parts of the Estonian population who knew very little about each other. A friend of mine commented that she had to read glossy magazines or newspapers in order to know how some Estonians lived. The same friend was unfamiliar with the routines in a bank when I first met her. The internal differences among Estonians were increasing and this was particularly noticeable, since social differentiation used to be invisible before 1991.

As I have mentioned, I often visited the Western parts of Tallinn in order to take a break from my Estonian friends. What I often felt a need to get away from, was the Estonian skepticism, and sometimes even hate, towards people who were not just like them (one would think I was used to this from Norway!). Estonians did not like Russians (at least the ones who lived in Estonia), or Finns, they only approved of certain categories of Western Europeans (Finns were not even seen as Europeans and were nicknamed «reindeer» (põdrat) or «EU moose» after they joined the EU, due to their allegedly uncultured behavior), only a few Americans were accepted, and returning children of Estonians who had emigrated to America, were called Mickey Mouse because they were seen as advocates for Americanization. There were also many groups to dislike internally among the Estonians; the noveaux rich were stupid, a residential area with luxurious villas was called «idiot town», the elderly were lagging behind etc. One explanation of this apparent dislike might have been that Estonia is a young nation, which has not concluded the formation of a national identity and thus feels threatened by anything that seems «different».

The rules of behavior in business environments were initially unknown to me and I had to learn some of them in order to acquire information from business people. As a student of social anthropology I knew almost nothing about business. I could hardly understand accounts and I had never seen a business plan prior to my fieldwork. Some of the first things I noticed was the business cards. When business people met, the exchange of business cards was an important ritual. I often got the feeling that I was somewhat strange because I did not have my personal business card. If I were to do fieldwork among business people again, I would definitively have my business cards printed, as phone numbers written down on a piece of paper were easily lost. Business cards, on the other hand, were organized in folders in alphabetical order or according to business type. A popular souvenir to buy in Tallinn was a handmade folder for business cards, in local design (I bought one myself).

The business people expected me to be well prepared and to know exactly what I wanted to ask about, when I came to see them. I therefore made an interview guide (see Appendix Two), which I changed a number of times during my fieldwork, and I conducted 37 formal and informal interviews. I was not sufficiently prepared, or even qualified to conduct ethnographic interviews, although I had made a rudimentary interview guide before I left Norway. I found formal interviewing very difficult. It was a part of my fieldwork which I was not prepared for, I did not even suspect that I would be conducting such interviews. I had gained the mistaken impression that anthropologists rely on data collected from participant observation alone. So I was forced to learn interview techniques in the course of my fieldwork, and I am certain that many of my initial mistakes could have been avoided if I had been familiar with a few basic techniques beforehand. The interviews themselves were often a peculiar experience, where I tried to persuade the informants to talk as much as possible, whereas they believed that I had thoroughly considered questions which they tried to answer to the best of their ability. I would ideally have avoided posing any questions at all. I sometimes felt that I was presented with answers to things I had decided were significant beforehand, and thus missed important information. One way of avoiding too much focus on the questions, was to pose descriptive questions, such as what does your job consist of? As most people enjoy talking about what they are doing, and most people generally are not interested, this would normally keep the business people busy for a while. Some of my best information came from the business people's job descriptions. A different misunderstanding was that the business people were very conscious of when the official part of our meeting was over, i.e. when I stopped taking notes. The business people did not expect me to use any of the information they provided after the interviews were finished. I, on the other hand, often viewed interviews as the beginning of a relationship with an informant. It was a way of setting up a meeting and thus establishing the initial contact. As Hall points out, everything that takes place prior to and after an interview is an important source of information (Hall 1987). I would of course treat sensitive information carefully and never use it in the thesis or share it with other people, but I felt that I had to know as much as possible in order to form a thorough understanding of the whole situation. I never concealed that I was a student of social anthropology and I tried to explain anthropological methods, but in spite of my efforts, I do not think they fully understood what I meant.

I interviewed both Norwegian and Estonian business people, but made more friends among the Estonians. I was surprised that so many of them opened up to me, considering that I shared nationality with their Norwegian bosses, or maybe this was the reason. They seemed grateful to be able to present their side of the story to a Norwegian. I was often embarrassed by the way some Norwegians treated their Estonian employees and partners. I was aware of too many incidents where Norwegians broke their promises or even the law, by for example failing to pay salaries. When I was asked by an Estonian friend whether or not I would recommend him to apply for a job in a particular Norwegian firm in Tallinn, my answer was no. I knew that the Norwegian manager of the company had lost his former job because he was suspected of fraud, and in my mind he was not trustworthy. The right thing to do might have been to refuse to answer the Estonian's questions about the company, but, in that case, I felt that it was more important to treat a friend right, than to protect my data and integrity as a fieldworker. Another reason for helping my friend was that I sometimes felt personal dislike for some of my Norwegian informants. Anthropologists often consider themselves as spokespersons for their informants who should defend their rights etc. This was not how it turned out in my case, especially not with the Norwegian business people. Despite this, I tried to see things from their perspective, as I consider that to be the main task of an anthropologist. One of the reasons why I disliked some of the Norwegian business people, may have been that they represented a group which possessed many resources. People who receive high salaries and have a fairly long education are not considered a threatened social group. I might have reacted differently if I had witnessed similar events among a tribe in the Amazons, whom I would not have judged by my own standards.

In the relationship between me and the Norwegian business people, I was not the only one who wanted information. The Norwegian business people sometimes tried to make me tell them things their partners had told me. One man said that he refused to answer my questions until I told him what his Estonian partner had said about the working relations within the firm. He gave up when he understood that I was not interested in the deal. If I could have provided him with the information he needed, I would have told him that they needed a weekly meeting for the administration. This was the only complaint the Estonian had made. The fact that the Norwegian boss was unaware of this simple, but important fact proved to me that my study was needed and that I was acquiring valuable information. It also made me aware that I was a person who could be used and abused by both my Estonian and Norwegian informants.

The process of doing fieldwork was one of personal satisfaction. Prior to my stay in Tallinn I had produced a project proposal and applied for financial support. The project was my idea and I established my own contacts and prepared every detail myself. During fieldwork I had a strong sense of carrying out something which I had planned, and thus of living up to my own expectations. During fieldwork, it felt as if I was learning something new every day, as both Estonia and the business environments were new and exciting. But I was unprepared for my return to Norway. It was a disappointment to learn that my fieldnotes and interviews, which had demanded such hard work, did not immediately provide the means to retell what I had experienced, to my supervisor, friends, or in a thesis. The understanding, which I believed to have acquired on the plane home from Tallinn, was soon reduced to a feeling that the only thing I could truly say about my fieldwork, was: «I don't know what it was, but something smelled funny».