A Little LingAnthro for You
An unfamiliar landscape, like an unfamiliar language, is always a little daunting, and when the two are encountered together--as they are, commonly enough, in those out-of-the-way communities where ethnographers tend to crop up--the combination may be downright unsettling. From the outset, of course, neither landscape nor language can be ignored. On the contrary, the shapes and colors and contours of the land, together with the shifting sounds and cadences of native discourse, thrust themselves upon the newcomer with a force so vivid and direct as to be virtually inescapable. Yet for all their sensory immediacy (and there are occasions, as any ethnographer will attest, when the sheer constancy of it grows to formidable proportions) landscape and discourse seem resolutely out of reach. Although close at hand and tangible in the extreme, each in its own way appears remote and inaccessible, anonymous and indistinct, and somehow, implausibly, a shade less than fully believable. And neither landscape nor discourse, as if determined to accentuate these conflicting impressions, may seem the least bit interested in having them resolved. Emphatically "there" but conspicuously lacking in accustomed forms of order and arrangement, landscape and discourse confound the stranger's efforts to invest them with significance, and this uncommon predicament, which produces nothing if not uncertainty, can be keenly disconcerting.
When I got here back in September I was thinking I knew some aspects of Czech culture pretty well. But that was quickly out the window. It can be deceptively "familiar" here at times because it is a European culture. There are a lot of things I'm used to. (Does this partly explain the dearth of ethnography in Europe? Too many people that do the stuff think it's just not interesting enough?) Well, just when you think you are finally getting close to "finding your feet" in a culture, as Clifford Geertz put it, one finds that the ground is still far away. It makes me think of the people in The Phantom Toll Booth who grow from the head downwards. Instead of getting taller and taller, they float above the ground as children and their legs don't reach all the way to the ground until they "grow up." As far as I'm concerned, I guess there is still some growing to do.