First Fieldwork was an assigned reading when I took Intro to Anthropology in college. That was a good 15 years ago, and since then I’ve reread this book probably five times. It’s short, it’s interesting, and it’s hilarious.
Barbara Gallatin Anderson recounts a fieldwork assignment in the tiny fishing village of Taarnby, Denmark. She and her husband are there to study the changes that urbanization is making to the culture of the small town. To this non-anthropologist, that sounds dull as dishwater, and I’m guessing I wouldn’t have had any interest in a genuine ethnography. First Fieldwork, however, is not a true ethnography. It’s more of a recounting of her attempts to settle into Taarnby and assimilate a bit to local customs. As a “fish out of water” memoir, it’s so entertaining. Anderson attends a cooking class, conducted in Danish (which she is certainly not fluent in), and memorably ruins the meatloaf. She attempts to enjoy an afternoon at a luxury bathhouse, without having any idea how to navigate the place. She tries to fit in with the Danish tradition of “coffee hours,” marathon social sessions with an insane amount of pastries involved. Through it all, she portrays herself as a sort of lovable buffoon, flailing where her husband and daughter are thriving.
If you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time in a foreign country, Anderson’s exploits may remind you of your own attempts to assimilate. When I was 17, I spent a summer in a small city in Germany. It’s the little things that reminded me that I didn’t belong. None of the German teenage girls I met there, for example, wore shorts, even in the middle of summer. When I ordered ketchup with my fries, they mixed it with mayonnaise. When I tried to put my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me at the movies, I got in trouble with the usher. These little rules, that you would never learn in a class or by reading a book, are the things that emphasize your differentness, and they can wear on you. Anderson recounts these experiences in a way that is always funny, while also inspiring empathy in the reader. There aren’t many books I was assigned in college that I enjoyed enough to read again (hello, copy of The Brothers Karamazov that hasn’t been touched since 2001), but this one is a keeper for me.