Returning to the field


Michele and some lovely uva nera

When I was in Turin last month I returned to the field where I did the research for my PhD dissertation, the Porta Palazzo market. I was very anxious about going back after many years and only a few sporadic visits. I was going to find out what had happened during my absence, to find my old friends and informants and to see if I could salvage the manuscript I had written about this magic place.

As I approached the market from via Milano, I felt the same uncertainty I initially had when I first started my fieldwork: would I be accepted by the people at the market, would they remember me, how had our relationship changed from when I was here each day working next to the vendors doing my shopping and living a large portion of my life in piazza? What personal questions would they ask me (because they always do ask personal questions) and how would I tell them about the changes in my life? How would I recount all the places I had been and lived? How would I bring our worlds together again?

The first people I encounter were Luigi and his family at the candy stand. They were possibly the hardest people to get to know, with their guarded Piedmontese manners and closed family circle. As the shy smile rolled across Luigi’s face, I knew he remembered me. The whole family began to ask me where I had been? Where did I live now? We fell into our old prattle about life, health, relationships and happiness. Everything had changed but everything had stayed the same. I would soon learn that this largely held true for most of Porta Palazzo.

That week I went to the market each day. I spent time with my old friends. I drank wine and ate salami with Oscar and Walter. I went to Said’s house to break the Ramadan fast and catch up with his wife Naima. I even got to meet one of their beautiful daughters, who is a new edition since I first met this young Moroccan couple in 2002. At the farmers’ market, Pier let me mind his vegetable stand while he went to fetch his truck and his uncle Michele made me taste each type of grape he had brought to market as I waited. Andrea still looked as much in love as the last time I saw him selling bananas and pineapples. He told me about what happiness his relationship brings him. While there was some joy, there was also the usual storm clouds: everyone lamented the poor economy (like they always do) and talked about the impossibility of going forward in such a depressed state. No one except Piero had left (and that was family feud) the market. We are all a little older. There are more children. Most importantly, the market marches on as it satiates the city’s hunger.

For an anthropologist returning to the field can be one of the hardest things to do. However, it can also been one of the most interesting and fruitful activities. Returning to Porta Palazzo after a five-year break I had new questions to ask about the market. I saw more continuity. I could grasp long-term changes and trends. Yes, it was all the same but all different as well.