The results of yesterday’s Greek elections, which the radical left coalition, SYRIZA, won in an historic landslide, reminded me of a humble pharmacist named Dimitris Christoulas. What follows is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in his honor back in 2012.
I hope his spirit rests a little better today.
It was a Wednesday when I read about the suicide. At 8:45 am on the morning of April 4 2012, 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas killed himself amidst a rush of morning commuters near a metro station in front of the Greek Parliament. I choked on tears when I finished the article.
I was probably surfing the Internet, perendinating as usual. I’d just returned from a research trip to Bulgaria, and had been unceremoniously rocket launched into the second half of my spring semester. On top of writing lectures, teaching, grading, and supervising my students, I had four composition books full of hand-written fieldnotes that needed to be transcribed. But I was restless and feeling depressed about the world of academic knowledge production.
Probably my existential mood made the news of the suicide afflict me so deeply. Mr. Christoulas had leaned his head against a cypress tree. It meant he considered the logistics before he pulled the trigger. He knew that his head might jerk away from the force of the bullet. The cypress tree provided the answer. I imagined him with one temple pressed against the bark and the other temple pressed beneath the barrel of the handgun. I could see his body crumpling to the ground in Syntagma Square, the blood from his head soaking into the spring grass still wet with the fresh morning dew. It would be Orthodox Easter soon. Despite the divine reference in his surname, there would be no resurrection for Mr. Christoulas.
Serendipity confounds me. I spent most of Monday writing the following reflections on the death of a Bulgarian woman, one of my “key informants,” who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago while I was in Sofia. You can imagine my surprise when I logged on to Savage Minds this morning to post my short tribute to Ana. I encountered Ruth Behar’s beautiful piece on the passing of Esperanza, her comadre in Mexico and the inspiration for Translated Woman. Behar’s essay moved me to tears, and my own purple prose pales in comparison to her poetic rumination on the way an ethnographer’s life can become intertwined with those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. Journalists would say that I’d “been scooped,” since this post evokes many of the same issues and emotions as Behar’s and she is by far the more accomplished writer and anthropologist. But for Ana’s sake, I’ll post this humble essay anyway. The fleeting immortality of the written word is the only gift we ethnographers have to give.
Getting to know people across the barriers of language, culture, and generations provides one of the greatest joys of ethnographic fieldwork. I dislike the term “informant” because of its negative connotations, especially in the postsocialist context where people once “informed” on each other to the secret police. I prefer the term “fieldwork friends.”
I’ve conducted ethnographic research in Southeastern Europe for eighteen years, and I recognize the difficult power imbalances and the hierarchy of privileges that underpin relationships in the field. My position as an American – first as graduate student, then as professor – provides certain advantages that my fieldwork friends lack. Despite these challenges, I’ve forged close relations with many Bulgarian men and women who’ve shared their lives with me over the years.