Romashki or a Life Less Ordinary, part 2

By Thomas Mcintyre

Once upon a time…Do you, my dear reader, believe it is possible to live in a fairytale? This may seem like a strange question on a rural sociology blog, and indeed it is. It is not a question I thought seriously about before, though I confess I have been predisposed to curling up on a chair in front of the fire and entering the world of fairytales through a book or through my imagination… but to live in one! This seems rather preposterous, and you would be forgiven for wondering what this has to do with serious anthropological research. But like any good research, setting out into the unknown has raised some strange questions I have had to stew on. If you answer a tentative yes to the opening question, as I am now inclined to do, then would you entertain the thought of writing a fairytale thesis? After all, if the reality you are studying is a fairytale, then would it not only be appropriate that the written representation of this reality should also be a fairytale? Now, I suppose you would like me to explain what I mean by living a fairytale and writing a fairytale thesis, especially its academic justification and application. But first things first: my arrival to Romashki.

If you have read part 1 of this instalment, you will remember that I boarded a train in the Netherlands with a final destination of a village called Romashki in Ukraine. I was to live and study the lives of a very special family who had forsaken an established life in the city for the dream of creating their own alternative home in the countryside. The adventures of this journey to Ukraine are for another time, but importantly for this story, I arrived in Romashki in one piece. Despite a final harrowing drive, with a speed crazy Ukrainian called Max, and with a rather severe hangover from the Ukrainian cognac the night before, I could not but feel happy at the calmness and serenity of the rural setting we arrived to; away from the polluted concrete jungle of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and my old life. Taking a deep breath, and slowly exhaling, I thought to myself: ‘I have again entered the world of Romashki. This time I am no mere tourist. This time it will be my home’. The birds welcomed me with their song, the sun smiled on me sweetly, and by Jove: I realised I was where I wanted to be! I walked the familiar path down to the mud and straw (cob) house of the people I was to intertwine my life story with for almost four months – Pietro, Olga, and their daughter Ulyana – and, turning into their property, I saw them, they saw me, and the smiles on their faces assured me that I was safe, at home, and ready to live the dream of a life less ordinary.

Lovers in the sky
There are many impressions and experiences I now want to share with you, but, alas, there is not space for all. I will thus quite simply (not easy for an anthropologist) tell of how I was introduced to the ‘fairytale’ in Romashki. This event happened soon after I arrived, and was to colour the remainder of my stay. Barefoot and bare chested, Pietro with his 6 year beard and your narrator with his 6 week stubble walked up the tree lined path to the main road by the bus stop, a 15 minute walk. Surrounded by large fields as far as your eyes can see, this is another world than the little hidden village of Romashki with its little plots of land, its pockets of forest, and its canvass of colors. Here, like in the cornfields of Iowa, big combines come and harvest these fields of wheat, the only plant which is allowed to grow. With its sharp cutting blades turning in controlled anger, the screaming mechanical beast of the combine, with its stinking breathe of smoke, rapes the homogenous life beneath it. What is left behind is a monotonous landscape devoid of nutrients and life, with only a few patches of straw left over which the beast had failed to notice. But when we arrived this late afternoon, the beasts had gone, and all was quiet. There was a light drizzle, but warm as Pietro and I came to collect this left-over straw to use as a building material for the house, and as something ‘soft’ to sleep on. We each filled a large bag, and balancing them on our heads, began to walk back home; somewhat alike to an image I have of African woman carrying jars of water on their heads. The drizzle ended, and steam came up from the road. For some reason I felt the desire to stop and turn around. Looking back down the road we had taken, along the horizon, I saw one of the most extraordinary sights of my life: Two complete rainbows! I could not believe my eyes and could not speak a word. I just stared and stared in wonder and amazement. Like two beautiful and vibrant lovers spooning in heavens above, the sight evoked a profound sense of natural harmony and love in my heart. The two rainbows were one. Petro came up and stood silently beside me. Nothing was said for a while. Then he looked at me, smiling, and with a note of contentment said: “we live in a fairytale”. We put the bundles back on our heads and continued walking across the hills back to our little cob house in our little village by the little lake.

Lying on my bed of straw that night I thought about the rainbows and about what Pietro meant when he said: “we live in a fairytale”. Romashki was most definitely a fairytale place, and the simple life of walking barefoot into the fields to collect straw by hand, and then carrying it on our heads, to then stand around a table outside and eat a dinner made from vegetables from the garden was a very romantic image of the countryside which could easily come out of a fairytale. I also felt like I was doing the whole fairytale ethnography thing: I was in a distant land, in a semi isolated village, in a small community who spoke a foreign language, doing full deep participant research into people who I thought were very different from me. There were no evil witches carrying poisonous red apples, or dwarfs or talking rabbits, but instead there were old women wearing head scarves, offering me tasty grapes from the vines in their garden, and a world of impressions and wonders beyond the ordinary. With these thoughts in mind, I looked out over the semi open walls of the hay barn which was my abode, and catching a last look at the star spangled sky, fall asleep with the moonlight on my face.

 Justification for a fairytale thesis: Methodology and theoretical framework
My idea had always been to approach my research from a narrative perspective. By this I meant that the lens through which I intended to view the world was to be that of a narrator looking for the stories which we construct about the world around us to give it meaning. To accomplish this, my kaleidoscope which was my lens had two settings which I tried to employ. The first setting is called in academic jargon the Actor Orientated Approach (AOA), which as the name implies advocates focusing research on the actors involved – the way people create and restrain their own possibilities in life (agency) – rather than an approach which focuses on how external factors such as institutions and political economy restrain this agency. I employed aspects of the AOA because I wanted to explore the unique reality of the alternative life my subjects were living: what this possibility for a life was, how they constructed it, and how it was being expressed in day to day life. When Pietro said they lived in a fairytale, I had to take this possibility seriously. As I spent more time with the Raevskis they mentioned the fairytale again and again, from different angles, and as I sank deeper into their world, I began to look at their lives more as a fairytale. I was careful to come up for air to remain critical to what I was experiencing, but I realised that to take the actors seriously as advocated in the AOA, I would have to enter into this fairytale reality.

The second setting on my kaleidoscope is called the Actor Network Theory (ANT). ANT is not so much a theory as a method for looking at the world around us as being made up of interrelated actants (human and non-human actors) which are defined, and only have meaning, in relationship to each other. The classical example is that of a gun: the gun has no meaning without a bullet, or a person to pull the trigger, or something to aim at. Everything is connected, and any one element only has meaning in relation to another element. In terms of my research this approach is important because it breaks down the artificial divide between nature and people. In the reality I believed I was part of, this divide did not exist. Not just the people were important, but also the plants and animals around them; the sun, moon and stars above them; and the invisible energy inside and around all living life. Plants and people and animals speak the same language, and their roles (meaning) are defined by their relationship to each other. To represent this I give voice to plants and animals in my story, just like in a fairytale. There is a talking sunflower, a cheeky squirrel, and a water fairy: all have their role to play in my story. Everything is connected and special. Everything is one.

Academic you say?
I now take it you have a little to chew over. You are probably still wondering what it means to live a fairytale life, and may still be highly critical to whether this is possible or not. You may also wonder about whether this is even academic! The first two questions I will tackle further in part three of this series in which will outline my research questions and how I am answering them in the thesis I am currently writing. But the third question deserves consideration now: ‘is this academic?’ My reply: Yes! In this story I am attempting to tap into the wonder and beauty of an alternative world being lived by a family in a village called Romashki. This is a world of feelings and emotions, irrational at times, and impossible to grasp in concrete words. In trying as truthfully as possible to (re)present the reality I experienced, I believe it cannot be captured in any other textual way than through the allegory, metaphors and poetry of the narrative. It just so happens that the reality I entered was perceived as a fairytale by the people I studied, and thus it did not seem a far stretch of the imagination to then employ the fairytale as the window for you, the all important audience, into this world. I would be most pleased if you could leave a comment about this fairytale so I can further reflect on the world I am writing about.

To be continued…

8 thoughts on “Romashki or a Life Less Ordinary, part 2

  1. Mr. Macintyre,

    Living in a fairy tale can be a wonderful thing. Your use of Actor Orientated Approach (AOA) and Actor Network Theory (ANT) seems laudable given your experiences and intentions. In fact, these ways of looking at things might be a good idea for others, yes?

    As I read subsequent postings and, eventually, your thesis, I do hope to find that the methods and means of the folk at Romashki can be applied in a broader context. A small group living in a wonderful way in a pastoral Eastern Europe setting makes for very nice reading, but how can these lessons be applied to more peoples’ lives? That seems always the query that divides some parts of academia from “real life.”

    With your work you seem to be trying to bridge this gap. Best of Fortune in doing so!! I look forward to more postings.

  2. Thomas once again you put on the table very interesting questions to make any person (especially researchers) think about the seriousness and responsibility towards what we are confronted to when we step into other people’s lives! Is our understanding filtered though lenses created by our own perception of what reality is?
    Where do we draw the line between what is academic and what is not? Does it matter? In this case it does, due to the fact that you are writing a master thesis for a formal institution. You have convinced me that writing your thesis in fairytale style is not a caprice, nor purely literary achievement, but a way for the reader to understand how the actors perceive their own reality. You have giving us the eyes of POU (Pietro, Olga and Ulyana) with which they perceive and understand their world. Great accomplishment!!
    About your comment of the AOA approach I think you should be more careful when describing other approaches as external. Remember that people can, and often do, create their own “informal” institutions as a result of their day to day life. These institutions can be an adaptation of external ones, a bricolage of both, or a complete new set of created institutions, as it seams is the case with POU in Romashki (interesting topic to look at created institutions from an actor oriented perspective, in my personal opinion). By institutions I mean “the rules of the game” influencing actor’s possibilities, that can be also understood as internal factors directly dependent on actors themselves.
    About Mr. Sawyer’s comment, I think that when Thomas took this story from a small pastoral Eastern Europe setting to the level of a fairy tale, he achieved to bring it to a broader context. We all have read fairy tales of far away imaginary (and sometimes not) lands that involve stories and morals which we can relate to in our own lives. And this is the beauty of what POU can teach us, not just the way they are living but how they live according to their own created philosophy of life. We can learn about how they decided to put words into action making their discourse a reality (a very brave thing to do). I think this is a lesson for many of us who have just stayed with a great discourse but have not acted at all, mostly because we think is not possible!

    Thomas, the questions you have arisen for me with your second part of this tale are many, this are the most interesting ones:
    Is it possible to create our own reality regardless of how different it is from that which prevails? What does this entail? Where is the limit of the fairy tale in Romashki case? It extends to their neighbors? Can we all create our own reality? Can we influence other’s realities? Can I create my own fairy tale as long as I believe in it?
    And going further, do we (urban western people) live in a reality created by others for their own benefit? Who are they and what is their benefit? How do they deny us to create our own realities? By kipping us busy through TV, money, consumerism, unnecessary commodities, current images of success, poor and less leisure time to spend thinking and creating our own lives?
    If this is the case, that we live in a “created by others reality” then how much do we like this reality? How happy are we living in it? Can we really escape? Have POU escaped?
    “Time is money” it is said, thus we better not waste time thinking of other ways of living? Is money that essential?…I wonder….
    I hope you develop further some of these ideas in later stages of your thesis!
    Thank you for giving us hope by bringing us the story of what it seams a successful attempt to create ones own reality. Enough for now! I look forward to reading your third part.

  3. What an inspiring and entertaining philosophical platform proposed by the promising Thomas McIntyre and alimented by his followers. While reading the first part of this story, I was questioning my-self to what extent this sort of narrative has a role in terms of broader understanding or application. My interest rather lied in the invigorating light it sheds on the conceptualisation of poverty, as mostly financially defined by development institutions. Escaping an apparently comfortable pecuniary situation to purposely enter into ‘poverty’, PO – growing into POU – have managed to create different livelihoods opportunities and enrich their life in terms of happiness and personal development. The cheeky squirrel would probably also argue that this way of life is less endangering his nuts…

    Following the story and entering into the fairy tale, I do agree with Miss Chavez that this romashkic piece of life has some more (I know anthropologists don’t like this term) ‘universal’ meaning on how by creating one’s own reality, norms and opportunities, one can improve his quality of life. However, a substantial factor regarding the case of POU lies, in my opinion, in their background. Is it possible for Alexei Kirilenko, 38 years married with three kids, who left school when he was 14 and currently working in the Antonov aircraft factory in Kiev twelve hours a day, to define his own reality? It certainly is but to what extent? Are fairy tales available for all of us? Or is it merely a possible luxury to a handful? How human agency does relates to structure and is structure created by human agency – as suggested by Miss Chavez – or perpetuates itself…

    Anyway, I am looking forward to read the following thoughts of this intrepid philosophical explorer and dive deeper in the fairy world of Romashki. Nevertheless, I do hope that plants, squirrel and other living characters of this tale will display good English-as-a-foreign language skills.

    Cheers

  4. Dear Mark,

    As a curious reader of what is going to be told and how it will become a fairy-tale, I must say what it comes to my mind when it is to think that a narration is going to be for an academic purpose. Will it be different if it was to be done by the simple fact of the love of writing? Perhaps… Still, if one is to find how fairy-tales are written, one can identify that they have a structure and a meaning sense (there are academic books). In psychology (well, the one I like) fairy-tales are use to work with patients, not only with children, because they are always telling stories about the meanings of life, of what is to be a subject carrying on by itself, confronting danger (not only the one that is outside, but meanly the ones that are inside everyone: fears), etc.
    I do believe that an academic statement can be left from a fairy-tale well narrated, in other words, if it can place in the story the journey of transformation from what was life before and how can the subject faced what was implied in the path he/she made. And from it a critical view of what is the world can be post. Then, I think it is to differentiate what are the fieldwork notes and the document structured on them, in your case, the writing of a fairy-tale.

    (PD: I hope I help you in some way…… and please excuse my english writing)

    Luza

  5. Dear Mark,
    The question of applicability is very interesting and important concept but difficult to answer and give meaning to in practice. Miss Chaves has strong opinions on this.

    The objective of my research was to exercise the moral imagination of my audience: encouraging people to question themselves as to the rights and wrongs of the decisions and actions (practices and routines) of the Raevskis as they went about creating their alternative rurality and living it.

    Romashki is a special place, with its own unique mix of people, resources, and perhaps energies (if one believes in these). My objective is not to encourage people to go back to nature and give up all the comforts of the modern world (something I think few people want to do).

    Instead, the lessons I hope people will gain from my research and its representation is how a family have constructed a fairytale in the countryside through following their hearts and the natural laws of harmony and beauty. As i will expound further in part 3 of this series, following the natural laws was for the Raevskis (as I understood it) the means of stepping through the wardrobe into the fairytale.
    (the wardrobe of the world of Narnia, C.S. Lewis)

    This ‘wardrobe’ surely differs between people, but the point is to critically reflect on, and hopefully find inspiration in the story of the Raevskis in Romashki: how they went from disillusionment in the city, to the fairytale in Romashki.

    But remember, the fairytale is THEIR fairytale. Through my thesis I raise many points which i found hard to accept, and which I challenge the reader to reflect on (hence the moral imagination needed to engage in the story).

    Thank you Mark, and thanks again for your comments.

  6. Dear Marta,
    As always, a delight to receive your comments. Lets see – how can I find method in this madness.

    In regards to what you say about being careful with the Actor Orientated Aproach (AOA), and calling other things external when there are many informal institutions which people make themselves which are not external, that is exactly my point! The way I have understood AOA is to focus on the world of the actors themselves and the institutions (rules) they make themselves, and NOT the rules made from outsiders (like local administrators, media and society at large). This relates to one of your questions: Yes, I believe we make our own realities, simply by thinking thoughts, and the consequences of these thought are the reality we thus create ourselves. Hence, the second part of your question: when you share a thought with another person, or an action or a feeling, that person thinks in a new way, leading to new consequence and new reality. (This was just an unconscious flow of words, I do not know what I say jajaja)

    As I wrote to in response to Mark’s comment above, the reality of the Raevski is theirs, and theirs alone. Can we escape like the Raevskis have from the reality of the modern world you ask. Too right! But it takes courage and irrationality (what today we consider rational is what prevents us from entering the fairytale the Raevskis live in).

    Sitting with Olga Raevski, she would tell me about their reality and their personal development. She told me about how her and Pietro were trying to ‘sweep away the dust’ of the old ideas and misinformation of their past lives. The values of mistrust and selfishness and insecurity which they felt before they arrived to Romashki, and which they saw in the people around them in the modern world. Olga said Romashki was a good place for this. Away from the stress and constant information in the city. Talking to another ecovillager in Romashki, Julia told me about Romashki being a place to explore the possibilities of life which the city has hidden from us.

    You say to Mr Mark Sawyer that this story brings the fairytale to the broader context, where we can see how the Raevskis have acted on their discourse to make it into a reality. I agree full heartedly with this. You are further right when you say that many of us sit with these ideas of another life, but do not act on them because we do not think they are possible. I then consider it of the uttermost importance to encourage people to see these possibilities!!! We must all encourage each other.

    Thank you again Marta for your comments and especially their critical nature. I hope to hear more from you.

  7. Dear Mr Porchet (does that mean fish in french?),
    Thank you for your comments and their critical nature.

    It may just happen that when your Alexei Kirilenko was little he went and lived with his grandmother in the countryside in the holidays (which many Ukrainians do) where she lived on a farm. Growing up, life took its course for Alexei and he is where you say he is now. Working on planes. But perhaps Alexei never forgot the joyful memories of his time in the countryside. His grandmother gets sick, he goes to see her, she unfortunately passes away, he is given the possibility to live on her farm. He brings his family with him. His son Boris has studied Organic agriculture at Wageningen university, he brings skills to the farm. They struggle for a few years, all are unhappy at times, but they overcome adversity, network with other (alternative?) peasants, develop the alternative ideas of Boris, and a new life is formed.

    This may have happened, or Alexei may still be working 12 hours day in Kiev, but the point is I feel that there are possibilities everywhere, and it is just a matter of having the courage and willingness to look for them and follow them. I agree with what you say about the luxery of a few, and i acknowledge in my thesis that the Raevskis are very resourceful people with a lot of social capital. More than most others. Indeed, all ecovillagers in Romashki are educated. Is the fairytale possible for people like Alexei? Perhaps. I am unsure if they can make a fairytale like that of the Raevskis. But it depends on what Alexsei’s fairytale is! Perhaps his fairytale is working on aeroplanes…

    Lastly, thank you for mentioning the squirrel. He is important in this story, as is the fate of the nuts. However, I take it you were a fish in your last life, for your understanding of the life of a a squirrel (or as a plant – the walnut tree for example) is misguided. With the Raevskis living this alternative life, it means that they will climb the trees and compete with the squirrel for the nuts. You will have to read all of my 150 page thesis to get the full story, I am afraid. The nuts are as endangered as ever they were.

    If you were referring to other kinds of nuts, which is unlikely because you are a fish, then you may be right as the Raevskis are vegan.

    Mr Porchet, thank you again for you comments and I hope you will provide more in part 3 when it is ready.

  8. Dear Luza,

    Thank you for your comments.

    You make good points. Yes, fairytales are on the surface simple stories with morals which address much deeper aspects of who we are and the meaning we try to find in our lives. They are a different way of presenting the reality we live in, or the one we are trying to create, as is the fairytale the Raevskis have made for themselves.

    You wonder about the fairytale for an academic purpose rather than just for the love of writing! This is interesting. For me I have found that the two merge together. And I think that they SHOULD be together. Why this divide between what is academic, written in a ‘scholarly’ way, and novels which you read for enjoyment? The academic aspect of the fairytale, through ethnographic methods, brings a feeling of realness and situated appeal (I hope) to the fairytale. The novelesque aspect is meant to engage the reader and make him or her feel the work, the journey of transformation of the characters as you say, not just think about what happens with the cold reason on their mind.

    Thank you again for the comments and i am sure we can find the opportunity to discuss them in person.

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