Nicole’s Journey: Exploring Gozo “Off the Beaten Track”

What I love about working in a café is the fact that I meet a lot of tourists. Where people come from and their backgrounds, interests me very much. I am a friendly person and tourists love that I encourage conversation at work. It’s called customer satisfaction.

At the café, I got to meet a special group of American girls who I immediately clicked with. I find it odd to meet Americans in Gozo because how the hell could they have gotten to know about Gozo in the first place? As I got to talking with them, I learned that they were in Gozo, participating in a field school regarding anthropology. I knew I had to dig deeper and write a blog post about it. I have been living in Gozo for ten years and I never knew about this field school in Xlendi. Therefore, my curiosity kicked in. I got to interview Nicole, one of the girls who I mostly interacted with, to learn more about Off the Beaten Track Field School. I sent her the below questions via email and she responded with great enthusiasm.

1.   A little background info about yourself.

Curious is an adjective often used to describe me. My name is Nicole Cyrier, and I have been studying Anthropology since 2011, I have graduated from the College of DuPage (AA), the University of Illinois at Chicago (BA Anthropology, Minor in Theatre), and University College London (MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology). I have a profound interest in human behavior and cultural processes and have a spanning interest from the arts and other sciences. I believe that the best way to get to know myself and the world in which I live in, is through experience and travel. I have a fondness for living creatures and for the material objects and ‘things’ they create. I love to meet new people and continue to build and strengthen bonds with those whom I have had the opportunity to encounter.

2.   What is Off the Beaten Track Field School?

Off the Beaten Track Field School (OTBT) is a unique program that fills a gap for field practice explicitly geared for studies in Humanities and Cultural Anthropology. The camp runs during the summer, to which three sessions are offered and take place in Gozo, Malta. It functions as a means of practice for those who wish to discover whether they want to explore these studies, while providing the opportunity within a living breathing location of study, or field (to practice collecting data and producing a written product in the end).

The school began in 2006 and is still going strong. Staff are highly educated, kind, and take their roles seriously to care for their students while facilitating scholarly practice. They also offer multiple opportunities for additional classes and methods for creating relationships with potential informants. There is also an opportunity for students to submit research papers to a peer-reviewed journal, and potential to earn credits (depending on the university a student attends).

The process of the program begins with an explanation of the living and participating in the housing facility/camp. Each student has a single weekly advisory meeting to discuss challenges, anxieties, and sort through fieldwork curiosities. Anthropological professionals and budding social scientists conduct advisory meetings. Their input is most helpful and enriches the experience (in my opinion).

Additionally, students and leaders were expected to attend nightly dinners to come together as a whole (weekends excluded and self-directed). The leaders were to be dispersed amongst students so that a comfortable, conversational atmosphere is maintained. Ideas were always exchanged and discussed during these meals, which added to the camp’s social fabric and networking practice.

The camp provided some activities to break up the fieldwork process and allow for collaboration and discovery. Students had the freedom to move freely and had to decide how they would use their time and how much of that time would be put into their fieldwork, as well as how they would go about their research. Ultimately, the outcome of their work would be a result of how each student chose to spend their time.

Each leadership team is hand-selected for each summer section. These leaders were readily available for any emotional support and any health/safety needs. All was made possible by some incredible people, in which I am very thankful and wish to acknowledge them for their genuine and generous support throughout the entire research process.

3.   How did you come to know about it?

I came across the field school through the American Anthropological Association webpage, under Field Schools, which this field camp instantly grabbed my interest!

4.   Why did you choose to come to Gozo and participate in this project?

The location of the field school determined my journey to Gozo. As I understand, Gozo was selected by OTBT founders due to its safety, common language (English), and its range of culture and history. As for myself, I applied to this program because it was exactly what I was looking for: an opportunity to grow and practice the craft of Ethnography.

5.  What did you research on for the project?

As for myself, I like to put in as much time and energy as possible, perhaps sometimes a little too much to the point of exhaustion.

My process began with prior research on the topic of indigenous Maltese agricultural plants, though this idea quickly evolved into something entirely different. To start, I was suggested (by the leaders) to knock on doors and ask people whom they know is a farmer or who owns a garden. So, I thought, “Why not?” I walked through Victoria, headed towards Kerċem, knocking on random doors. It took all of three knocks to come across a beautiful story that was entirely different from my original plan. We’re told to, “follow your research,” so, I listened and allowed the organic nature of the moment to guide me in a new direction.

As of this point, I have not yet written anything specific and I am still assembling and sorting through my data, so I am not ready to share any details at this point. However, I can offer a broader sense of my research, for now. I have been studying ways of life in Gozo through observation and participating in the process of choice, reasoning, and action. These moments ultimately provide clues about personal and cultural values through tangible and specific examples of a Gozitan’s life.

6. What did you learn and gain from this project?

For this project, my intention was to learn and grow. For me, this was a new way to go about a studious adventure (as I tend to focus on setting and achieving very specific goals). What I learned and what I have gained are two distinct ideas. As for what I have learned, I am still analyzing and assembling my data to understand that. As for what I have gained, I can share from my heart to yours, without hesitation: self-realization, rejuvenation, and a new appreciation for the unexpected.

What I have acquired from this experience was heartwarming and so meaningful. I have learned to trust my instincts (or “listen to my gut”), I have learned that being who I am (having a smile and being honest and open with others) is something welcomed (in my experience) that lead to incredible and unforgettable connections. I have also become more alert to the challenges between language barriers and have found that my non-verbal expressions provided an excellent foundation for building relationships.

Most of all, I learned that being consistent in my behavior lead to incredible and inspirational interactions and memorable moments that have left an imprint on who I am. On the small island of Gozo, people do know who is on the island and take notice of what they do and how they act (it reminds me of small-town America in some ways). I decided that the best way to handle the situation is to be myself and follow what my mother always said, “just be consistent with your behavior and choices.”

In my experience, the Gozitans I have met have been incredibly open and willing to share their stories and thoughts with me, as well as care for my wellbeing. It was the kind of honest connection that continues to feel so sure and true. I had such a sincere relationship to the Gozitans I have met and can only express my most genuine gratitude for their compassion and willingness to share stories and histories with me—I will never forget.

7.   Were there things that occurred during your project that you didn’t expect to happen?

As with any adventure, there were plenty of things that happened that surprised me, for example, not being able to pick up any useful language terms. Usually, I can understand and start trying to integrate some essential words and phrases, but I was unable to learn any! The fact that I couldn’t understand or use the Maltese Language complicated communication, which was an unexpected disappointment and added challenge to gathering information.

I was also taken by surprise by how challenging it was to connect to Gozitans, only in the beginning. My earlier response expresses the deep connections I was able to build with others, but it was not as sudden as I thought it would be. In this case, I learned that people needed to become familiar with me and learn that I was not a social threat. As days passed, Gozitans began to recognize me, as I would walk around Victoria and Xlendi very often. Making an appearance and engaging in social settings seemed to be a vital process and aspect to living in Gozo.

I was an outsider, and I fully understood that. I stood out in physical appearance (wearing a backpack, hat, along with other adventure gear) and my Northern Mid-West accent underlined my USA roots. I accepted reality and asked myself, “why should I be anything but who I am?” At first, my unfamiliarity was a hindrance, which at first lead to little results. Still, I pressed on and continued to show up and be myself. Once Gozitans began to get to know me, I was soon offered rides, given gifts, and would often stop for a chat—it was incredible!

I also found myself surprised by the stark variation between Gozo Religious Festas (feasts)! They differed from one another, some were very stoic, while others were as wild as a college party! Additionally, I found myself confused about the boom of fireworks during daylight hours, as that was a total surprise for me (now I understand why).

Moreover, the unpredictable heatwave was incredible, and so were the mosquitos, I found myself coated in bites after a few days. They became large, red, and swollen, to where I had to see the doctor for help! After learning that I must have “sweet blood,” I was given a prescription for topical cream and antihistamines. I sadly looked like I had the chickenpox.

Lastly, I had found a new appreciation for the flat plains of my homeland in Illinois. For the longest time, I would complain about the “boring, flat as a pancake” landscape, but now I don’t think it’s as awful as it seems. Gozo has a very hilly and mountainous terrain, and I hadn’t realized the variation in landscape levels until I trekked it. I want to thank the Islands of Malta and Gozo for being my fitness trainer for a full month!

8.  How did the project affect you?

How to summarize my journey in Gozo, hmm… does magical work? This experience has delivered so much more than just professional practice; it allowed me to become a better version of myself by opening my eyes and heart to an entirely new (to me) set of cultural values represented through emotion, story, and material objects. I feel fulfilled and grateful for the meaningful social connections I’ve made, which was the most exceptional part of it all. As I continue to sift through my data, I will naturally continue to reflect on my experiences. I can only imagine what else I will realize from my treasured ethnographic exposure, and I can’t wait to find out!

I was very happy to meet Nicole because she is very friendly and energetic. Her study of anthropology is very interesting too. The Gozitan way of living is something rare for anthropologists! What Nicole certainly reminded me is that the world is huge and you never know who you will meet (hopefully nice people like Nicole!). Meeting Nicole and learning about what she studies and how all the girls came from all across the States to little old Gozo… it impressed me. This was simply to do research and go on an adventure. I feel that Off the Beaten Track Field School deserves a lot of recognition for their work. They certainly give so many students a big opportunity for study and adventure. I wish I could lead a life like that. What one needs is courage and to never give up. I wish best of luck to all the girls with their research and to Off the Beaten Track for more opportunity in the future!

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