Monday, September 03, 2007

Participant Observation

Participant observation is a sociological research method, where you participate in an activity in order to try and understand it, as opposed to observing it from outside, or simply talking to the 'real' participants. If you imagine researching tennis, the first would be participating in tennis matches and all that goes on around them, the second would be watching matches and people in tennis clubs, and the third would be meeting up with the players and talking to them about playing the game and life in the clubs. The first probably takes the most time, but positions the researcher in a way which allows them to feel the experience. In tennis it's easy, researching the behaviour of teenage girls is more difficult, and participant observing the life of young people at the edge of criminality is more difficult yet, since you should be taking notes, recording what people say and do on camera or tape or whatever newfangled thing you wish to use.  There's also the question of asking consent of the people being under observation - what if new people appear, do you identify yourself as a researcher? (If you are a middle-aged white female researching a group of young black men questions might arise in the others' minds automatically).

I like watching what other people do, and how and when they do it. It's great when you can call it 'sociological research' - you can watch and read anything under this heading!

So there I was in Austria, on my way to Georgia, having a few 'anti-stress days' at Marienkron spa.  It's in a little place called Moenchhof, apparently only 4 km from the Hungarian border, 50 km from Vienna and in the middle of wine-growing country - the harvest had just started.

Marienkron is a spa run by the Cistercian nuns, who have a small nunnery there with 14 nuns including quite a few young ones. Prior to the spa the nuns, who have been there since the 1950s, ran a chicken farm on their quite large plot of land (in the 1950s, of course, the border to Hungary would have been firmly closed, so there may have been little activity in Moenchhof other than farming/wine-growing).  I wonder if the Cistercians have a reputation for being good business people? They are definitely not a begging order.

The spa offers all sorts of treatments, from various kinds of fasting to lots of massages, colonic irrigations, different types of 'Kneipp' baths, psychological and medical support, exercise sessions, a swimming pool/sauna complex, and occasional week-long courses including a choir week when I was there.

When you arrive, you find in your room, apart from the usual, a fluffy white dressing gown, and some thermos flasks for the teas that are available at all times of day and night. As in Lithuanian sanatoria, all meals are included in the price.

The meal arrangements are very complicated given that some people are not on a diet, some people are on 600 or 1000 calorie diets, and some are fasting (different flavours), or de-toxing.  In addition it's not a restaurant, so you have a choice of 3 combinations for lunch and dinner, and you have to choose these the day before. To save the kitchen staff haring after you trying to track you down, you are allocated to a table and a seat which you keep for the whole stay (I was together with some very nice ladies, one Austrian and one American).

Having said that - the strict diets can be subverted easily seeing as at all meal times there is a large salad buffet, including wonderful bread, and this ain't slimming.  And yes, people did subvert their diets - that's quite apart from those who I spotted coming out of the local supermarket, heavily laden....Not sure what the fasters do at mealtimes - it would be hard for them to drink their juice or consomme in a dining room full of eaters, especially when the puddings are often placed on the tables at the beginning of the meal! But would they have to fast lonely as a cloud in their own rooms?

The white dressing gowns were much in view; many people would breakfast in them, and it seemed to be de rigueur to go to the treatments in them. I messed up on that when I went for the 'gentle movement therapy' in my shorts and t-shirt thinking I would have to do little bits of jumping about, when in fact I had those exercises done to me. (Not sure what that therapy did to me other than pointing out the benefits of relaxing your body - think autogenic training - but the therapist did note that I had restless feet [as they were, to me, lying quietly at the end of my legs....]; she was probably right.) An article recently written in a German travel magazine commented on the visual disturbance caused to the sea of white dressing gowns by those who insisted on wearing their own red, pink or light blue dressing gowns. I agree - and what's the point of bringing your own anyway? Or having brought their own, do people think they need to wear it to compensate for the shlepping of the thing?  It was funny to see bodies covered in dressing gowns at breakfast (implying to me 'just out of bed') but perfectly made-up faces above the bodies (not 'just out of bed').

People were incredibly friendly, always saying 'hello' or 'Gruess Gott' whenever you ran into/past someone. That's probably an Austrian thing since I noticed it, too, whilst walking/running through the local village - and on those occasions when I forgot I could easily be seen as unfriendly.  The Austrians are still very much into their titles, in academic terms down to a masters ('Frau Magister X', or 'Herr Dipl.-Ing Y') and they address people in this way, as well. Must remember to make use of my masters next year - it's the only place where it'll ever be appreciated...

The coffee situation was a bit dire; after 12 noon there was no coffee to be had - I quite like to finish a meal with a cup of coffee, but I had to go to the cafe and pay for it. (She complains, writing this at 1 am what with having had 3 cups of coffee after dinner....).  However, there was herbal tea in abundance.

Oh yes, the tea. The other bit of the routine was that you have the two flasks in your room which you can use to get herbal tea from the urns 24 hours a day. And very nice teas they are, too - some with only one herb, others are mixtures, including those for special purposes. So, on the first evening, I filled up my thermos with 'laxative tea'. It was very nice, and I enjoyed a couple of mugs full - I always drink lots, of anything. Hmm. Anyway, I've seen teas for various purposes in German shops and German households, and always thought they were a bit for hypochondriacs - what good can a tea do that real medicine with pills can't do?

Within an hour I found out! My insides began to gurgle, clench and cramp like a vice! If I had not had my appendix out 35 years ago I would have worried (instead I worried about a knotted intestine). It was not 'discomfort', it was 'pain'. Serious pain.  But you can hardly call a doctor because you've taken a laxative....Twelve hours later, I finally hit on the cure, and the borrowed hot water bottle made all the difference (you wouldn't find one of those in a hotel). Another 36 hours after that it again began to squeeze but recovered with another application of external heat. Obviously one has to respect these teas! (Sometimes participant observation goes a bit far...).

This corner of Austria is very flat indeed; I could have run for miles on flat ground - but luckily there was a bit of a ridge covered in vinyards where I could try out my uphill legs. It was pouring with rain the day I went for a run, but it was a lovely temperature for running in - though one of the therapists was muttering about sweating and getting cold and wet....funny how my nose is running a bit just now - it'll be the hay fever...

It was a great place to be, though very Austrian. Not sure how it would be if you did not speak German. You can get a great relax!

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