Familiarity as a theme runs interwoven through the London site field notes. It’s everywhere: our Key Participants s’ familiarity with customers and the customers’ familiarity with the shop, reference to the familiar Polish food and roots, familiar forms of address. Of course, since the shop has been in the same place for a number of years there are bound to be regular and returning customers and since E (the female Key Participant) has worked in the shop herself for some two years, she’s had the time to get to know people around. What I found striking, especially at the beginning, was the extent to which the exchange of pleasantries turned into proper conversations (sometimes half an hour long!) in the shop.
From my perspective, it looked natural, organic even: this blending of “customer” and “friend” categories, this swift crossing between them, and the ongoing dialogue of familiarity. I was – if I may put it that way – fooled by some of these interactions early on and was under the impression the people who come are E and T’s friends who happen to live nearby. Here is an extract from my notes which illustrates my impressions quite well:
The next customer was a young woman (possibly in her early to mid-30s), who came into the shop with a green buggy. She greeted E with “Cześć” [Hi], which indicated that the women knew each other. E replied with “Cześć, cześć” [Hi, hi.]. The woman started looking through the available types of bread (all bakery-branded plastic bags with bread are piled on top of each other on one shelf) as if she was looking for something specific. She must have been quite familiar with the goods sold at the shop, I thought. After a moment, the customer asked whether E+T had changed their bakery. It was only for that day – E explained – as bread from their regular bakery hadn’t been delivered, so they had had to supply it from a different source. They proceeded to talk at some length about the shop’s past suppliers of bread: first Baltona, then Polish Village. They both seemed to be familiar with the available Polish bakeries and the customer seemed to remember what bread she had bought in the shop before. It sounded like they were co-constructing this bread-related narrative, with the customer finishing E’s sentence:
E: “Poźniej była ta Polish…” [Later there was that Polish…]
Customer: Polish Village.
As I’ve sat and observed interactions at the shop, I started getting familiar with faces and voices. It maybe surprised me less when E or T (the male Key Participant) just plunged into the middle of some conversation suspended days before just like that: interactions on a first name basis (not as acceptable or expected in Polish as they may be in English), mentions of third parties without pause to consider whether their names would be known to the other person or not, but also references to customers’ favourite products or previous purchases, and terms of endearment used. And then there is the comfort with which some customers come into the shop:
Two young people – a man and a woman – walked in with a loud “Hello, welcome” in English and then started talking to T in Polish. It turned out that they knew each other quite well. (…) T turned to me saying,“[customer’s name] na horyzoncie.”[[customer’s name] on the horizon.] and checked whether I’d met the guy. It was the beer-drinking customer from a few weeks before and I did remember him, partly because of his unusual name and partly because of the beer-drinking, probably. He walked in and went straight to the fridge, took out three bottles of Perła beer and asked T to open them. T seemed a bit surprised that he wanted all three opened, but it soon became clear that one was for himself and two for the other two people. I jokingly said “A my?!” [What about us?], which they seemed to find quite amusing. They started drinking and when T asked what the occasion was, the man said that it was because he was about to do shopping and because it was the weekend.
The three people were still drinking and having a good laugh. The whole situation felt more like an old-friends’ gathering than a shopping trip. T was getting partly involved and was very friendly towards them. They were telling each other stories, joking and generally having fun. The customer addressed me asking “Panie piwa nie piją?” [You ladies aren’t drinking beer?] and he raised his bottle in our direction. I raised my cup of coffee and said something along the lines of “Ja, kawusię.” [Me, coffee-DIMINUTIVE] and added that I would have a beer later. The woman said something to indicate that in this case it was ok that I was only having coffee and they continued with their chat. After the man finished his beer, he said that he was feeling better now and could now do some shopping. They started putting bottles of beer into a basket…
What comes through really clearly is the Polish connection: all the things we know and love, all the things that Poland is associated with: good food, beer, family life…err, is that all? Well, the good old days, too. But that’s a whole other blog post…