Sunday, September 04, 2005

Gypsy Flashbacks

If you believe Isabela Fonseca's "Bury Me Standing" the Gypsies of Albania and Poland are as idealistic as the troubadours of medieval Al Andaluz, and as underestimated as the civil rights activists of 1950's America. Fonseca's work is titled based on an allegedly Gypsy saying - "Bury me standing for all my life I have been on my knees" ("Ingroapa-ma stand in picioare, am stat in genunchi toata viata.") To be honest, I've never heard of it before, but I'm hardly the guru of Gypsy folklore.

What I take from her book is those mixed feelings I've been dealing with my entire life, both in Romania and the U.S. - the dichotomy between the Gypsy myth, music and stories, and their lawlessness, deceit and misery. The Gypsies or Roma are a tough subject and a sore issue for Romania. For me, it's been the single, most constant topic of conversation I've had with most foreigners (read non-Romanians.) To list but a few painfully-amusing cases:
NYU student: "Are you sure you‘re Romanian? I mean... your hair is so light, you don't look like a gypsy..."
Professor X at NYU Undergraduate Research Conference: "Why doesn't the Romanian government implement some form of Affirmative Action program? It worked in the States…"
French immigration officer: "Oh, you're Romanian, well, we must check your passport twice - you can't just be going to France as a tourist…” (Read: "Most Romanians we come in contact with are beggars; incidentally, 99% of them are gypsies; ergo, all Romanians steal.")

Apart from the blatant sophisms of the French immigration, I have learned one truth about the average international perception of Romania: at least 50% of Romanians must be Gypsies.

While growing up in Romania, even long after the first 8 Communist years, I had little PC awareness. "US" and "THEM" was omnipresent, and I can’t imagine my country without the ethnic differentiation. The way I see it, the Gypsies, the Roma or "Tiganii" are an inherent but not integral part of Romania. One of my first memories of Gypsy exposure is a picture of my parents' wedding - outside the City Hall in our home town, my mom and dad holding hands next to three beautifully-dressed Gypsy women posing and smiling to the camera. I asked my mom more than once why they took that photo; she always gives me the same answer "For good luck." This is the same mother who would often warn me against the omnipresent Gypsy thieves.

It wasn’t hard to dislike them. Their poverty was everywhere - holding their children and begging for money by the church entrance; holding signs and begging for money in every train on the way to our summer vacation; on the beach, selling candy and Coca Cola to tourists or begging for money; in the market, selling chrysanthemums or begging for money.
It wasn’t hard to fear their shrewdness: stealing my ring after a palm reading; hiding the rotten cherries underneath the ripe ones in the market; stealing my grandparents' horse; breaking into our garden and stealing the construction bricks. Stealing. Stealing. Stealing.

And yet I still remember their beauty: one summer while traveling with my parents to the opposite side of the country, close to the Hungarian border, I saw what my mom called "beautiful Gypsy women" - your idealistic, pastoral, red-skirt, big eyes, long hair, large smile. They were selling lace in the town market. "They are so clean!" my mom noted.

And then there is their opulence, a strikingly ironic complement to the overwhelming poverty: especially after the 1989 Revolution, I remember noticing entire villages, sprung overnight - large houses, with shiny, tin roofs (a "clear" sign of Gypsy architecture, whatever that means); in my mind, gold chains, car theft, deportations, commerce with children and prostitution were as commonly associated with the Roma, as poor education, street begging and traditional wedding music.

Over the past few years I've had many discussions with several members of the Romanian Diaspora in America about the Roma's lack of education. The most common commentary I get is "But they don't want to be educated; they don't go to school." In a country where education is free and mandatory, you'd think that any Gypsy family would send their kids to school. Yet as anywhere in the world, kids can be extremely cruel. Officially, integration in school is avidly mandated by the government. In reality, there is no doubt in my mind that the few Gypsy kids in any public school are and would be regarded as "them" by both students and teachers.

However, I’m fairly reluctant to even applying the above social explanation. Is the lack of education really based on discrimination, or is it just the parents' decision to utilize their kids to steal, beg, work and purchase alcohol, as opposed to sending them to school?

Not all Gypsies sell their children or abandon them in orphanages; and not all Gypsies sing, dance and wear large beautiful red skirts. Some steal when they don't have to, some sing because they are great at it. Do the Romanians discriminate, or do the Roma choose to deny any help? I honestly don't know. However, I do know that I wish the world stopped generalizing about Romania and that Romanians stopped generalizing about Gypsies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

on September 2007 has been published by Axel Menges my (Carlo Gianferro) book "Gypsy Architecture" realized in collaboration with the architets Renata Calzi and Patrizio Corno.

The book is an illustrated volume showing that the existence of Gypsy architecture is somewhat of a contradiction considering the nomadic lifestyle of gypsies who roam through the world, settling here and there, but never staying long in one place. Everything that normal citizens find important is considered to be an unreasonable restriction of their freedom.
Nevertheless, in southeastern Europe, there exists a remarkable architecture created by gypsies. Unreal and colourful, it is a composition of architectural styles from around the world. Uninfluenced by any deeper knowledge of architectural culture, it is based purely on personal tastes or memories of travels, houses and things seen in other countries.
The result is a bizarre and fantastic assortment of buildings that elude classification based on western stylistic features. Very often the houses are the result of enormous jigsaw puzzles created from an assembly of diverse and contrasting elements. Yet what is staggering is the quality of the execution of the complex decorations, of the architectural elements and buildings that are very often contrasting, of widely differing facades surmounted by steepling roofs of no practical use whose only function is to represent, through their lack of proportion and absolute needlessness, the financial and social power of the family.

If it is of your interes try find it on Amazon or over the internet.

Carlo Gianferro

9:31 AM  

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