Gypsies

Justin E. H. Smith

Emub1wvp Romania has its share of track-and-field athletes, and even some marathon runners, but don’t ask me where they train. In all of my dozens of visits there, I am the only person I have ever known to run in public parks and along public streets. I do it expecting harassment. What choice do I have? I confess I experience groups of street kids the same way I do street dogs: as a threat. I also confess that in general I am repulsed by the swarming crowds, so familiar throughout the Balkans, of scowling young men in shiny track-suits with gold-capped teeth and gold chains. Of course I am. I want to be surrounded by people who look like they’ve been to college, who look ready to discuss Aki Kaurismäki, or the prospects for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, or the plausibility of the punctuated-equilibrium hypothesis. Shouldn’t there be a way of just admitting as much and moving on? Is this gut-based aversion really what needs to be overcome in order that a more just society might come into being?

Romanians will often tell me that the people triggering my aversion, the people to watch out for, are the Gypsies. I am finally beginning to be able to distinguish members of this legend-laden ethnos from their non-Gypsy neighbors, but I hasten to add that by no means is everyone a Gypsy who matches that particular thuggish description just given, and by no means is the ethnic boundary nearly so clear as the non-Gypsies insist. The Balkans are not so much an ethnic patchwork as a seamless ethnic continuum, and sharp boundaries are emphasized the most where they are in fact least secure. As one Romanian revealed to me, showing me photos of a recent trip to a Greek Island: “Greece is very very beautiful… Very clean… No Gypsies there… No Romanians.” It was clear from the context that the last two sentence fragments constituted one proposition, not two.

I have heard repeatedly that ‘Roma’, as a name for the Gypsies, is entirely unconnected etymologically with the capital city of Italy and the center of the Roman Empire, which lent its name centuries ago to Romania (i.e., the land of the Eastern Romans, in contradistinction to the Greeks and Turks and Slavs surrounding them), that it is a name that came with the Gypsies from India, but I have immense difficulty believing this. It is true that rom means ‘husband’ or ‘man’ in the Romany language, but this word itself has shadowy origins, and my guess is that it comes from the Southeastern European region in which the Roma people settled, not from the India they left behind. Rom- and rum- are too ubiquitous in the names of places and peoples in the region they would come to settle for the current preference for ‘Roma’ in denoting the Gypsies to be explained by chance convergence.

In France one often hears of the ‘Romanian problem’. French people will tell my Romanian wife that France is being overrun with ‘Romanians’, that you cannot go 10 metres without bumping into one begging in the street. When the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d’or at Cannes for his excellent film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a cartoon in a French newspaper showed him holding out his hand as if begging, and attempted a fairly uninspired jeu de mots involving ‘palme’ (i.e., the frond of the palm tree as well as the part of the hand a beggar extends). It is not clear whether the French believe they are being politically correct in avoiding the term ‘tsigane’, or whether they mistakenly believe that ‘Romanian’ is the proper ethnonym for the Roma people, but one thing is clear: the newly politically correct ‘Roma’ is not making things any simpler. 

I’m sticking with ‘Gypsy’. The newer term is simply confusing, and, I believe, responsible for the decidedly politically incorrect conflation in France and elsewhere of Romanians and Roma. (Again, this conflation is not just a product of French xenophobia. It is also a part of the Romanian identity itself: fear of Gypsies grounded in the fear of being a Gypsy.)

My wife and I speak only French in the streets of Bucharest, permitting us to prance around like 19th-century nobles (or at least me; for Romanians speaking French is de rigueur, like knowing your multiplication tables). We always choose to say ‘gitane’ rather than ‘tsigane’, since the latter has its cognate in Romanian, whereas the former enables us to talk about the Gypsies without, we suppose, being understood. Just like Brooklyn Jews used to talk of the ‘schwarze’. I do enjoy this opportunity to say ‘gitane‘. The word calls to mind not the Gypsies of Slovakia or Romania but those of Spain and southern France, as also the cigarettes, Picasso, Hemingway, and other stupid clichés. Les gitanes will seduce you; les tsiganes will send their toddlers to poke your kneecaps with needles until you turn over the contents of your pockets.

We probably shouldn’t be talking about them, using our secret code so that they won’t understand. I feel like an asshole but I keep doing it. I can’t not talk about the people around me. I just can’t.

*

For reasons I need not explain here, I found myself recently with temporary custody of a seven-year-old Romanian girl, whom I will call ‘Maria’. Our task was to kill a few hours in the provincial Moldavian town of Bârlad, where fortunately the warm spring weather had brought a sort of temporary amusement park to the central municipal gardens. I paid for Maria to go on a sort of blow-up rubber slide shaped like a castle, three lei for five minutes, and while she was climbing up and sliding down I stood and held her jacket, her umbrella, and a Romanian translation of the latest issue of the “Totally Spies!” comic book, about three high school girls in Beverly Hills –Clover, Sam, and Alex– who are, as luck would have it, not just high school girls but also spies. 

A Gypsy girl saw the comic book and exclaimed ‘Wow, Spioanele’! I smiled and held it out to show her.  She called over her two little friends, perhaps her sisters or cousins, and they all smiled and said many things, of which I understood mostly just the word ‘Spioanele’ repeated many times.  Maria saw me holding out the photo and yelled to me: ‘Hey! It’s mine!’ The girls continued to hover around me, their leader (the one to the left in the photo) smiling beautifully, the funny looking dirty girl (in the photo to the right) looking at me confusedly and seeming at instants to apprehensively extend her little palm.

When she was done on the slide I went with Maria to the ‘Wheel of Fortune’, a giant vertical roulette wheel that the kids are permitted to spin for three lei, after which they receive a Chinese toy worth far less than three lei corresponding to the number on which the wheel stops. The Gypsy girls followed us. Maria spun the wheel and won a particularly cheap little bird with a chip inside that played an annoying, greeting-card tune.  The leader of the Gypsies continued to smile at us. I asked her if she wanted to spin the wheel, and of course she said yes.  I paid the obese carny –visible from behind in the photo– and he grudgingly allowed the Gypsy girl to spin it. She won a cheap shiny plastic crown. She unwrapped it and touched the tiara and it lit up. A red light spun around in a circle at the center like a warning flash worn by a nocturnal cyclist. ‘It lights up!’ she said with joy, as if the cheap plastic Chinese toy were a real crown. 

Maria wanted to go back to the slide and she asked the girls to come with her. ‘Nu au bani’, they said. No money. I gave the newly crowned queen nine lei, enough for each of the three to join Maria on the slide.  They all ran over. Maria and the beautiful girl and the funny-looking girl tore off their shoes and scrambled up the slide. The third Gypsy girl, the one at the center of the photo, stayed at the bottom of the slide, holding the beautiful girl’s crown, staring up and frowning. Photographs lie, for looking at the three of them now it seems to me that the third girl, the one who stayed behind, is the beautiful one, and the girl to the left seems positively plain. In reality, the one who looks plain was radiant, and the one who looks beautiful was a distant shadow of the other two.

I bent down and asked the shadow if she wanted to go up. ‘Ce?’ she asked. I pointed up the slide to her friends.  She shook her head no. The parents gathered at the bottom seemed alarmed that I was talking to her.

The carny yelled ‘Gata! Terminat!’ after five minutes had passed and the three girls –two Gypsies and Maria– came down laughing and out of breath. ‘A fost super!’ they all exclaimed.  The little shadow girl who did not go up, but stayed at the bottom and frowned, held out the flashing crown to the beautiful girl.  The beautiful girl thanked me profusely and continued to smile. 

I wanted to cry. I had taken Maria out to treat her to something special, because I had felt bad for her, in view of her parents’ divorce, her little sister’s departure for Italy (along with so many millions of other Romanians) to be raised by relatives, the difficulty of growing up a girl in the harsh banlieues of Bucharest.  I had taken her out to treat her, to buy her Spioanele merchandise (there are puzzles and ‘detective kits’ and make-up cases and fake cellphones), to play Curious George games on the PBS website at the local internet café. When I met the Gypsy girls, my pity shifted, so it seemed, downward, and Maria seemed suddenly spoiled. And then the beautiful girl won the crown, and it lit up, and she and the funny-looking girl went up and down the slide, and now they looked like spoiled little queens next to their pathetic friend, who stood at the bottom of the slide, holding the crown, afraid for some unknown reason. Is there some little creature out there somewhere, I wondered, even more beaten down and meek than this one, who would in turn make her look like a queen?  Lord, how far down does the scale go? 

I left with Maria. ‘Those were nice little girls, weren’t they?’ I asked. ‘They were Gypsies,’ Maria shrugged. 

*

Gypsies were legally enslaveable in Romania until 1864, one year after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Abolition in Romania was not followed by Reformation, nor a civil rights movement, nor demands for reparations, nor separatism. The Ceausescu regime naturally had a lot to say, if not do, about the equality of all peoples, and this equality is something that Romania must continue to officially promote as a condition of its long sought-after accession to the European Union. But this is all strictly formal. There is no Gypsy Martin Luther King on the horizon, not to mention a plausible Gypsy candidate for the Romanian presidency. The current Romanian president, Traian Băsescu, has openly used “stinking gypsy” [ţigancă împuţită] as a slur, with only very minimal political repercussions.

*

The TV is always on in Romania. It’s what holds the nation together.  That’s the accent from Oltenia, the viewers can say. That’s how they talk in Maramureş. The format is Italian strada: glitzy never-ending review shows, always in dismally bad taste. There are peppy teen pop groups in coordinated neon sweatsuits doing dance routines, backed up by synthesizers, wearing headsets with mics in the fashion of Madonna circa 1990 (during the ‘Sex’ period, which I for one have not forgotten). They do jazz hands, they look at each other and nod their heads ‘yes!’ to the rhythm of the music. There are knock-offs of knock-offs of pop songs that were bad to begin with. There are drippingly sentimental give-aways of washing machines, deep freezes, and truckloads of goats to needy families, who are required to stand on the studio stage, under the spotlights, in the presence of the magnanimous host, and cry. There are four-year-old kids with gel in their hair, trained to sing little songs and to give the host a high-five. 

I’ve found only two channels that I can stomach. One is ‘Etno TV’, with non-Gypsy men and women on rolling green hillsides, dressed in traditional costumes, singing and dancing folk songs, sometimes minimally acting out the story the lyrics tell. That’s a dance from Bucovina. That’s a typical theme from Moldavia. The other is a lower-budget channel for Gypsy music videos, made with home-movie cameras in living rooms and public parks.  Some of the videos show young Gypsies performing manele, the cultural if not the musical equivalent of rap. They hold up handfuls of euros and show their gold-toothed smiles, sitting on plushly upholstered furniture, wearing track-suits. They boast about all the enemies they’ve brought down. Aesthetically and morally, the unacknowledged Urtext is 2 Live Crew’s unforgettable ‘Me So Horny‘. (Romanian rap, in stark contrast, has much more in common with the tediously indignant political stuff that has kept French hip-hop consistently mediocre since the early 1990s.)

Other videos are of older men, all wearing matching tuxedos, in what look like banquet halls. These men still seem connected to some ancestral past. They sing with their hearts and they pound their xylophones with heavy mallets faster than my eyes can take in. Those are Gypsies, the nation says. 

*

In Romania the ‘hippie’ look is described as the ‘Gypsy’ look. Maria wore a pink sweatshirt made in China, with an image of a girl named ‘Windy’ on it.  Windy was making a V-shaped peace sign with her fingers, wearing John Lennon glasses, a belt made out of bird-foot-shaped peace signs around her waist, and a bandanna around her head.  She looked, in a word, ‘groovy’. Maria’s family noted that Windy was a Gypsy, and wondered whether the little girl should be wearing such a thing, in much the same way that American parents might worry about vaguely gangster-like insignias on mall-bought clothing. 

The Gypsy/hippie conflation is not entirely incorrect, and indeed is one that would have made sense in America not so long ago.  One of the nodes on the ancestral chart of the hippies are the ‘Bohemians’, by which was meant urban people associated with the theater, music halls, and a free and rambling life style.  Now a Bohemian minus the scare quotes is not an ancestor to the hippies but a Czech. Most of the Gypsies of what used to be called Czechoslovakia were concentrated in the Slovak part, but from the perspective of a Central European from somewhere slightly to the north or west of Prague –Berlin, say– Czechia easily stood in for that place from which all the dark and uncouth musicians and actors hail.  Soon enough, a Jew from Minnesota could settle in Greenwich Village and electively take on the identity of a ‘Bohemian’.

Is it, I’ve often wondered, the proximity of real ‘Bohemians’ –the kind who send their children into the street to beg, who have a life expectancy of 50 and the lowest literacy rate in Europe– that makes the Romanian bourgeoisie place such value on tucking your shirt in, on polishing your shoes, on wearing cologne? In America and Western Europe, the ‘bourgeois Bohemian’ is by now a common figure, and may be the only social trend David Brooks ever correctly identified. The bourgeois Bohemian’s parents and grandparents did all the worrying about procuring durable goods and putting wallpaper on the walls and mothballs in the closets, only to find their children and grandchildren affecting an antimaterialism that communicated positively valenced class distinction precisely by downplaying the importance of appliances, by opting for exposed brick walls over wallpaper, sometimes even by wearing clothing pocked with holes. In Romania this  cultivated Bohemianism is, as far as I can tell, entirely unknown. Nobody has ever entered the bourgeoisie and come out the other side. The nomads’ encampments, the infectious diseases that underlie the hygiene that in turn underlies culture, are all still too close.

*

Gitane‘ is a deformation of ‘Egyptian’, and until the birth of Indo-European linguistics in the mid-19th century it was widely presumed that the Gypsies had wandered from Egypt into Europe.  In fact they wandered from India in the 11th century, and only gradually shed their Hindu identity.

The tiny kernel of truth at the heart of Nazi racial mythology –that there is a common background for civilizations spreading from northern India to Scandinavia, that there are recurrent gods and recurrent words for things like ‘horse’ and ‘night’ and ‘yoke’ that unite the Vedas with Homer and with the Icelandic sagas– was conveniently ignored so that the Gypsies could be persecuted along with the ‘Asiatic’ Jews. This is curious, since in fact one could not be any more Indo-European (or, as the Germans continue to say, ‘Indo-Germanic’) than the Gypsies: they are a living reminder of the unity of India and Europe, of the recent and artificial invention of two distinct continents. The Nazis claimed to approve a picture of European history that united Germany and Greece and Persia and India against the successive waves of pollution from the Semitic world, but were not ready to acknowledge the community with the Gypsies that it logically entailed.

*

My wife tells me that everything I attempt to write about Romania is comprehensively, systematically wrong. She’s probably right, but I have to keep trying.   

*

The TV is on. There is a woman in a sequined leotard charming a python. She wraps it over her shoulders and does Oriental things with her hands. She closes her eyes and smiles like she’s faking an orgasm. This is pushing the limits. This is moving into dark and uncharted places. The python hangs there.

Next she carries the python over to a little chest at the side of the stage, puts it in, and pulls out a greenish chameleon. She places her new dance partner in front of her at the center of the stage and again begins to do that thing with her hands. Chameleons have a naturally fixed expression of boredom but this one looks particularly bored. He begins to walk away, towards the stage exit opposite the chest. The woman is forced to interrupt her dance routine to bring him back. She tries to do this without allowing the exotic mood to lapse. She’s smiling ecstatically as she chases after the chameleon. She picks him up and twirls him around Orientally. She holds him out in front of her and attempts a sort of walk-like-an-Egyptian back towards the center of the stage. He’s now a pale grey.

Someone needs to put a stop to this.

Bucharest, April 30, 2008

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.

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