The Gypsies

I needed to go to Cluj and asked a girl who seemed to be waiting at the bus stop. She said a bus would be coming soon, but a private car pulled up earlier and we all jumped in. During the ride we talked on, in Italian, as she wanted to practise what she’d learnt as a child when she used to spend the summer on the Adriatic coast. When the conversation became less matter-of-fact, however, she switched to fluent English, not without an accent, in spite of her 12 years in the US living on a private island off the coast of Florida.

“Why did you come back?”, I ventured to ask prying into her private story after she’d given me the easy cue. She mentioned a failed love-affair, then a need for a change from the land of the forced smiles and the fake shiny appearances, as she put it.

Her fair complexion was framed by blonde hair, her fingernails dialling a number carefully shaped and lacquered. I made her out to stem from a well-off middle-class milieu who could afford summer holidays abroad during Romania’s communist era, then start a new luxurious life overseas.

Her trim looks were very different from the people I’d seen on my way to the bus station, sitting at a table in the street, the men with old-fashioned black wide-brimmed hats and a drooping moustache, the women wearing fantastic clothes, ankle-long pleated flowery skirts and headscarves, all very colourful. It seemed to me hardly believable that people could maintain such a lovely traditional costume in our present age.

I’m new to Romania, I’ve only just arrived, but rather than the too well-known mystery-story of Dracula, it’s these intriguing Rom people, also known as the Gypsies, that tickle my curiosity. I test this girl’s reaction on the Rom question, but as I hint at the subject, she twitches her mouth in a slight grimace of half-hidden contempt, and without a need to wait for thoughts to be put into words, I think this is an eloquent enough answer.

Rather than condemning the attitude, a childhood memory comes to my mind of when I was walking with my grandma and I suddenly felt my little hand pressed in hers. She was warning me that the Gypsies had arrived and a few steps forward I caught glimpse of a woman wrapped in ample clothes, sitting outside a church with a baby in her lap, begging for alms. Without wanting to deny certain problems, it is a fact that Gypsies have often lived marginalised and have been discriminated against, whichever country they decided to live in. Theirs is a history of persecution, of enslavement, of forced sedentarisation, of extermination and misunderstanding. Distrust dominates their relations with the hosting country.

Still the figure of the Gypsy is very present in our imagination thanks to a stream of romantic songs and literary production, not to mention their own heritage of dance, music and traditions. We owe a lot to this originally nomadic people whose distant Indian origins are lost in time, enough of a reason to fascinate me.

After the first ones in Târgu Mureş, I saw more Rom people in other places in Romania. Sometimes,  a woman’s profound gaze, or her exotic beauty mesmerised me and I stole repeated glances at her. I was amazed at the exuberance of their costumes, like that attractive couple, the quintessence of young love, that went around peddling perfume boxes in the most extraordinary outfit of grey striped suit for the man and a red pattern skirt and pink stockings for the woman. At other times I saw them leading a similar life to what I’d known them to have in my country, sadly at the margin of society, loitering in the street or at bus stations in shoddy clothes. But even then I’ve felt all the power of attraction to their unique culture, I’ve been embraced in the arms of their history, feeling like a gypsy child gripped by the morose touch relationship with his mother.