Friday, September 17, 2010

Picking on the Gypsies

The world-wide recession really must be serious—else Nicolas Sarkozy wouldn’t be picking on the gypsies in France and the NYT would not be bringing us stories echoing the European squabble. I note that it is now politically correct to refer to them as the Roma, a designation that, I confess, I haven’t actually heard used until the present happy times. It is technically correct, I assume, because Wikipedia tells me that the gypsies belong to the Romani people, originally from India. The French call them les bohémiens or les romanichels. In Hungary we used the word zigány, in Germany Zigeuner.

Born in Hungary, the gypsies were very much part of our lives, present as door-to-door fortune-tellers, admired for their music, suspected of thieving, and so on. You were supposed to avoid them as a child lest you be taken in secret to live a life on the fringes of society. Working on maneuver damage claims in Germany as a soldier in the Army, we often had to deal with the dislocation of gypsy camps. One of our most memorable experiences of gypsies, Brigitte’s and mine, took place on our one and only trip behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s. We were on the border with East Germany waiting hours and hours to be processed through to West Berlin—a very tense time it was too. In the midst of that a caravan of perhaps twenty cars and trucks arrived; they carried a large gypsy troupe. They too were crossing the border. To our absolute amazement, these people startled, baffled, and intimidated the East German authorities who, it seemed despite themselves, rapidly processed this little swarm to help them get out of the sacred system. And they were going in, not out of, commie-prudish East Germany. In the process most of us capable of reading and writing helped individual gypsies fill out their little forms. They didn’t know how to deal with that new-fangled whatsit, writing. They just came up to us to get some help, entirely unafraid, lively, and casually expecting help. I helped a young woman fill out hers. And they got the help they sought. Ask and you shall receive. They came hours after our arrival and left hours before our own departure. It left a big impression in my memory. They seemed to act out a claim to general humanity, transcending all this nonsense of borders and authorities.

Conflict with the gypsies, it seems to me, erupts when life’s conditions tighten and, in the process, humanity reaches out for handy scapegoats. Hence times must be tough. And in a knee-jerk reaction, the rest of us hit out at those who have a tough time hitting back. A shame that—whether in France or here.

1 comment:

  1. Plenty of "Roma" in Spain as well. My memories of them have mostly to do with their caravans on the highway. Always loaded down beyond what seems possible and moving very slowly...

    I wish them well.


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