Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Relating with Romani

Every Halloween when I was a kid, I was a "Gypsy." Only on Halloween would my mom let me wear one of the beautiful, coveted square-dancing skirts that had belonged to her mother. These skirts were tucked away in our fragrant cedar chest, made of crinkled cloth, tiny-waisted, full-circled and tiered with sparkly rick-rack. I wrapped a scarf around my head and wore all my mother's necklaces at once and I was off trick-or-treating.

If we hadn't begun moving from place to place following my father's advancement at work when I was 11, perhaps I would have turned out to be a homebody. Instead, those many moves throughout my childhood gave me a wanderlust that I still cannot quite manage to control. I have lived in 32 houses. For nearly four years I didn't live anywhere at all.

In 1986, I bought an old VW bus for $300. My father helped me remove the seats and gave me a foam pad for sleeping. My mother sewed curtains for it out of colorful paisley fabric. I draped it with scarves and pretty tapestries, hung bells strategically. With its distinctive decor and its rounded edges, it reminded me of a gypsy wagon. Once when I was cleaning it out, my friend Dan commented, "Oh I get it: it's a big purse!" Indeed, once I settled into a house again later, I found it very inconvenient to get used to not having everything I owned with me at all times.

I hung out with people on the fringes of society: homeless people, deadheads, hippies, winos, street musicians, nomads. It wasn't always good, sometimes it was awful. I worked sometimes and my money went a long way because my lifestyle was very inexpensive. I cut cabbage at the saurkraut factory, I tended bar, I waited tables, I made handicrafts, I played guitar and sang by an open guitar case. It was in those years that my creativity blossomed, that I wrote stories, songs, and poetry. I learned to play guitar, to sing in harmony, to make things with my hands. I thought if I had a daughter, I would give her the middle name Tzigana (gypsy).

This evening I looked at my friend Renee's photos from her trip to Finland and saw images of Finland's Roma population. After Renee left, I went online and read about the Romani people, their language, their history. Where they came from, how they are treated, where they are concentrated. I feel a certain kinship with them because of the lifestyle I have lived before, and because of my only semi-successful attempts to assimilate into the mainstream. But when it matters, like when my child is beaten by the local police, I am reminded that I have no redress, that I belong on the fringe, that I can't fool myself into thinking I have assimilated. The school administrator and the cop who beat my child recognizes us as fringe dweller, powerless, people who will never fit in.

There is a reason I don't fit it and a reason my children don't fit in either. We are indeed different; we don't approve of mainstream living, we see a problem with it, but because of a lack of a culture of our own, fail to bring a better idea to the table. I envy the Romani people that they at least have strong customs, kinship, and history. In another time and place we would be Bohemian, we would live in artist colonies or be expatriates in pre-war Paris.

For the sake of my children I have sought stability, but it has been a lie and a failure. I am not stable and I have not in any way provided stability for them. And kids crave stability, need it for solid ground so they can grow. I knew that so I tried. However, by pretending to assimilate, I failed to provide them with an alternative to feed their spirit when they are disillusioned with the mainstream. This is what has led us to the present pass.

1 comment:


Dear Karol,

I found your blog online and would love to get in touch with you.

My name is Victoria Cook, I produce the only programme at the BBC for Travellers and Gypsies.

Would it be possible for you to drop me an email so I could contact you directly?

Many thanks

Victoria Cook

Victoria Cook
Rokker Radio
BBC East
Newsroom: +00 44 (0)1582 637 444
Switchboard: +00 44 (0)1582 637 400
Mobile: +00 44 (0)7787 106 739
Email: Victoria.Cook@bbc.co.uk
Listen again: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/networks/three/aod.shtml?three/rokker_radio