[Issue 2 / August 2012]
“Romania is one of the dirtiest countries in the world,” I remember being warned. As a young teen, almost unanimously, everyone I talked to had not a pleasant word for the place I so-longed to set foot on. I had a yearning; an obsession. And, when my father took me, not even the fact our flight was laid over by a bomb scare seemed to put the vaguest dent in my exhilaration. When the plane landed and I stepped into the air I was overwhelmed with a sense of belonging, of familial history; almost as if some part of me had been sewn into the soil, ripped out, and was now being re-stitched. It was strange, to be so filled with these feelings of nostalgia. I was not Romanian, nor did our family have any tie to the place.
In the airport, a guide met with us and with other members of what was the 1995 Dracula tour. Besides my father and myself, almost every single other person was a travel guide who had received the trip either free or at a murderous discount. All were rich, friendly, and easy to talk to. All about swarmed a general cheerfulness that brought promise for a great adventure….
And then we stepped outside. A dark, little boy ran up to us with a big grin and began to help people loading their bags. My father opened up his wallet and I quickly saw the tour guide’s hand fall on my father’s wrist. No, no, he said. The tour company paid for things like this. My father should put his money away. My father agreed and we mounted the bus. Through the glass, I watched the boy, who was only a few years younger than myself, continue to drag and carry. At the end, he approached the tour guide with an open hand, waiting for payment. It came in the form of yelling and furious, intimidating sweeps of the man’s arm in his direction. Crestfallen, the boy, an obvious Romani, ran away unpaid.
My jaw dropped and, at that moment, the romanticism of Romania under which I’d labored started its gradual descent into reality. At that point in my life, I had never really identified myself as Romani. I was an American—Romani, yes, but it had more fallen under the term “side-note” than anything else. I lived in a small California town and had yet to experience any intense anti-Roma racism. I knew people had misconceptions about us—that we originated in Egypt, hence the slur word “Gypsy.” Some people even thought that Romanian and Romani were the same thing, when we are actually a people of Indian origin—a fact publically acknowledged by Indira Ghandi when she was India’s prime minister. I had heard that some people were prejudiced against us, but I had never given the matter much thought before. The tour guide had treated my father and me with courtesy, so it did not occur to me that there could be any racial motivation in what I saw. I took the tour guide for a cheapskate and a jerk, but left it at that.
I tried to refocus on the experience of my first night in a foreign country. In the morning, I got up early and walked around our motel, taking pictures of the nearby lakes and picking up chestnuts. Oh, but it was beautiful—wooden, floral, natural. Yet again, came the sensation of being at home and my blood itself seemed seduced into an uncharacteristic ease.
That day, everyone boarded the bus to explore misty, drizzling Bucharest. It was a city of stunning architectural contrast, the likes of which I would not have fathomed. Communist conformity versus Byzantine-style flower and flair, and not one street uniform to that before it. Most conspicuously, though no one else seemed to take note of it, was the tiny slum we sped by, where some Roma had actually made little makeshift “shelters” out of refrigerator boxes. Right behind them stood apartment buildings many stories high. Like at the airport, the sight of this left me in silence and disbelief. I tried to snap a photograph, but we drove too quickly and I wound up catching a more posh part of the slum instead. In this area, the Roma were living in metal crates.
Next stop: lunch and, easily, Romanian cuisine was a welcome distraction. For the third time, I let my brain drift and promptly lost myself in the sugared meat on my plate.
Walking out of the restaurant, back to the bus, it began to rain lightly. A Romani woman, ragged in the extreme, held an infant in her arms, covered up with a torn, stitched, re-torn, and stitched again blanket. She held her hand out, eyes pleading, but said no words. Of the tourists, many of whom had spent a good part of time over breakfast and lunch boasting of their fat salaries, not a single one stopped to give her so much as a cent. Except for my father. He pulled out several American dollars without pause and she grinned broadly, nodding when I held up my camera.
Boarding the bus, quickly the tourists hurled insults and mocking at my father. How could he be so stupid as to give money to a Gypsy? Gypsies are thieves. Gypsies are liars. She probably wasn’t even poor. She probably didn’t even have a baby. How naïve could he be?
“She did have a baby,” he replied. “I saw it.”
Amidst the protestations that she was not even poor, my eyebrows knit in confusion. Were they blind? No one, particularly a mother, would beg in the rain if there was any alternative. But, even in a parallel universe where such things did happen, it was impossible to not consider the difference in currency value. In Romania, there were 3,300 lei to one American dollar. A large loaf of bread sold for 200 lei. In America, my father’s five dollars would have bought him a sandwich. Here, it bought this woman’s bread every single day for almost three solid months. And now he was being ridiculed for giving this by people who made three times as much money as he did.
Why did these people think such bad things about Gypsies, I wondered? And, if they hated us so much, why were they even talking to me and my father? I preferred wearing uncovered hair and jeans to a headscarf and an ankle-length skirt. Was that it? Because I didn’t “dress Gypsy” like the woman in the rain? Or did my father’s status as a doctor automatically make him being Roma impossible to them?
Whatever it was, the fact remained that we had been in Romania only twenty-four hours and it had taught me this much: the Romani of Romania were the underdogs, the scapegoats for the entire country—objects which the majority of the population seemed to enjoy venting their own poverty and social injustices on. What’s more, most of the American tourists, who had barely any interaction, or knowing interaction at least, with American-Roma, had eagerly begun joining in with the native population’s racism against us.
For the first time in my life, I heard men around me call Romani women whores. Later on, these same men would boast to my father about how easy it was to buy date rape drugs in Romania that were illegal in other countries. To prove their point, they showed him the full bottles they had purchased. Exactly how they had managed to get the drugs could have been anyone’s guess, as no doctor appointments were ever stopped for—(and, really, how do you justify a need for such “medicine” in the first place?)—but the men’s interest in Romania solely for the sex trade was made clear. Their view that Romani women were prostitutes without price left me glad that, except at night, we all travelled as a group. So far as I saw, no matter how poor, no young Romani women ever went anywhere near them. It left me wondering, what would have happened to a Romani girl who had? It seemed unlikely that, if attacked, a dark-skinned girl, forced by the local population to live in a large cardboard box would be taken seriously by police if she pointed the finger at a group of amply wealthy American men, no matter how full of rohypnol their pockets were.
The racial incidents continued on a daily basis. One second, I’d be overcome with positivity, drinking in the mountains and forests as we drove cross-country. I’d be wrapping my fingers around monuments hundreds of years old and, like a touch-know, absorbing as much as I could from their stones. Then there would be something ugly to remind me that the kindnesses with which we were shown were because no one, Romanian or American, had perceived that we were no different than the people they were hurling insults at. While I scampered energetically around the royal palace courtyard in Sinaia, our trip’s assistant tour guide took my father aside and confided, “I’m not racist. I just don’t like Jews, Gypsies, or Germans.” It was a random statement, lacking any tie to a previous conversation. She then told my father that, someday, we must return to Romania and have dinner with her family.
This trip was changing me, I felt, and not in a way that I had expected. I’d already traveled enough in my life to know that every long distance trip you’ll ever make redefines something in you. There was always something that would happen to shock, to amaze, to cut down; to build up…but this was different. I was a child seeing my future in every insult spat forward at my people. I realized that, when I grew up, it was going to be me that would be the “Gypsy whore,” the “liar;” the “thief.” And this bitter knowledge aged me in days, though I didn’t talk to anyone, even my father, about it. The humiliation was so deep that I did not know how to speak.
Not everything was a negative though. Back home, I never ran into Roma at random. Here, it was impossible not to. And, by the Romani people, though I couldn’t speak a word of Romanes, (the largely Hindi-based Romani language,) or Romanian, I was always treated amiably and with respect. When I lost my passport, it was a Romani little boy who pointed it out to me. He flashed a big smile and bounded off without a word, leaving me to reflect on how no stories of Romani honesty ever made it into the conversations of those with whom we travelled.
The most impacting incident was when I had wandered a slight distance from the group while we’d stopped over in a poor, dirt-floored village. As I avoided a few straggly chickens that had escaped their coup, I noticed a Romani lady, likely in her seventies, so thin, sad, and thread-bare in her face it stopped me in my tracks. She didn’t approach me, but I came to her and held out a five dollar bill. It would be inaccurate to say she lit up, but more a palpable wave of relief seemed to spread over her. She promptly broke down sobbing. It was not crying, no, but full, drenching, gut-wrenching sobs. She grabbed my hand and kissed it firmly, then blessed me.
My heart sank with embarrassment and anger. This was wrong. Age aside, the only real difference between us was geographical luck of birth. The circumstances that would produce such painful emotions in her infuriated me. I was not better than her. I did not deserve better treatment, but here we were nonetheless.
This was a sight I did not want to see again. And it hit me full-force suddenly that, unless I did something more than handing out dollars, I would. The blessing she gave me became a promise I gave her.
I would never be just an American again. I would be a Romani-American; a damn proud one. And, when I grew up, I would no longer be silent about it.
I became obsessed with genealogy after that. Some years later, in college, I learned that my family, contrary to what I’d been told, did indeed have a tie to Romania. They had been captured and used as slaves there for centuries. I had come home again, after all.
Galina Trefil is a human rights activist, who has spoken before the Nevada State Legislature and whose writing has been published in English and Czech. She has been a guest on BBC’s Rokker Radio. Currently, she is working on a book about Roma slavery in Romania.