It is common, no matter where you travel, for locals to ask you what you think of their country. Romania is no different, but with an added extra: people declaim that Romanians are not all gypsies and not to judge the country because of them. This is telling for several reasons. Firstly that this is the impression that many in the West have of Romania and Romanians (if they have an impression at all); secondly that ordinary Romanians are embarrassed by this preconception; and thirdly that this is a negative image. It is sad that in today's world where we have done our utmost to banish discrimination against blacks, Jews, homosexuals, the disabled and women, that prejudice against gypsies, or Roma, is not only widespread, but also accepted amongst many, otherwise liberal, sections of society. As a people they are the poorest and most disadvantaged in Europe. How did this come about? and who are the Roma anyway?It is generally accepted that they came to Europe in the Middle Ages from somewhere in today's western India. From the start they were discriminated against. Those that didn't become slaves (which was their status in Transylvania until 1856) were, much like the Jews, forbidden from owning land. And since they didn't have scholarly traditions to fall back on, they were forced into a nomadic lifestyle. So they became itinerant tinkers, entertainers and odd-jobs people. When the age of nationalism, borders and knowledge work came along they were badly positioned and straightjacketed into conforming to a sedentary norm that they had been excluded from for centuries. Some, like traditional tin workers and brick makers, had the skills to adapt and do well, but many sank further down the socio-economic scale. Persistent age-old prejudices have also hindered the Roma's development and integration into mainstream society, with many hearsay beliefs about their customs held by majority populations who have no contact with them.
|Colourful Roma clothes worn by the friendly Gabor family with whom I stayed.|
Romania is particularly known for being home to a large Roma minority (mainly due to the fact that they were kept there as slaves and not allowed to leave) that are maligned, particularly in Western Europe, for being thieves and beggars. So when I was sent a "cold-call" e-mail from a guy organising tours and homestays with Roma my initial reaction was to bin it (like with all junk mail), but then I thought about it a little more and became intrigued. As a tourist it is highly unlikely that you will have much contact with Roma apart from the odd urchin begging for some "bani". So I thought "to hell with it, I'll never have an opportunity like this again," and proceeded to organise a couple of homestays with different Roma families, and I'm very glad I did. (It was interesting to note that local Romanians whom I told about my plans invariably told me to be careful and keep and eye on my belongings.)
Since most Europeans have little or no contact with them they view Roma as one homogeneous blot, to be shunned, but if I was to have one, take-home message from my time with the families, it is that there is not a single, unified Roma community or group, and that there is as much variety within them as there is within society at large. The first family I stayed with were poor, and lived in a densely-built little gypsy neighbourhood of a small, provincial town. I was struck by the fact that, apart from their slightly darker complexion, there was little to distinguish them from the white (and other minority) denizens of Britain's grimier housing estates: poorly educated, TV on 24/7, no prospects, lax and reckless upbringing of kids, teenage mothers, single parents, petty squabbling and raised voices in the streets and poor diet (fresh fruit and veg don't get much of a look-in). Nevertheless they were both friendly and hospitable and made me feel very welcome. The other family prided themselves on being Gabori, a caste of Roma who take pride in maintaining their traditions and customs and are skilled in various crafts (the ones I stayed with were tinsmiths, and had a small workshop even employing some non-Roma locals). The children were as good as gold, there were books in the house, the family sat around the table for meals, the house was immaculately kept and the head of the house was even a member of the local voluntary police. By visiting these families, and putting names and faces to what used to be an abstract idea, helped shatter this image of the Roma as being somehow different from us. For anyone thinking of visiting the area I would highly recommend trying to stay with some of these families, as the more contact and bridges that are built between Roma and others the more integrated they can become into society in general, and then throwaway, prejudicial comments and views will, hopefully, no longer be acceptable.
|Main street in a poor, Roma suburb.|
Some potential food for thought when regarding Roma and the way they are viewed, here is an fact. Roma have never had, or seriously demanded a homeland. Therefore there has not been the associated ethnic cleansing, wars, land-grabbing and discrimination from them, unlike pretty much every other ethnic group, at least in Europe. The worst they have done is petty thievery and small-scale, personal violence. Compare this to what the English, French, Germans, Russians, Hungarians, etc., etc. have unleashed on their neighbours. Furthermore they were brutally targetted by the Nazi regime and treated just as the Jews. Unfortunately, due to their lack of written records and history, nobody knows precise numbers of how many Roma died during WWII, especially as most were simply shot on sight. And since they have never really had any money or influence their fate during that period has been simply ignored and swept under the carpet. Whilst everyone learns about the Jewish Holocaust you will be hard-pressed to find much information - be it books, newspaper or magazine articles, films or even textbooks - on the Roma equivalent (not to demean the 6mn Jews who did die, but ignoring the fate of others is both unjust and cruel).