Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for the ‘intercultural communication’ Category

Expat musings

Posted by Andy Hockley on 22 February, 2006

What is an expat? And, am I one? I did after all, get nominated for a “best expat blog” award. These thoughts came to me this weekend as I found myself in a workshop attended by some members of Bucharest’s “expat community” and some Romanians – mostly, like me, from outside the capital. I didn’t exactly feel a part of either group, but felt I had more in common with the latter. And on this evidence I’m glad that I don’t have an expat community so I don’t get to listen to whining complaints all day about how much Bucharest/Romania sucks.

This is not to say that I haven’t been in such communities before (though I have tended to distance myself from the “I hate this country” brigade), and I understand the bond that people have when they’ve uprooted themselves and come to live in a foreign country, had to deal with the same bureaucratic quirks, looked for apartments etc. It’s natural that these communities are formed and start feeding off each others’ irritation with the fact that Romania is different from wherever they’ve come. But it does look odd, at best, from the outside (as I felt I was on Sunday).

So, what is an expat? In its simplest definition it is “A person living in a foreign country”, which definitely makes me one. But in itself that definition doesn’t really sum up the way the word is used. Indian immigrants living in the UK, for example, are never referred to as expats. By the same token, Israel has managed in its own inimitable way to create a bunch of expats out of people who have lived in the same place (East Jerusalem) all their lives and have just ended up being victims of a de facto annexation (it’s true, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are regarded as being from the West Bank and only have resident alien status in the place they were born – even if they have lived in the same house all their lives.)

So, if this definition doesn’t work, what does? The Wikipedia entry, has it that there is a difference between an expat and an immigrant, that “immigrants (for the most part) commit themselves to becoming a part of their country of residence, whereas expatriates are usually only temporarily placed in the host country and most of the time plan on returning to their home country” Now I have no plans of returning to my home country. I’ve been out of it since 1988, and see no reason to go and live there now. But likewise, I’m not intending to take up Romanian citizenship any time soon either. It’s perfectly possible that I will live the rest of my days in Transylvania, but it’s also possible that we will move on and live somewhere else. So, I’m not entirely sure if I see my place in that definition.

In the way I’ve heard it used, it tends to refer to someone from a wealthy country living (however temporarily) in a less wealthy one. When I lived in the US*, the word expat didn’t really come up. In the Federated States of Micronesia, or in Thailand it was clear that I was one. Here in Romania I guess I am one, although absent a “community” of expats it feels a lot different. It’s almost as if to be an expat you have to hunt in packs. Would I have been more likely to have gained Expat status in the US if I’d lived in Florida or Southern California, where there are loads of Brits, rather than small town Vermont?
(*Note cunning reference back to Wikipedia article)

To me, also, it has a slightly negative connotation, conjuring up, as it does, the people who sit around the pool at the British Club, Abu Dhabi, complaining about their maids, or the anglo population of the Costa Del Sol, eating fish and chips and watching Sky News . Immigrant doesn’t have the same negative connotation (except for extreme right wing Daily Mail readers, to whom immigrant is code for all the racist drivel they want to unload but can’t due to the terrible restrictions of “political correctness”)

But there have always been gradations of meaning to describe migrants. The people who used to be refugees are now called “Asylum Seekers” at least in the British press. This cunningly distracts attention away from the situation they are fleeing and puts the emphasis on the country in which they are seeking refuge. With the additional benefit to the anti-immigration brigade of including the word “asylum” which conjures up subconscious thoughts of mental patients. And then of course there is “emigré” a term which seems only ever to refer to Russians, but which apparently means “One who has left a native country, especially for political reasons” according to the dictionary. Which makes me an emigré since I first left the UK to get away from Thatcher (and, obviously, the weather). Then there is “sojourner” which is someone living somewhere temporarily. And of course, diaspora, which until recently I’d only heard in reference to Jews, but then saw something about the Romanian diaspora not so long ago. Does this make me part of the British diaspora?

Personally, I think I’m going to self-define as an emigrant. Romania is my tenth country of residence, and I think it’s more relevant that I left my home country than exactly where it is I have settled, and for how long. All, I can really say is that I’m glad I’m not an expat, or, more accurately, I’m glad I’m not the expat I once was.

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Posted in intercultural communication, language | 4 Comments »

Expat musings

Posted by Andy Hockley on 22 February, 2006

What is an expat? And, am I one? I did after all, get nominated for a “best expat blog” award. These thoughts came to me this weekend as I found myself in a workshop attended by some members of Bucharest’s “expat community” and some Romanians – mostly, like me, from outside the capital. I didn’t exactly feel a part of either group, but felt I had more in common with the latter. And on this evidence I’m glad that I don’t have an expat community so I don’t get to listen to whining complaints all day about how much Bucharest/Romania sucks.

This is not to say that I haven’t been in such communities before (though I have tended to distance myself from the “I hate this country” brigade), and I understand the bond that people have when they’ve uprooted themselves and come to live in a foreign country, had to deal with the same bureaucratic quirks, looked for apartments etc. It’s natural that these communities are formed and start feeding off each others’ irritation with the fact that Romania is different from wherever they’ve come. But it does look odd, at best, from the outside (as I felt I was on Sunday).

So, what is an expat? In its simplest definition it is “A person living in a foreign country”, which definitely makes me one. But in itself that definition doesn’t really sum up the way the word is used. Indian immigrants living in the UK, for example, are never referred to as expats. By the same token, Israel has managed in its own inimitable way to create a bunch of expats out of people who have lived in the same place (East Jerusalem) all their lives and have just ended up being victims of a de facto annexation (it’s true, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are regarded as being from the West Bank and only have resident alien status in the place they were born – even if they have lived in the same house all their lives.)

So, if this definition doesn’t work, what does? The Wikipedia entry, has it that there is a difference between an expat and an immigrant, that “immigrants (for the most part) commit themselves to becoming a part of their country of residence, whereas expatriates are usually only temporarily placed in the host country and most of the time plan on returning to their home country” Now I have no plans of returning to my home country. I’ve been out of it since 1988, and see no reason to go and live there now. But likewise, I’m not intending to take up Romanian citizenship any time soon either. It’s perfectly possible that I will live the rest of my days in Transylvania, but it’s also possible that we will move on and live somewhere else. So, I’m not entirely sure if I see my place in that definition.

In the way I’ve heard it used, it tends to refer to someone from a wealthy country living (however temporarily) in a less wealthy one. When I lived in the US*, the word expat didn’t really come up. In the Federated States of Micronesia, or in Thailand it was clear that I was one. Here in Romania I guess I am one, although absent a “community” of expats it feels a lot different. It’s almost as if to be an expat you have to hunt in packs. Would I have been more likely to have gained Expat status in the US if I’d lived in Florida or Southern California, where there are loads of Brits, rather than small town Vermont?
(*Note cunning reference back to Wikipedia article)

To me, also, it has a slightly negative connotation, conjuring up, as it does, the people who sit around the pool at the British Club, Abu Dhabi, complaining about their maids, or the anglo population of the Costa Del Sol, eating fish and chips and watching Sky News . Immigrant doesn’t have the same negative connotation (except for extreme right wing Daily Mail readers, to whom immigrant is code for all the racist drivel they want to unload but can’t due to the terrible restrictions of “political correctness”)

But there have always been gradations of meaning to describe migrants. The people who used to be refugees are now called “Asylum Seekers” at least in the British press. This cunningly distracts attention away from the situation they are fleeing and puts the emphasis on the country in which they are seeking refuge. With the additional benefit to the anti-immigration brigade of including the word “asylum” which conjures up subconscious thoughts of mental patients. And then of course there is “emigré” a term which seems only ever to refer to Russians, but which apparently means “One who has left a native country, especially for political reasons” according to the dictionary. Which makes me an emigré since I first left the UK to get away from Thatcher (and, obviously, the weather). Then there is “sojourner” which is someone living somewhere temporarily. And of course, diaspora, which until recently I’d only heard in reference to Jews, but then saw something about the Romanian diaspora not so long ago. Does this make me part of the British diaspora?

Personally, I think I’m going to self-define as an emigrant. Romania is my tenth country of residence, and I think it’s more relevant that I left my home country than exactly where it is I have settled, and for how long. All, I can really say is that I’m glad I’m not an expat, or, more accurately, I’m glad I’m not the expat I once was.

Posted in intercultural communication, language | 4 Comments »

Romanian cycle paths

Posted by Andy Hockley on 24 October, 2005

The pavement outside the building in which Erika’s workplace resides is being dug up. Nobody is quite sure why. Well, one hopes that somebody knows why, but most people don’t. We asked the workmen for example, and they said that they were told what to do on a daily basis, and not informed of the final product they were aiming for. It’s obviously very hush-hush when the people actually doing the work are treated on a need-to-know basis. (The flaw in this system became apparent last week, when they had to take up a bunch of edging stones which they had laid a few days earlier and put them somewhere else.) We asked an officious looking bloke who was hanging round watching them work – not working or supervising you understand, just the kind of person who always gravitates towards public working situations and offers advice and the benefit of years of experience standing round watching work get done by other people – and he said that he had heard that they were building a cycle path. “A cycle path! In Csikszereda! About as likely as a shopping mall”, we snorted, derisively. Mind you, the piece of pavement being replaced is only about 200m long, and given that there are no other cycle paths in the town, it is just possible that something as ludicrous as an isolated, unconnected, useless piece of cycle path is just the kind of thing that would have occurred to the mayor.

I’m wondering if the people who live in this building have complained. (I should note here, that while I don’t work for Erika, I tend to spend my days working at “the Soros” as it is known. I could work at home, but (a) Bogi gets back at about 3, and she doesn’t really understand the concept of someone being on a computer and not playing games, and (b) I find I do even less work if I’m at home than I do if I make the effort to have a shower, get dressed, and commute the five minutes to here.) This building is an interesting sociological and intercultural communication case study. You see, the thing is this: Romania is a country dominated by Romanians (unsurprisingly). They (ethnic Romanians) are the majority and they make up somewhere between 84 and 91% of the total population (depending on what the real proportion of Roma in Romania really is). But here in Csikszereda they are the minority. This town is roughly 90% Hungarian and so the proportions are almost the mirror image of the nation as a whole. This creates a certain amount of resentment among the local Romanian population, of the “here we are in our home country, but everybody speaks a foreign language” kind. Obviously not true of everyone, but of some at least.

What does all of this have to do with this building? Well, here, most of the apartments are owned by the police and the military, and hence they are inhabited by Romanians (although the country as a whole is 90% Romanian, the armed services and police forces are closer to 99% Romanian). Here in this building they reclaim their majority status and can feel like there is a corner of Miercurea Ciuc which is forever Dacian (or something). Unfortunately for them, they are forced to share their building with Erika’s school, which of course, being a school, has a large number of people coming and going all the time, most of whom are Hungarian (reflecting the make-up of the community). For the more reactionary and nationalist members of the building (and let’s not forget that the army and police force tend to have a higher wanker quotient than most other members of any society), this is intolerable and they set about asserting their authority in childish and irritating ways. Last week, for example, they locked the lift door on the third floor so that you couldn’t use it to get to floor of the school. Other times one or two of them get drunk and storm into the office moaning about people being allowed into the building without someone checking their ID. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating and, at times, downright frightening (one advantage / disadvantage is that the school is staffed entirely by women – meaning, I suspect, that the complainants don’t usually get too belligerent, but also that whoever is there when the drunken boors decide that today is the day to re-assert Romanian dominance can end up feeling quite shaken by the experience). Most of them are completely fine, I have to say, but the one or two who aren’t fine, are quite nasty pieces of work.

It must have really pissed them off when this street was renamed Kossuth Lajos. Maybe the pavement digging is just another step in the same process.

Posted in intercultural communication, nationalism | Leave a Comment »

Romanian cycle paths

Posted by Andy Hockley on 24 October, 2005

The pavement outside the building in which Erika’s workplace resides is being dug up. Nobody is quite sure why. Well, one hopes that somebody knows why, but most people don’t. We asked the workmen for example, and they said that they were told what to do on a daily basis, and not informed of the final product they were aiming for. It’s obviously very hush-hush when the people actually doing the work are treated on a need-to-know basis. (The flaw in this system became apparent last week, when they had to take up a bunch of edging stones which they had laid a few days earlier and put them somewhere else.) We asked an officious looking bloke who was hanging round watching them work – not working or supervising you understand, just the kind of person who always gravitates towards public working situations and offers advice and the benefit of years of experience standing round watching work get done by other people – and he said that he had heard that they were building a cycle path. “A cycle path! In Csikszereda! About as likely as a shopping mall”, we snorted, derisively. Mind you, the piece of pavement being replaced is only about 200m long, and given that there are no other cycle paths in the town, it is just possible that something as ludicrous as an isolated, unconnected, useless piece of cycle path is just the kind of thing that would have occurred to the mayor.

I’m wondering if the people who live in this building have complained. (I should note here, that while I don’t work for Erika, I tend to spend my days working at “the Soros” as it is known. I could work at home, but (a) Bogi gets back at about 3, and she doesn’t really understand the concept of someone being on a computer and not playing games, and (b) I find I do even less work if I’m at home than I do if I make the effort to have a shower, get dressed, and commute the five minutes to here.) This building is an interesting sociological and intercultural communication case study. You see, the thing is this: Romania is a country dominated by Romanians (unsurprisingly). They (ethnic Romanians) are the majority and they make up somewhere between 84 and 91% of the total population (depending on what the real proportion of Roma in Romania really is). But here in Csikszereda they are the minority. This town is roughly 90% Hungarian and so the proportions are almost the mirror image of the nation as a whole. This creates a certain amount of resentment among the local Romanian population, of the “here we are in our home country, but everybody speaks a foreign language” kind. Obviously not true of everyone, but of some at least.

What does all of this have to do with this building? Well, here, most of the apartments are owned by the police and the military, and hence they are inhabited by Romanians (although the country as a whole is 90% Romanian, the armed services and police forces are closer to 99% Romanian). Here in this building they reclaim their majority status and can feel like there is a corner of Miercurea Ciuc which is forever Dacian (or something). Unfortunately for them, they are forced to share their building with Erika’s school, which of course, being a school, has a large number of people coming and going all the time, most of whom are Hungarian (reflecting the make-up of the community). For the more reactionary and nationalist members of the building (and let’s not forget that the army and police force tend to have a higher wanker quotient than most other members of any society), this is intolerable and they set about asserting their authority in childish and irritating ways. Last week, for example, they locked the lift door on the third floor so that you couldn’t use it to get to floor of the school. Other times one or two of them get drunk and storm into the office moaning about people being allowed into the building without someone checking their ID. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating and, at times, downright frightening (one advantage / disadvantage is that the school is staffed entirely by women – meaning, I suspect, that the complainants don’t usually get too belligerent, but also that whoever is there when the drunken boors decide that today is the day to re-assert Romanian dominance can end up feeling quite shaken by the experience). Most of them are completely fine, I have to say, but the one or two who aren’t fine, are quite nasty pieces of work.

It must have really pissed them off when this street was renamed Kossuth Lajos. Maybe the pavement digging is just another step in the same process.

Posted in intercultural communication, nationalism | Leave a Comment »

The weekend in brief and fractured form

Posted by Andy Hockley on 19 September, 2005

This weekend (or this week actually) was (is) European Mobility Week, which is all about being mobile without using your car. So we chose not to go anywhere outside the city so as not to break the rules.

Actually there is a local NGO (The Partnership Foundation) who are dead good and they put on various events around town to celebrate. There was an NGO fair in the middle of town on Petofi Street* at which Erika’s school had a stall, so we spent some time there, there was a bike race, there was an eco-vehicle challenge, and there was a draw-an-ecological-vehicle-on-the-road-with-chalk competition for kids. So we had a good time just walking round the town participating in an eco-festival right on our own doorsteps.

[*a word on street names – any street that is not named after a person has to be signed in both local languages. Thus we live on Fratiei/Testveriseg (brotherhood) street. For mailing purposes the Romanian name is used. The one exception to this is when the street is named after a person in which case it can’t be translated. Thus the main street in town is called Petofi Street after Sandor Petofi, a famous Hungarian poet and revolutionary who died somewhere near here. The street where Erika works was called, when I moved here, Strada Florilor / Virag Utca (flower street), but has recently had its name changed to Kossuth Lajos Utca (after another famous Hungarian revolutionary). It’s a game the local government play with the national one. Still, if it keeps everybody happy, and not at each other’s throats, then I’m all for it. I think we’re about the only town in Romania that doesn’t have any street or square named after Stefan Cel Mare (Stefan the Great) either, since he is not such a great hero to the Hungarian community as he is to the Romanian, having beaten King Matthius at the battle of Baia.]

Autumn started yesterday, at about 4pm. After we had returned from the eco-events, the skies darkened and the temperature began to drop. In the early evening, Erika and I went to the cinema, and it was getting decidedly chilly. By the time we came out it was dead cold and pissing down with rain to boot. Today looks and feels like autumn. Bit of a shame, but I suppose this great September we’d been having was too good to last.

We had gone to see Mar Adentro, winner of last year’s best foreign language film at the Oscars. This will give you a sense of how long films take to arrive in Csikszereda. It was something of a language challenge for me (being in Spanish with Romanian subtitles), but I was pleased at how much I understood. It was an amazing film and one I can’t possibly recommend too highly. It’ll be too late for anyone outside of the remotest parts of Papua New Guinea to catch it at the cinema, but go ahead and watch the DVD or download the DVIX file or whatever you modern types do these days. The acting is amazing, and the characters so well drawn. It’s about euthanasia but doesn’t try to make any political points, just tells a heart wrenching and moving story of people dealing with tragedy. And despite being about someone wanting to die, it’s one of the most life-affirming films I’ve seen. Really.

The other day, Bogi suddenly had a nasty thought, and turned to Erika in a semi-panicked state: “What if the baby only speaks English?”

And finally, from the BBC, man in nylon suit starts fire. I love that story.

Posted in csikszereda, intercultural communication, language | 1 Comment »

The weekend in brief and fractured form

Posted by Andy Hockley on 19 September, 2005

This weekend (or this week actually) was (is) European Mobility Week, which is all about being mobile without using your car. So we chose not to go anywhere outside the city so as not to break the rules.

Actually there is a local NGO (The Partnership Foundation) who are dead good and they put on various events around town to celebrate. There was an NGO fair in the middle of town on Petofi Street* at which Erika’s school had a stall, so we spent some time there, there was a bike race, there was an eco-vehicle challenge, and there was a draw-an-ecological-vehicle-on-the-road-with-chalk competition for kids. So we had a good time just walking round the town participating in an eco-festival right on our own doorsteps.

[*a word on street names – any street that is not named after a person has to be signed in both local languages. Thus we live on Fratiei/Testveriseg (brotherhood) street. For mailing purposes the Romanian name is used. The one exception to this is when the street is named after a person in which case it can’t be translated. Thus the main street in town is called Petofi Street after Sandor Petofi, a famous Hungarian poet and revolutionary who died somewhere near here. The street where Erika works was called, when I moved here, Strada Florilor / Virag Utca (flower street), but has recently had its name changed to Kossuth Lajos Utca (after another famous Hungarian revolutionary). It’s a game the local government play with the national one. Still, if it keeps everybody happy, and not at each other’s throats, then I’m all for it. I think we’re about the only town in Romania that doesn’t have any street or square named after Stefan Cel Mare (Stefan the Great) either, since he is not such a great hero to the Hungarian community as he is to the Romanian, having beaten King Matthius at the battle of Baia.]

Autumn started yesterday, at about 4pm. After we had returned from the eco-events, the skies darkened and the temperature began to drop. In the early evening, Erika and I went to the cinema, and it was getting decidedly chilly. By the time we came out it was dead cold and pissing down with rain to boot. Today looks and feels like autumn. Bit of a shame, but I suppose this great September we’d been having was too good to last.

We had gone to see Mar Adentro, winner of last year’s best foreign language film at the Oscars. This will give you a sense of how long films take to arrive in Csikszereda. It was something of a language challenge for me (being in Spanish with Romanian subtitles), but I was pleased at how much I understood. It was an amazing film and one I can’t possibly recommend too highly. It’ll be too late for anyone outside of the remotest parts of Papua New Guinea to catch it at the cinema, but go ahead and watch the DVD or download the DVIX file or whatever you modern types do these days. The acting is amazing, and the characters so well drawn. It’s about euthanasia but doesn’t try to make any political points, just tells a heart wrenching and moving story of people dealing with tragedy. And despite being about someone wanting to die, it’s one of the most life-affirming films I’ve seen. Really.

The other day, Bogi suddenly had a nasty thought, and turned to Erika in a semi-panicked state: “What if the baby only speaks English?”

And finally, from the BBC, man in nylon suit starts fire. I love that story.

Posted in csikszereda, intercultural communication, language | 1 Comment »

Book review

Posted by Andy Hockley on 24 April, 2005

I have just finished reading a book which I wish, here and now, to recommend in the most glowing possible terms. That book is “Bury Me Standing”, by Isabel Fonseca. It is a non-fiction book, filed somewhere between anthropological study, historical account, cultural primer and impassioned plea, on behalf of Europe’s most misunderstood, misrepresented, unknown population, the gypsies.

Fonseca, an American Jew, mentions at one point how she came to be interested in the gypsies through the similarity of their European experience to that of the Jews. And in many ways the similarity in the way they have been scapegoated over the centuries is stark, and of course both populations were massacred by the Nazis. But really here’s where the similarity begins and ends. She spends time with various gypsy families throughout Eastern Europe, from Albania to Poland, describing their way of life and the values and beliefs that lie behind them. It’s really really fascinating. I can’t possibly do it justice in a few paragraphs here, but some of the things I didn’t know before reading the book include:

  • The reason that there are more gypsies in Romania than in any other country is because Romania (or rather Walachia) was the only country in the world in which gypsies were systematically enslaved. Gypsies were actually therefore imported into the country from Bulgaria during the middle ages. Hence their numbers here now. (This is a fact that it is still suppressed and hushed up in Romania, and almost nobody here knows this)
  • Gypsies* don’t really have a cultural sense of their own history. Gypsy history* tends to go back only as far as the oldest member of the family or clan group. Unlike the Jews, for example, gypsies* have no real legendary or mythical origin story – which is why nobody really knows who they are or where they originated, though it is fairly widely theorised that they originated in India. (*Obviously all statements here are generalisations and not intended to be some kind of definitive statement, but rather than precede any statement with the proviso “It is generally thought that…” or “Evidence seems to make the following generalisation roughly acceptable…” I’ll leave it to you to take it as read that I’m not actually saying “All gypsies are X” or “Gypsy people do Y”. OK?)
  • They are, however, consummate story tellers, with story telling ability being highly prized, and the story and its telling being much more important than the truth of the tale being told. So, even those older-generation histories are not especially reliable as historical documentation.
  • It’s not clear whether gypsies are nomadic through tradition or choice, or because they’ve constantly been forced to move on. Likewise, they don’t tend to work the land. Again, either by choice/culture or because with such a precarious existence they’ve not had the opportunity.
  • During communist times in E Europe, they were forcibly “assimilated” – by having the traditional family groups split up and moved into villages to live side by side with the local population. The moment the wall fell in 89/90, the long standing resentments and racism towards the gypsy populations forced to live in their midsts exploded into terrible crimes against gypsies – where entire villages spontaneously broke into mini-civil wars and attempted to ethnically cleanse themselves of the hated Roma (gypsies were murdered, their houses destroyed and burned down all while the local policemen and fire departments looked on).
  • Gypsies are (nearly everywhere) seen as thieves. I know people here tend to assume that they are and act accordingly. In Romania in 1994 for example, the author quotes the official crime figures. 11% of all (solved) petty crimes in that year were committed by gypsies. So, maybe it’s a stereotype rooted in some truth? But then you realise 11% of the population of Romania is gypsy, and then it doesn’t seem quite as clear cut.
  • Other aspects of gypsy culture that stand out are a great sense of cleanliness (again bucking commonly held perceptions) and , a deep fear of and fight against death, and a complete lack of interest in integrating into the societies in which they find themselves.

In fact it’s this last thought which ultimately left me with a seemingly unanswerable question. How exactly can the gadje (non-gypsy) population of Europe learn to live with their neighbours, when their values and needs are so different from ours? And indeed when there is really no interest on their part in integrating in any meaningful way. Communist thinking failed because it required that everybody be a contributing member of (the same) society. Capitalism is failing because it is based on greed and selfishness and nobody wants the gypsies as their neighbours. (Though the book suggests that gypsies are exceedingly successful capitalists, being experts at making bargains and deals – another source of resentment among gadje). And because of the lack of a historical mind set and a similar lack of willingness to advocate for themselves in the traditional media of our societies, there is no chance of Gypsies gaining a “homeland” as Jews have.

Vaclav Havel once said that “the Gypsies are a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society”. I can’t help but agreeing with him. Get yourself down your nearest library and get hold of this book. It’s gripping, tragic, fascinating and depressing all in equal measure. And she’s a damn good writer.

Posted in intercultural communication, romania, xenophobia | 5 Comments »

Book review

Posted by Andy Hockley on 24 April, 2005

I have just finished reading a book which I wish, here and now, to recommend in the most glowing possible terms. That book is “Bury Me Standing”, by Isabel Fonseca. It is a non-fiction book, filed somewhere between anthropological study, historical account, cultural primer and impassioned plea, on behalf of Europe’s most misunderstood, misrepresented, unknown population, the gypsies.

Fonseca, an American Jew, mentions at one point how she came to be interested in the gypsies through the similarity of their European experience to that of the Jews. And in many ways the similarity in the way they have been scapegoated over the centuries is stark, and of course both populations were massacred by the Nazis. But really here’s where the similarity begins and ends. She spends time with various gypsy families throughout Eastern Europe, from Albania to Poland, describing their way of life and the values and beliefs that lie behind them. It’s really really fascinating. I can’t possibly do it justice in a few paragraphs here, but some of the things I didn’t know before reading the book include:

  • The reason that there are more gypsies in Romania than in any other country is because Romania (or rather Walachia) was the only country in the world in which gypsies were systematically enslaved. Gypsies were actually therefore imported into the country from Bulgaria during the middle ages. Hence their numbers here now. (This is a fact that it is still suppressed and hushed up in Romania, and almost nobody here knows this)
  • Gypsies* don’t really have a cultural sense of their own history. Gypsy history* tends to go back only as far as the oldest member of the family or clan group. Unlike the Jews, for example, gypsies* have no real legendary or mythical origin story – which is why nobody really knows who they are or where they originated, though it is fairly widely theorised that they originated in India. (*Obviously all statements here are generalisations and not intended to be some kind of definitive statement, but rather than precede any statement with the proviso “It is generally thought that…” or “Evidence seems to make the following generalisation roughly acceptable…” I’ll leave it to you to take it as read that I’m not actually saying “All gypsies are X” or “Gypsy people do Y”. OK?)
  • They are, however, consummate story tellers, with story telling ability being highly prized, and the story and its telling being much more important than the truth of the tale being told. So, even those older-generation histories are not especially reliable as historical documentation.
  • It’s not clear whether gypsies are nomadic through tradition or choice, or because they’ve constantly been forced to move on. Likewise, they don’t tend to work the land. Again, either by choice/culture or because with such a precarious existence they’ve not had the opportunity.
  • During communist times in E Europe, they were forcibly “assimilated” – by having the traditional family groups split up and moved into villages to live side by side with the local population. The moment the wall fell in 89/90, the long standing resentments and racism towards the gypsy populations forced to live in their midsts exploded into terrible crimes against gypsies – where entire villages spontaneously broke into mini-civil wars and attempted to ethnically cleanse themselves of the hated Roma (gypsies were murdered, their houses destroyed and burned down all while the local policemen and fire departments looked on).
  • Gypsies are (nearly everywhere) seen as thieves. I know people here tend to assume that they are and act accordingly. In Romania in 1994 for example, the author quotes the official crime figures. 11% of all (solved) petty crimes in that year were committed by gypsies. So, maybe it’s a stereotype rooted in some truth? But then you realise 11% of the population of Romania is gypsy, and then it doesn’t seem quite as clear cut.
  • Other aspects of gypsy culture that stand out are a great sense of cleanliness (again bucking commonly held perceptions) and , a deep fear of and fight against death, and a complete lack of interest in integrating into the societies in which they find themselves.

In fact it’s this last thought which ultimately left me with a seemingly unanswerable question. How exactly can the gadje (non-gypsy) population of Europe learn to live with their neighbours, when their values and needs are so different from ours? And indeed when there is really no interest on their part in integrating in any meaningful way. Communist thinking failed because it required that everybody be a contributing member of (the same) society. Capitalism is failing because it is based on greed and selfishness and nobody wants the gypsies as their neighbours. (Though the book suggests that gypsies are exceedingly successful capitalists, being experts at making bargains and deals – another source of resentment among gadje). And because of the lack of a historical mind set and a similar lack of willingness to advocate for themselves in the traditional media of our societies, there is no chance of Gypsies gaining a “homeland” as Jews have.

Vaclav Havel once said that “the Gypsies are a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society”. I can’t help but agreeing with him. Get yourself down your nearest library and get hold of this book. It’s gripping, tragic, fascinating and depressing all in equal measure. And she’s a damn good writer.

Posted in intercultural communication, romania, xenophobia | 5 Comments »