Minorities: My week as a gypsy

Portrait of a journalist as a young gypsy.
Portrait of a journalist as a young gypsy.
10 November 2010 – Adevărul (Bucharest)

What’s life like for the Roma in Romania? To find out, an Adevărul journalist dressed up as a gypsy for a week. He didn’t experience any direct discrimination, just general contempt.

Never before have the Roma figured so conspicuously in public debate. France has deported 8,000 Romanian Gypsies this year, but half of them are already back in France again. What chance do they have of being accepted in Romania? To find out I donned Roma attire for a week: a hat, gaudy shirt, leather jacket and velvet trousers. I even grew a moustache. Makeup was unnecessary, as I was born with a swarthy complexion.

I started out at University Square [in Bucharest]. Some drunk college kids made fun of me, hollering well-known Romany interjections at me like "mucles" (shut up!), "baxtalo" (good luck!), "so keres?" (how are you doing?). A tall blond fellow took a picture of me, then of a bunch of bottles on the pavement, the dogs and the beggars. On his computer, back in Scandinavia, my photo will probably be filed under "Bucharest garbage".

As long as there’s money, they welcome me

Later that evening, I went to see a play at the National Theatre. The people around me were not exactly thrilled about my being there, but they didn’t say anything. I heard some young guys laughing at me again though – young men tend to be nastiest and most spiteful towards gypsies. And they’re always laughing behind your back. Their looks hurt even more than Nicolas Sarkozy’s evil eye. We have campaigns for Gypsy integration and literacy, but no campaigns to stop people laughing when they see a hunchback Gypsy in the street.

Still, you can call all that whatever you like, but not discrimination. Nobody threw me out of a café or restaurant. As long as there’s my money to put in the till, they welcome me with open arms. It isn’t the gypsies who are victims of discrimination in Romania, it’s more the poor.

Gypsies must move around in packs, or die

We want gypsies to smell good, to appreciate art, but no employer wants to have a gypsy working by his side. And without money, the gypsy either plunges into penury or looks for unconventional ways to make money. I tried the conventional way, I tried to land a job. I looked up the small ads in the papers to get an unskilled job washing or cannibalising cars. On the phone they’d tell me there were jobs left, tut once they got a look at me, some employers sent me packing directly (“Get lost, gypsy!”), others with insults (“Well, we’re not hiring anymore right now!”). Even the dustbinmen turned me down – the girl in personnel peered at me from under her glasses and said, “We don’t hire – and never have done.” Which presumably means those dustmen bustling around in the courtyard have inherited the occupation from their fathers.

I used to think there was a certain solidarity, if not between people, at least between motorists. On the outskirts of Bucharest I got a puncture, more or less on purpose. I then spent over three hours on the side of the road beckoning to passing cars. I could read the insults on some of the drivers’ lips, others sneered and honked at me, one even made as if to run me over. I was utterly alone: hundreds of cars zoomed right by without stopping to lend a hand. That’s when I realised why Gypsies move around in packs: if they’re on their own, they die!

Ye must be born again

Finally an old Skoda Octavia pulled up and a hapless-looking 50-something fellow in soiled overalls got out. In the two minutes it took to change the tyre, he opened his heart to me: "I saw you signalling to me two hours ago. I watched you in the rear-view mirror and felt sorry I hadn’t stopped. And I told myself I’d pull up if you were still here on my way back. So have I done a good deed or what?” I replied with head bowed: “Yes, sir.”

On my way back into Bucharest I stopped for petrol. A filling station attendant came out looking a little panicky and asked, “Did you use pump 5?" No, I had used pump number 4. It was some gypsies in a car with yellow plates [virtually untraceable temporary plates for German-bought cars] who had taken petrol from pump 5. I was told they had filled up and forgotten to pay. I “deluded” myself into imagining they were also engaged in an unprecedented journalistic experiment.

This article comes full circle to end a few steps from where it began, at University Square. I don’t believe I’ve accomplished anything, let alone come up with a solution to the Roma issue. If society had its way, what should become of them? After being treated like a gypsy for seven days, I’m inclined to point to the writing on the wall of an old house, where a religious zealot has scrawled a verse from scripture, John 3:7, in which Jesus says, “Ye must be born again.” And around here, that is not meant metaphorically.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.