Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gypsy Encounter

Yesterday was Saturday. Nancy Sherman, connected to Yahoo, popped up on my screen as available to chat. I invited her to do so, but got no response. A bit later, Skype rang, and it was she. “How are you doing today?” and “How’s your hip?” were among the questions exchanged as we brought each other up-to-date. I knew that Nancy’s husband Pat and son Evan had returned to the U.S. after Christmas, so that Evan could take his final semester of Eighth Grade with his class in Peoria, and so that Pat could get back to work at Illinois State University in Bloomington. Nancy reported that she had a dinner planned with Kate Palmo, who is roughly my age, a Peace Corps volunteer, also working in Oradea. Nancy invited me to join in. That explains why, after lunch, I found myself stopping for a hitch-hiker in a village on E60/Ro 1, about midway between Cluj and Oradea.

The man was one of the Roma, known to Romanians as "Gypsies". He spoke incessantly in an unintelligible language, and was carrying a blue cloth shopping bag stuffed full of unidentifiable stuff. Though he spoke rapidly and strangely, he made it clear first that he wanted me to take him to a hospital in a town somewhere ahead, that he needed money (the sign for which, the rubbing together of the thumb and first two fingers, is seemingly universal), and that he wanted me to buy something that sounded like “pita” from his bag. We were entering the uphill switchbacks of one of the mountain ranges along this route. I was trying to drive, and trying to ignore this man’s constant poking at my right shoulder, to make me look at him as I heard his endless pleading.

After a few miles, I tried Spanish. He seemed to know some Spanish, and asked if I had niños. I told him I had six kids. He replied “Yo, cinco.” Now he asked me to give him something for his kids, whose mother, he said, had died in a machine (which I took to mean a car wreck, as a car in Romania is a “maşina,” ), and pulled up his shirt to show me a nasty scar that looked very much like a healed gunshot wound, though maybe it was his scar from that car accident. I was damned if I was going to part with the 200 Lei that I had withdrawn that morning, and needed for the trip, so I just stalled and kept talking with the man. Then he spotted the two little boxes of Belgian chocolates that I had in the console, bought as little gifts for Nancy and Kate. “Chocolata por mi niños?" he begged. I picked them up and handed them to him. “Okay,” I said, “Por sus niños”. He immediately began crossing himself, and praising Jesus, though I hardly think he was nominating me for sainthood.

I soon realized I had made a mistake. Now that he knew I could be talked into giving in to his pleas, they became even more intense. We were descending westward, and I really had to pay attention to the road. I decided to let Klaus help me out of my pickle. I sped up. I took the curves like a Romanian in a new Audi. (Anyone here in Romania will know what that means.) The Gypsy shut up. As we reached the next village (a mining town with no blue “H” signs in sight), my “friend” started pointing to the side of the road, saying “Aqui, aqui!” I stopped to let him out. Then I said, “Momento.” I reached into my bag in the back seat and gave him my sack of three beautiful apples and a large orange, acquired that morning at the farmer’s market at Piaţa Mihai Viteazul. “Por sus niños,” I said.

To his credit, the man stole nothing from me, and offered no threats. I think I’d met a professional beggar. But, if there was any truth to the man’s story, I couldn’t just give the kids candy, could I?


Davin Ellicson said...

Was he speaking the gpsy language?! He should have spoken Romanian as well, no?!

Duncan McDougall said...

Can't say it was the "gpsy" [sic] language. If it was Român, it was spoken far too fast for me to understand it.

Raluca Muresan said...

Your blog post is very interesting since it offers a broader picture to the "gypsy problem" in Romania. Not all of them are thieves and some of them are very honest, but after so many decades of discrimination and marginalization, they became accustomed to begging all the time.
I liked the fact that you tried to be objective while writing the story and were not influenced by the stereotypes the Romanians usually attach to Roma individuals.

Duncan McDougall said...

Thank you, Raluca.