The Gypsy Life

Liz Gallagher
September 01, 2000
old photo of Roma parents swinging child by the arms

Far from the colorful clichés of wandering bandits, many Gypsies, or Roma, struggle to escape discrimination and prejudice and maintain their traditional lifestyles in Romania.

Tod Hartman walks into the coffee shop wearing a black T-shirt over white long-sleeves and his usual green corduroys, worn in the knees. His dark hair is messy, but the look is intentional. It's a style. Hartman's not a frat boy—he's casual, has a foreign look about him. He slouches a bit, has alert eyes. He looks around, spots me and smiles, and walks to the counter. He orders, says hello to a girl who has approached him; something he says makes her laugh. Espresso in hand, he reaches my table next to the wall, under a brightly colored abstract of a woman who looks crazy. "I talked to my friend," he says, smiling his amused smile, "but you won't understand it. It's in Romanian."

He places a clunky tape recorder on the table, sips his coffee, hits play. A deep voice erupts from the machine, difficult to understand because of the tape's muffled quality, and because the man is indeed speaking Romanian. Hartman rewinds a little and the machine squeaks. Students studying at nearby tables shoot dirty looks at us. Play, again. The voice begins and Hartman says, "Fat-frumos sits in a train compartment." He pauses, hits stop. He's speaking almost in sync with the tape. He can translate that fast. "Fat-frumos is a popular character in Romanian folk tales. Call him 'Beautiful Boy.'" Hartman takes another sip and starts the man talking again.

"Beautiful Boy and Beautiful Girl are in a train compartment with the stupid police-man and the smart policeman . . . It's very hot . . . Someone decides to open the window . . . Can you decide who?" The mechanical voice laughs deeply and loudly, like gunfire. "The stupid policeman. None of the others exist!"

"Romanians love jokes about the police," Hartman says. "In Romania, police are the enemy." For Romania's two million Gypsies (out of a total population of 24 million), the relationship with the police is especially bad; police intimidate and harass the Gypsies. In his honors thesis, Hartman writes of a 55-year-old Gypsy man who was woken in the middle of the night by a kick in the stomach. The police took him along with 20 other men, women, and children to the police station, where he was beaten again and fined for allegedly being an illegal resident. "Police discrimination has led Gypsies to be very distrustful of strangers."

Hartman, a Penn State undergraduate majoring in comparative literature and history, has lived three summers in Romania since his sophomore year. He has talked to Gypsies, and to non-Gypsies about Gypsies, trying to understand the Gypsy lifestyle and why things have gotten worse since the fall of communism. He is also interested in Romania's art and culture, especially its literature, some of which he has begun to translate. The literature, he says, has an obsession with immortality—fitting for a country where the buzz of life is ever-present.

The first thing Hartman will tell you about Gypsies is not to call them "Gypsies." The word conjures up stereotypes of musical wanderers, brightly clothed thieves playing tricks to get money from innocent people because they are too lazy to work, or even to learn manners.

old photo of Roma wedding

"Some Gypsies aren't interested in education and advancement, because integration into the wider Romanian culture would mean losing their ethnic ties to one another. So the assumption is made that all of them aren't," Hartman says. "But some of them want to be doctors and lawyers. They want what anyone else wants." Thousands of them have integrated; a few hold important positions in Bucharest as concert violinists, or senators. "There's really no generalization that can be made," he says. "These people are constantly stigmatized as forces who are foreign to a society although they have always been part of it."

The more respectful term, Roma, was given to the tight-knit minority when they were emancipated in the 1860s. Documents citing Gypsies as an enslaved race in Romania date from the 1300s, but Hartman guesses they had been in the country for a century before anything was recorded. They migrated westward as far as Ireland speaking a dialect of Romanian called Romany. Now the word Roma is applied to all Gypsies, everywhere.

"Americans think of them as this very romantic, slightly dangerous but exciting, very colorful group of people who make music and have gold earrings, which is kind of what I thought before I went to Romania," Hartman says.

He first visited Romania for just three days during a European tour the summer after his freshman year. He found the town of Cluj, in Western Romania, fascinating. "At first, it seemed like people dressed like they would in the American '50s," he says. "It was like going back in time.

"Romania's terribly poor," he adds. "That's the first thing you notice. There are nuns begging on the street, people with skin diseases. I saw someone with a huge goiter. People just can't afford to be treated. Even if you get to a hospital, you have to bribe someone to come help you." But there's also a real quality of excitement about the country that he contrasts with the atmosphere in the States. "Romania's more wild, more real, maybe more dangerous. There's always the sense of a street fair. Romania is really alive."

Back at Penn State, Hartman learned to speak Romanian. "I wanted to learn the language partly to go back to Romania and partly as an outgrowth of speaking French, English, and Italian." His teacher, Romanian writer Liliana Ursu, was visiting Penn State as a Fulbright Scholar. Before long, he was working with Ursu to translate her short stories into English.

That year Hartman was also taking a Slavic anthropology class from his now-adviser Catherine Wanner. "I wrote a research paper that I wanted to develop into a thesis on Roma," he says. "So I got a $1,000 grant from the College of the Liberal Arts and Office of Undergraduate Education and went back to Romania." This time, he spent three months in the country, split between the capital city of Bucharest and a smaller city, Ploiesti, about 30 miles north. "In Bucharest, I was learning the language, working with people at the television and public radio stations," he says, "in Ploiesti, I had a stronger connection to the Roma."

The following year Hartman returned to Romania to finish his thesis field work. He lived with the family of a Penn State doctoral student in their Ploiesti apartment on the fourth floor of a house, among the colorful Viennese and Turkish architecture that lined a cobblestone street overgrown with grass.

"Ploiesti is an oil town with an odd ambiance. You can smell oil any time you're outside. At night, you can see fires from the oil refineries.

"It's a struggle to live, to figure out where to get money to buy food. A lot of Roma live off of products they produce in their homes." He shows me a photo of four dark-haired women wearing brightly patterned summer shirts. "This family makes a living shelling beans," he says.

Roma family poses for a black and white portrait

The father of one Ploiesti family lost his job in 1989 when the metals factory he worked in closed along with the end of communism, and since then life has been difficult. They buy produce—beans and onions—from the peasants and rent a table at the local farmer's market where they then sell the food. Their lifestyle is typical of the situation for many Roma, who are openly discriminated against.

"Where discrimination used to be latent, now it's blatant," Hartman says. Before, Roma had a difficult time finding jobs; now employment listings often specify that no Gypsies need apply.

Hartman points out that the new Romanian political power structure is very strongly nationalist. "The government assigns the role of criminals and thieves to the Roma," says Hartman. "There's a certain historical revisionism that goes on. It puts responsibility for poverty and anything else that's negative on the Roma. It's a very worrisome situation.

"At this point, it's not even debatable if things are bad in Romania. They're bad. We need to figure out why. We're not even at the point of being able to make it better. The Roma are outcasts and they are so closely tied to one another. When you're there, you feel almost like you shouldn't be probing into their lives," he says, concentrating on his words. "They want to be left alone, but they also want to survive. And in some sense, to prosper."

Wanner, Hartman's thesis adviser, has pointed out that when a group becomes marginalized, the solution is usually integration. But what do you do when the outcasts don't necessarily want to become part of the in-group? "Integration of Roma was a big issue before '89," Hartman says. "I could see it succeeding eventually, but I'm fairly pessimistic about it. Right now, it would be against their will."

Roma underwent what Hartman calls "forced integration" during the communist era, and now they are simply being excluded. He wonders if there is a happy medium, where the Roma could maintain their autonomy and continue to identify with their ethnic group, while being given fair opportunity for advancement.

Romanian nationalism is not the only new hurdle facing the Roma. Since the fall of communism, there has been a widespread, urgent attempt to conform to Western capitalist culture. Roma may not all want to assimilate, but Hartman points out that they can't ignore what they see all around them. "There's a sense that if you don't desire to follow a little bit, then you're just going to be left behind."

Bucharest is the largest city between Berlin and Athens. It has a metro system. "It used to be called 'Little Paris,'" Hartman says. "It even has its own miniature Arc de Triomphe." Bookstalls cover the sidewalks, where intellectuals purchase materials largely banned under communism. "A friend told me that back then they numbered all of the typewriters so you could tell who wrote what." Hartman says the city people enjoy meeting in coffee shops where they sit and philosophize.

"Some people have read everything," Hartman says, here with me in the State College coffee shop, under the portrait of the crazy lady. "There are so many extremes in Romania," he adds. Romania is a land divided: People against police, Roma against ethnic Romanians, city against country, traditional against modern lifestyle. Although there is so much tension, politically and personally, Hartman says the situation is right for producing important literature. He says, "It seems like almost fantastical things can happen."

Next to his tape recorder, Hartman stacks three books of folk tales, in Romanian. "These are the stories of people who never die," he says. He translated a short story by his language teacher, Liliana Ursu, called Drawing in the Sand, which indeed begins with the line, " 'So you think you will live for eternity, do you?'" The protagonist, Samoila, who has asked the question, disappears by the end of the story, obsessed with a woman who comes to his room and plays with his hourglass.

I asked to go into his room. Inside, there was no one. The walls were full of splendid paintings, all representing a young girl . . . Around the feet of the chair sparkled the broken, pulverized fragments of the hourglass. And the room began to slowly sink away under the sand.

Hartman says, "Romania is a ripe area for fiction, novels. There's a completely new era. People think differently, act differently, relate with the West really differently. I'm very interested to see where writing in that area will go."

Tod Hartman graduated in May 2000 with a B.A. in comparative literature and honors in history from the College of the Liberal Arts and the Schreyer Honors College. He was student marshall for the College of the Liberal Arts commencement. Hartman's work with Roma in Romania was funded by the College of the Liberal Arts and the Office of Undergraduate Education. His thesis adviser for history was Catherine Wanner, 406 Weaver Bldg., University Park PA 16802; 814-863-1338; Writer Liz Gallagher received a B.A. in English in May 2000.

Last Updated May 12, 2016