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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

All I Ever Need to Know I Learned from a Gypsy Girl

After my grandfather's death, my paternal grandmother lived with her sister in a huge house that smelled of cured bacon and old things, in a neighborhood at the periphery of my hometown. The river was nearby, crossed by a black steel bridge wide enough for two sets of railroad tracks and nothing else. Sometimes I saw young men up there walking on the ties and then, when a train whistle blew, pressing themselves quickly against the railing as the train sped by. The gypsies' houses were nearby, too. I saw them in the street, the women with their gaudy pleated skirts that brushed the dust on the sidewalks, and their babies in slings tied over their shoulders; the men with their black hats and white faces; the young girls with their thin long braids tied with bright red ribbons.

I was afraid of them, and afraid of my grandmother's house with its strange smells and its large rooms crowded with furniture, armoires and armchairs and high beds in which no one ever slept. I couldn't puzzle out my great-aunt, who was a seamstress and had gypsy women as her only clients. She sewed skirts and blouses and vests for them from glossy fabrics in the most outlandish colors I had seen, magenta and gold and peacock green. But she spoke of the gypsies and to them in a tone of contempt and annoyance and every once in a while a begrudging sort of respect. I happened to be there once when some gypsy women came for a fitting. I gaped at their gold-capped teeth and black mocking gleeful eyes. I was shocked by their politeness. I marveled that they didn't smell; I marveled that they smiled and weren't nervous and didn't seem to realize that my great-aunt thought very little of them.

In the back yard of the house, right next to the pig sty and the chicken coop, there was a shack that was little more than one room with whitewashed walls and a very small window that faced the same direction as the door toward the main entrance to the house. My great-aunt sometimes rented it out, and I remember that the steadiest renter was a young gypsy girl who once invited me to visit the room and see what a nice little home she had made for herself there. I don't remember her name. I know she was extremely talkative and friendly, which made me suspicious; I remember she smiled a lot and gesticulated incessantly and invaded my personal space. I didn't want to go see her room. But she pressed and pressed. I must have been ten or eleven and my father was with me and didn't tell me to go or not to go, and so out of guilt I went. The room was very clean, though it had that smell of old things that filled the main house. The bed was made very tightly. There was a stove in a corner and a rug on the floor. The gypsy girl was very proud of that rug. I sat on the bed and tried not to think too hard about how badly I wanted to leave. She told me her life story: how she was an orphan, had grown up in a goverment home for children, was in high school now and loved to run and had won some track and field competitions.

At long last I said I had to go. My father was already outside, with my grandmother, waiting for me. I felt so guilty about not liking the gypsy girl who had been so kind to me that I interrupted my father's conversation with my grandmother and said that he should go back there and see what a nice room the girl had; it was such a nice room, really nice, and it had a rug, a rug that she had bought herself with her own money. My father looked at me as if he didn't recognize me. But I kept chattering and insisting he visit the gypsy girl's room. I don't remember how he made me shut up in the end. What I remember so vividly it pains me even now is waiting at the tram stop in the dark for a tram that was very late and my father telling me, "Don't you see that we're different? That gypsy girl and us, we're different. You have to know that you're above her and that becoming associated with her would be shameful. Do you understand?" I was mortified. The mistake I thought I had made was that I hadn't liked this gypsy girl because she was a gypsy. And now my father was saying that it was a mistake, and even more than a mistake, a sin, to like her because she was a gypsy.

After coming to America I wrestled a lot with racism. I didn't understand it; I couldn't imagine how a people of one colour could think a people of another colour inferior, less than human. But then I remembered the gypsy girl and my feelings about her, and the weight of guilt and prejudice against gypsies that I absorbed by just being the daughter of my parents and by the accident of having been born in a certain culture and a certain social class. I have a fear that despite my conscious effort not to be prejudiced, deep down I have remained that little girl who convinced herself that a gypsy was a lesser person than herself because the gypsy wore strange clothes and spoke a strange language and lived in a shabby rented room. I fear that some things that I learned cannot be unlearned, not deep down in the layers of myself where my awareness doesn't reach. But then the best I can do is to begin at the top layer and dig slowly down, changing a little at a time and never telling myself that I'm done (un)learning.


Blogger tina said...

I loved that. How beautifully introspective.

May 25, 2006  

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