Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sunshine and Gypsies

Yesterday we went to an event at a church in Rockville. The flyer had been titled: "First Annual Baltimore Washington Herdeljezi (Roma/Gypsy) Festival." It was going to have dance classes, art and crafts, music, food, and it sounded like fun.

See, way back in another life I played in a band in the Seattle-Tacoma area that became the house band, I guess you'd say, for the area's Gypsy population. They have their own festivals and holidays, their own language, their own music -- the Gypsies have set up an alternative society interwoven with ours but transcending national borders. Gypsies aren't from any place like the rest of us are, there are Gypsies everywhere. Most of them can't read, they usually don't go to school, but they learn the local language and customs well enough to blend in and make a living.

Every couple of weeks we'd play at one of their events. They would rent the finest hotel ballroom in the area and fill the parking lot with Cadillacs. Beautiful women in flowing evening dresses, handsome men in the best suits, they would dance and sing along with the music, drink a little, eat a lot, and usually leave the room absolutely trashed. Our tambourine disappeared at the first gig we played for them, and there was a little problem about getting paid, but after that first gig we worked it out and played a lot of really fascinating and cool parties for them, all up and down the West Coast.

My family has heard me talk about this for years, and I thought it would be fun if they could get a chance to see what this Gypsy thing was really about. I'd never heard of this particular festival, Herdeljezi, but we had played for some different ones, and it would be no surprise if they had different names for it -- for instance, Gypsies have two names, a Gypsy name that you never hear unless you're one of them, and another name that they use when they deal with members of the host society. Plus they pick up words wherever they go, so I wouldn't be surprised if one group had a different name for a holiday from another.

A couple of years ago I talked with someone at a flea market in Silver Spring who admitted being "half Gypsy" and said they lived nearby. I've seen their signs, and know there is a local population of them.

So we went to this church yesterday afternoon. I didn't see any Cadillacs in the parking lot, but, well, it was -- as you know -- the most beautiful day we've had in a long time, sunny and warm, clear skies. So who's complaining? As we got out of the car we heard some music, pretty loud, and there were a couple of young hipsters lounging around in the grass out front, just being cool in public.

We managed to talk our way past the admission charge and went into the room where the band was playing. There were actually quite a few people there, I'd say more than fifty, mostly women, it seemed to me, though I may have a kind of perceptual selectivity that oversamples particular features of the environment. The band sounded sort of like a klezmer band, amplified pretty loud, playing fast, improvising in strange minor keys and modes typical of the Mediterranean. Women on the dance-floor were swirling, undulating, scarves and skirts a'flying, all smiles, all fun and happiness.

We looked over the booths, which were mostly musical instruments, CDs, and "Gypsy" clothes. I thought it was possible that the girl behind the booth with the "Honorary Rom" t-shirts might have been a Gypsy, but ... I didn't see anybody else. The rest of them looked like Presbyterians to me (that's what kind of church it was). I mean, nice-looking Presbyterians, no offense, but they were at most pretend Gypsies.

When one of my kids was very young, we took them to a birthday party where the parents had hired a clown to entertain the kids. And one of the kids shouted out, "Are you a real clown, or are you a pretend clown?" I still think this was the most intelligent question in the world. Well, you could say that Ronald MacDonald is a pretend clown, but, no, even crass commercial clowns trying to sell you trans-fats are real clowns.

The distinction is meaningless for clowns, of course. Anybody at all can dress up as a clown and be a clown. There are lots of things like that, roles that we play, social identities that we take on, and they are as real as any other, just because we say they are.

On the other hand, a girl in a flowing gauze skirt, twirling and smiling and rocking on the dance-floor to exotic music, is not a real Gypsy, not that I'm knocking it. Real Gypsies know the language, they know their culture, they have norms and rules and they adhere to them. It's a serious thing, being a Gypsy. There have been people who claimed to be accepted by the Gypsies, and I have met some of them and seen them with the others, and I have never seen a case where it was really true that they had become one of the community. Even in marriage, there is a border, a frontier, that you can't cross.

I'm sure there are romantic stories with plots that spin around the Gypsy orphan raised by outsiders, who has "Gypsy blood" and a strange wanderlust and blah blah blah. I doubt that happens. I imagine if you raise a Gypsy kid in a non-Gypsy society they end up just like the other kids. So to say they're "real Gypsies" is not to say that there is something genetic or physiological about them that sets them apart from other people -- I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem that way to me.

In this way, culture, even Gypsy culture, is sort of like religion, in fact in a lot of places they are really the same thing. If you raise a Moslem orphan in a Christian home, he will be Christian like any other kid in the home, there won't be strange longings for Allah. And vice versa.

An orphaned and adopted person who has been raised in a different religion from that of their parents -- do we say "He's raised Moslem, but he's really a Christian?" No, I don't think so.

On the other hand, there are traits you're born with, both unique personality traits and traits general to your ancestry. The shape of your eyes and of your teeth, the shade of your skin, the color and texture of your hair, all the features of your face and your build are innate. Not just your inherited characteristics, but other things: your artistic or musical talent, your sense of humor, your interest in and aptitude for sports -- a gazillion things. These things aren't necessarily genetic in the strict sense, that is, I doubt they will ever find a gene that makes you funny or popular, but that doesn't mean anybody can be that way, it's simply innate in some people.

We actually had fun at the Gypsy festival. Everybody seemed happy with their pretend-freedom, pretending they could travel away at any moment to a new, more exciting place, where they could have adventures and be a new, exciting person. Dancing to the strange music, swirling their colorful skirts, it was good.

Remember when we met that guy at the CRC meeting who told us he had once beaten up a gay man and then took his wallet to make it look like a robbery? Oddly, in his mind he thought he was pretending to rob the man, but in fact it was a real robbery. After all these years, after telling that story a thousand times, that had never occurred to him, and it didn't occur to him after I pointed it out, either.

Sometimes when you're pretending, like when you pretend to be a clown, or a robber, you really are that thing. But some Gypsies are real Gypsies, and some are not.

This can be a hard distinction to make, and most of the time it doesn't matter. These days, I'd say, it matters more and more, when people claim to be one thing and they're not, and it matters -- say people die, or lose their savings, or get sick because somebody who said they could do a job really couldn't, or somebody who pretended they were a leader couldn't actually lead when the time came. The ability to pretend gives us a lot of fun, it lets us try things, it gives us a kind of power to try on different roles, so we can do things we can't do in our boring old regular lives.

But there is a time at the end of the day when the wise person knows the difference.


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