In a whitewashed house on a narrow cobbled street in the capital, Bucharest, a group of intense young Rom activists are hunched over computer terminals, trying to increase the political reach of the Gypsies. Their fingers fly over the keyboards, entering the identity details of Gypsies who live in the city.
"Without ID," explains Costel Bercuş, the 23-year-old director of Romani CRISS, the Roma Center for Social Intervention and Studies, "you simply don't exist here. But many Roma don't have papers—they fear the authorities." Now Bercuş and his squadron of young Roma are touring the city trying to convince the Roma that it is the time in their troubled history to stand up and be counted. That they have a right to be heard.
In recent years the fate of the Roma has been catapulted to prominence in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Bulgaria by those countries' applications for European Union membership. Under minority rights provisions, steps to end discrimination against the Roma must be in place before their candidacies can progress.
The activists at Romani CRISS are representative of the 600 Rom university students throughout this country—perhaps the vanguard of a new elite—cultural scouts who are learning how to deal with the gadje. Many of them are children of partly assimilated Roma—those who were put to work in collectives and factories under communism. In fact perhaps half of Romania's Gypsies have lost the Romany tongue, discouraged by the old regime, though many are now relearning it.
Despite the presence of desperately poor Gypsies in Romania, it is also a country that thoroughly banishes the stereotype of the poor Gypsy, as I discover driving west of the drab concrete city of Alexandria. There I catch sight of a mirage in the low, early morning sun—an astonishing sea of turrets covered in shimmering silver scales rises from the flat fields of brown. It is an architectural hallucination, the mongrel offspring of Bavarian castle and Japanese pagoda, a zany Gypsy Disneyland. These competing palaces of prosperity dominate the town of Buzescu, home to over a thousand members of the Kalderash clan—Gypsies who were traditionally coppersmiths. Stretched between the spires of the turrets, hanging like banners, the names of the owners are sculpted in zinc, broadcasting a message clear across the Danubian plains of southern Romania, a whooping visual cheer to the ingenuity of the Roma.
The biggest of the villas is owned by Marin Stoica, the bulibasha, the unofficial village leader. Today he is in the hospital, suffering from diabetes, and I am shown around by his granddaughter, Daniela Constantin, whose smile reveals four glinting gold front teeth—gold not for dental reasons but reasons of Kalderash aesthetics. Her limbs too are festooned with gold. And like almost all the Gypsy women here, she has a necklace made from large gold Austro-Hungarian coins.
Buzescu's grand houses sprang up in 1990, after the Romanian revolution, she tells me as we stroll through the cavernous, marble-lined rooms of the house, past computers and large-screen TVs, repro antique furniture imported from Italy, and pastoral tapestries on the walls. A marble-and-limestone staircase sweeps down four floors, its balustrades anchored in the hall by two statues of Greek archers; nearby is a small grove of plastic palms draped in tinsel.
Before the revolution, she says, "We were afraid to show any signs of wealth, because Ceauşescu would want to know where it came from." The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu forced many Gypsies into government housing that became ghettos and tried to suppress their culture. Many had their stashes of gold coins, accumulated through generations, confiscated by the notorious secret police, the Securitate.
The Kalderash are modern alchemists, turning base metals into gold by harvesting the metal skeletons of the industrial behemoths of the communist era and selling them off. When Daniela's husband, Ştefan Mihai, joins us, he (like most Kalderash I met) doesn't want to go into the specifics of his business—the line of the law is a rather blurred one in Romania's transitional economy, and competition for contracts is fierce.
Ştefan says he has encountered very little anti-Gypsy prejudice, but like many wealthy Roma I met, he has a little of his own. "We absolutely won't do business with any Roma we don't know, because they are dangerous. But with Romanians it's different. They don't try to cheat you like Roma do. We have no problem with Romanians—we employ them as chauffeurs and bodyguards."
The image of "the dangerous Gypsy" is actively promoted by some Gypsies seeking to distance themselves from "bad elements" by acknowledging gadje fears. And it works both ways—the wealthy Kalderash in Buzescu scorn poor Gypsies, but in the next town I found a community of Fulgari Gypsies, who earn a precarious living by traveling in horse-drawn wagons to buy duck down from peasants and sell it to wholesalers. The Fulgari hold up their poverty as a proof of honesty. "The people of Buzescu," scoffs their leader, Florea Sima, "they steal, but we are honest. The poor Gypsies are the honest ones. The rich do all the illegal business."
That night I return to Buzescu for a Gypsy christening at the Romanian Orthodox church. Throughout the ceremony the high spirits of the chattering Gypsies threaten to overwhelm the solemnity of the Orthodox rite. "Their mentality is different from ours," says the priest, Marinică Damian, later. "I once baptized a boy at nine and did his wedding at twelve! It's their law to get married as soon as possible, to retain the seed in the same families, to keep their fortunes intact." Just then the old caretaker bustles up and tugs his sleeve. "Those crows!" she exclaims, referring to the Gypsies by a common slur. "They've gone and stolen the soap."
Later, at the christening feast, a gang of teenage boys mills around me. All are married. The youngest is 14. He wears his baseball cap backward and speaks in a piping, unbroken voice. Do you stay in the same house as your wife, I ask? "Of course, we sleep in the same bed," he boasts. But when I ask if he has any children yet, he casts his eyes downward in embarrassment. "No, not yet," he admits, and runs off to play.
Clan and wealth distinctions like those between the Kalderash and the Fulgari, accentuated by centuries of nomadism and slavery and dispersal through many different countries, have created a Rom diaspora that lacks any centralized hierarchy. It is one of the reasons Roma have been so easy to oppress. But this is changing. The first World Romani Congress met in 1971 in England. It was attended by Gypsies from 14 countries, who adopted an anthem and a flag and began moves toward standardizing the language. Since 1979 there has been a Rom adviser at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Today there are a number of international Rom organizations that monitor Rom civil rights, lobby for an end to discrimination, and have recently begun negotiating for compensation for Holocaust victims.
Here in Romania there is another attempt at providing Gypsy leadership. Florin Cioabă is the "International King of the Gypsies." I know this because it is embossed on his business card, next to a picture of him wearing a heavy gold crown and clutching a gold scepter. His black Mercedes too has a regal cue: Its vanity plates bear the letters RGE, the closest they could get in a three-letter limit to REGE—Romanian for "king." And a crown has been sculpted into the side of his pebble-dashed villa.