The following day Iulian Preda, a Romanian government employee whose job is to help the Roma, shows me two sides of rural Roma Transylvanian life, the richest and the poorest. We drive through bucolic scenery that, for good reason, reminds me of the English countryside. Before World War I, these lands were part of the Habsburg Empire and inhabited by Saxon Germans. The region was not part of the Balkans, but of industrial and developed Europe. The stone churches have stout steeples and cottages are painted in St. Petersburg pastels—custard yellow, food-coloring green, infanta pink. Only after most Saxons fled in 1945, with the last major communities departing for Germany after 1991, did the Roma come here, drawn by fallow fields and abandoned barns.
“Drive off-road to your left over that field to the ridge,” Preda directs two or three kilometers from the hamlet of Blajel. “Welcome back to the 14th century,” he adds as the tires start to squeal in the mud. “Gyp-s-s-y,” he whistles, “gyp-s-s-y.” We climb out of the car and trudge on foot through patchy sheets of melting ice, wet grass and mire. Soon we see three earthwork dwellings, hand dug into the slope of a ridge. Snapped drainage pipes—for chimneys—poke through the earth roofs. Seven dirty children in an odd assortment of clothes clearly scavenged from a trash heap crawl out of openings held up by irregular planks of wood, rags and rotted pieces of carpeting. There are no toilets or latrines. I know this because the hovels are surrounded by human feces. I can taste the stench. I am lost for words as Preda gives the bread to the hungry pack of kids.
The children are smiling. They are happy to see strangers. Some of them are barefoot.
“How many of you can read?” I ask.
Two unwashed mothers, who have aged like women of the Third World, clamber out of the dwellings. The children shake their heads. Half of them are more than six, none older than twelve.
“No…no we don’t know.”
“None of us can,” admits a mother clutching a baby wrapped in an old coat.
These families are living like the last survivors after a nuclear holocaust—in the middle of a functioning E.U. welfare state. When was it that people last lived like this in Europe? The Bronze Age?
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know, ask our mother. She brought us here.”
He gestures to a woman with a bloodied right eye and a red headscarf: “My parents died. I came here,” she says.
None of them could explain how this had come to pass. Totally illiterate and living in holes, they no longer have the vocabulary. Never have I met people so lost. “Do you go to school?” I turn to a boy about ten.
“Teachers go…‘gypsy out!’ School….no, we don’t go to school.”
“The teachers say no gypsy children as they are dirty,” says one of the women. “But we cannot wash them.”
There is shouting. The children squeal with laughter. A Roma man waving his cap is briskly marching over the fields through melting snow. Seeing Preda, he rushes into his hovel and gestures, hollers and waves identity papers.
“We have them, we have them still, sir!”
“I have been trying so hard to help them,” Preda says as he takes a few shots with his digital camera. “But they can’t qualify for emergency relief as they haven’t been hit by an earthquake or a flood. They have been living like this all their lives, like after an earthquake. I found them a year ago—they have been here for 40 years!
“All they want is a container to live in. To not live in the mud! But they couldn’t even get social allowances, as they didn’t have identity cards until I made these for them.”
There is nothing more to say. The children chase our car, waving goodbye. We stop by the Saxon cemetery in Blajel to check the way to the next Roma community, some five miles away, where wealthy semi-nomads from the Kalderash tribe thrive.
The Calderaru family, or the Cauldrons, live in a stately, if unfinished, stone compound. The children, wearing astrakhan caps, giggle in the snow, while under a wall carpeting of tigers, the men down a bottle of schnapps with brandy before lunch. An elderly man, who physically resembles a cross between images of Christ and an Indian mystic, briefs me as his sons smoke.
“The other gypsies,” he smiles, “we are superior to them. We were nomads before communism, and my parents were deported during the war to the camps…we were healthier as nomads as we lived in the tents…from village to village we went…I was born in a tent you know? The other gypsies, they lost the traditions, they lost their skills.” His family didn’t, he insists; they are copper makers. “Without the skills they become criminals, drinkers and thieves.”
There are chuckles all around. The old man proudly tells us that not only is it a family tradition to grow beards “like Jesus,” but that he recently made a marriage arrangement between a three-month-old baby and a five-year-old. More schnapps.
“Do you know about the families that live in the holes close by? Do you help them as other Roma?” I ask.
“We know about them,” he scoffs and inhales a bent cigarette. “We give them some bread if we come across them, but we won’t carry them. They have a head and two hands and they should get to work!”