- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006


By Fernanda Eberstadt

Knopf, $24.95, 242 pages


At last — a book worthy of its subject: Gypsies. The author writes with the warmth and wit of a novelist (which she is), the eye and ear of a detective and the vocabulary of a multilingual sailor. She knows her Gypsies.

How come? What is the fascination that Gypsies have for us more conventional folk? For me, there is a tinge of envy, or there was when I traveled and camped out with Gypsies for much of a year, long ago. Perhaps it is the same wistful envy that dutiful, marching ants have for high-stepping, prodigal grasshoppers. How great to go unwashed, play hookey and live for the moment. Make music, make merry, dance, dissipate and stay up late. Tell fortunes for others — since for you, the future is nothing to worry about.

Fernanda Eberstadt, her husband and small children lived for some six years in a village near Perpignan in the southwest corner of France, between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. It’s a polyglot place, with Catalans, Spaniards, French, Arabs of varied stripe and coveys of Gypsies. Of course, there is music — spontaneous, improvised, frantic, passionate. It was the music that brought Mrs. Eberstadt to know the music makers.

She had lived in Perpignan for a year and a half before she was able to meet a Gypsy, such are the social barriers, the “steadfast endogamy.” Then, like a social climber in reverse, she met Diane, who was married — though not legally — to Moise Espinas, one of the greatest Gypsy singers in France.

Diane adopted her, became her best friend there, a confidante and guide to the world of the Gypsies. As the author explains, “Diane is not much of a cook. She lives off Marlboros, reheated black coffee, and morphine, and I have never seen Diane offer food to her husband or children.”

Music they shared, for Perpignan is home to a brand of music called Gypsy rumba, which “in the hands of its keenest practitioners, gives you goose bumps.” Mrs. Eberstadt meets those practitioners, like the young man who could not play one night because he had sold the strings off his own guitar.

Of course, there is flamenco, “our blues,” as one musician calls it, “a counter-aesthetic of ruin” which values “hoarse, broken, croaking nasal voices… . You don’t say a singer has a beautiful voice, but ‘a voice that wounds.’”

Flamenco, the author notes, “is the art of desperate measures.” She proves her point with a description of a musical uel between two divas, one an Arab Andalou singer, the other an alto with classical flamenco. The singers performed in turn, without acknowledging the other, and the audience was cold, “like a middle East peace conference.”

Then, while making a bow, the hefty Gypsy alto “tripped on her stiletto heel, toppled over the edge of the stage, and in hideous slow motion, fell into the audience.” People laughed at the comic catastrophe, the singer won a fugitive grace from shame, and went on to a tear-soaked triumph.

To the author, one band in Perpignan, named Tekameli, “was so superlative, so God-graced that it just wasn’t fair.” The name comes from Kalo, the Gypsy language in Spain, and means “I love you.” Fernanda Eberstadt becomes something of a Tekameli groupie. Her musicians leap of the page.

In a restaurant, two of the musicians serenade the diners. One is Jerome, “who has the jittery eyes of a horse about to bolt… .His fellow guitarist, a dapper old gentleman dressed in a straw hat and a jaunty suit, exudes a discreet Latin elegance.”

Jerome’s guitar “looks as if it has been pieced together after a car crash.” From Jerome’s friends, the author learns that the singer is an insatiable libertine and that he might have gone far as a musician if he had not been “completely insane.”

Early in her Gypsy encounters, the author had “moments of anti-epiphany… almost unbridgeable incomprehension” since “we each spoke a different kind of bad French.” Appointments are impossible, since some Gypsies don’t know the days of the week nor own an alarm clock. When do they play at this restaurant? “When I think of it.”

Mrs. Eberstadt and her husband travel to the darkest slums, down strangely names streets: Street of False Witnesses, Street of the Three Days, Dragon Street, “and the street that best describes the condition of most people I know in Perpignan, Little Money Street… . If you want to get from Hell Street to Paradise Street, there are two hills to cross, and each time you discover a hidden wonder: a circus school housed in the corner of an old arsenal; a club for harmonica lovers… . chair-caners, piano-tuners, … three public scribes.”

Education, of course, is a sometime thing for Gypsy youngsters. “Nobody continues school past age 14,” a social worker explains. “What’s the point? Traditionally, Gypsies … were horse-breeders, blacksmiths, basket-weavers… . By the ‘60s their trades had become obsolete. now they live off welfare.”

Young men and women often marry at age 15, some in the Pentacostal faith. Many young Gypsy men become Pentacostalist preachers, wearing black suits and white shirts, and combine their religion with their music, a variant of Gypsy gospel. Always the sexes are somewhat segregated, the men staying together to talk about musical gigs or cockfights, the women taking of children and shopping malls.

On the outskirts of the city, the author visits the “banlieues,” the high-rise housing projects, “France’s version of the ‘inner city,’ a no-go zone… where the poor are stockaded.” These places are “blamed for many of the social ills whether extreme-right racism or radical Islam.”

Here “the French government periodically imposes curfews, where …cars are set on fire and policemen stoned.” In Perpignan, the mix includes Gypsies, Turks, Arabs, the first “official” mosque (others are “hole in the wall prayer houses”).

Among the author’s Gypsy friends, Palm Sunday is a big celebration — far more than Easter. Shopping for costumes and candies with her friend Diane, Mrs. Eberstadt starts to buy a small chocolate owl for her daughter. Diane is shocked. “No, no, that’s way too small. It’s got to be big. And pink.”

Thus another culture snag: “Where I come from, parental love means placing limits on the amount of tooth-rot … . For Diane, the bigger the candy, the bigger the love: a chocolate egg the size of the Parthenon means you love your kid a thousand times more than an egg the size of a ranch house.”

A pediatrician says, “I see these children who help themselves freely to kitchen cabinets stuffed with chips and candy, babies who are given Coca-Cola in their bottles instead of milk.”

Shopping in a supermarket with her Gypsy friends, the author notes that “inconspicuousness for most Gypsies just isn’t an option.” Her friends wore “long skirts, hair combs, and house slippers.”

In the checkout line, they stand behind a white couple in their early 40s. The husband “shoulders his wife well away from us, turning around to send us poisonous glares. it seems to me you could only stare with such loathing and contempt across a crowded courtroom, at the murderer of your child.”

Gypsies in Western Europe today have abandoned their nomadic ways — though not their restlessness, for they still move about, playing gigs in other cities, descending on relatives. Their life spans are short, “premodern,” as Mrs. Eberstadt notes.

Many burn themselves out. “When your neighbor drops by to recount the village gossip, it’s a tangle of incest, AIDS, suicide attempts, drug additction… sad histories of generational decline.” Like their French neighbors, who have the world’s highest per capita consumption of antidepresants, Gypsies often use Prozac.

Mrs. Eberstadt attends an illegal Gypsy cockfight, escorted by a man named Jacquot, owner of three contestant roosters. Men in the crowd are adorned with “as many as four hefty rings on each hand” and tattooed biceps proclaiming, “My heart belongs to Rosa.”

She watches as owners sew spurs onto their fighting cocks, then shoot the birds up with amphetamines. Jacquot’s first bird is a quick loser, shuddering as it “bleeds to death in a mess of broken glass and cigarette ash.”

After the 12th match, Jacquot asks her whether she enjoyed it, “I, sifting through the weaves of interest, boredom, exquisite discomfort, and self-disguist, lie and say yes.”

Later she hears Jacquot ask Moise why a lady wanted to attend a cockfight. Moise explains that she is a journalist, and Jacquot asks, “What’s a journalist?” Moise answers, “A journalist is someone who likes to see things — all kinds of things — to find out what they’re like.”

Fair enough. Readers can feel lucky that Fernanda Eberstadt shares these experiences with us.

Bart McDowell is the author of “Gypsies: Wanderers of the World,” published by the National Geographic Society.

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