Spare Change

April 23, 2012 at 11:54 am | Posted in Me, Transylvania | 36 Comments
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After you’ve been in Romania a while, you can tell who they are.

You look quick. And then you look away. Because staring too long makes you an easy mark.

With their oil-black hair, nutmeg skin, and onyx eyes, they are exotic and beautiful and shrewd. They peddle flowers and glass and potatoes. They stand by the OMV gas station on the E60 and wait for men to pick them up. They make some of the most enchanting music you’ve ever heard.

They are the Roma. The gypsies. Two million Romanians who are the minority no one likes to talk about.

A mother and her two daughters came up to my car once, while I was buckling the baby in. Bani, vă rog? they asked, their hands reaching over me and casing the black cloth seats. Alimente? Bani? Pentru copii?

With my own hands full of five-point harness straps, I tried maneuvering my shoulders to block them. Nu, nu înţeleg, nu vorbesc româneşte, I said, even though I knew exactly what they wanted.

I managed to slam the back door and slip into the driver’s seat. But not before one of the girls noticed our cache of change for parking meters and shopping carts. Bani? she asked as she stretched across me. I shoved a few silver coins into her hand and pushed her away. She eyed two forgotten Snicker’s bars in the door pocket. Ciocolată, she demanded. I gave her one and tugged the door closed.

She was seven, maybe eight.

I sat there. I watched her. I looked at my grocery list and the cloth bags in the passenger seat. Soon, they would be filled with milk and eggs and bread and yogurt and apples and cookies and pasta and all the things my family consumes in a week. When was the last time that little girl had a glass of milk? I wondered. An apple? A plate of spaghetti and a tomato-sauce mustache?

She stuffed half the Snicker’s bar into her mouth, pocketed the other half, and scurried up the road to join her mother and sister, who were rummaging through the trash cans at the top of the hill.

Without really thinking about it, I started the car and drove up beside her. I rolled down the window and handed her the other bar. She looked at me for a long second before taking it. What did she see? I wondered. A gullible stranger? A “rich” foreigner? A haughty bitch? Or someone who cared, at least for that moment?

As her mother and sister noticed us, they waved their hands and shouted. Bani, vă rog! Alimente! Pentru copii! I shifted into third and turned the corner, leaving that little girl with her 30 cents, her chocolate bars, and the mother who had taught her how to beg so she wouldn’t starve.

What would it take for her life to change? For her to go to college and get a job? For her to one day laugh at spaghetti mustaches on her own children’s faces?

Had I helped? Or hurt?

And who really needed to change? Her? Or me?


Note: I’ve lived in Romania for 10 months. I don’t fully understand or have answers for the poverty and discrimination the Roma face in this country. But I know what I see, what I feel, and how I long for something to change. For me, writing it down is the first step. 


Today’s Five for Five topic is change. Join in at Momalom.



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  1. What a hard thing to face. I like the article about the kindergarten for the Roma…sounds like they are trying to make a change.

  2. Stacia, this is powerful. I feel both the urge to get away and the deeper essential need to change this situation. Well written.

  3. I had a dear friend that lived in Romania…about 15 years ago… and her stories about the gypsies haunted me. These questions you ask are important, and tough and so hard to answer…we live (I’m in suburban America) so far removed from the pain that’s in this country even. I lived in Europe for 12 years and have done a lot of travelling….and some how become more aware when I’m out of the country than home. Makes me think there must be things I can do here to make a difference – even if just a small one.

  4. You have been through so many changes. This was a really poignant look into your life there.

  5. I feel like I’m right there with you. This is so beautifully written. Evocative. Stark. Devastating. And, perhaps, life changing. So glad you’re joining us for Five for Five!

  6. This is so striking. The words, the images you paint. I love more than anything that your focus was outward – on this little girl, this stranger, this soul. Who is she, this creature? What would it take for her to evolve into something other than who she is today? And then. Then I love that you flip this back on you, on who it is you are, on what might be changing or need changing in you. Brilliant, evocative stuff, Stacia. So indebted to Sarah and Jen for giving me the kick to get back into this gritty and glorious blogging world, this world I love and must carve out more time for. xox

  7. So hard. I don’t know what the answer is only that this makes me sad. You’re a good person though to wonder and turn it over in your mind- rather than dismiss them or say ‘not my problem’.

    On an unrelated note- my husband interviewed today for the Cluj position. He says he ‘nailed it’ so we shall see if these faces are in my future soon as well.

  8. What a powerful post. I can’t imagine living where you see that kind of poverty everyday and not being able to help.

  9. Very powerful and thought evoking post. I couldn’t imagine seeing that kind of pain and poverty and hunger and turning the other cheek. I hope they get the change they need.

  10. I can’t imagine being in your position — a stranger speaking a strange language in a strange city but in the all-too-familiar and so uncomfortable position of privilege. I don’t know what I’d do, what would be the safe thing to do (especially when protecting the kids are your first priority), or where to even start. Thank you for putting in words. Acknowledging the problem is a good first step.

  11. Very powerful and haunting. Truly.

  12. Oh, yes. Seeing isn’t enough, but it’s something. It’s a start.

  13. Wow. It can’t be easy to face this all the time. And feeling like you should help but powerless at once. Panhandlers in downtown Chicago are pretty ubiquitous, but when I see moms who bring their kids with them, I feel really bad yet at the same time, it enrages me. Why would they subject their kids to this?

    And then I catch myself – do they even have a choice?

    Ashamed, I only look away.

  14. Hard lessons for all of us.

  15. I felt as if I was right there with you. You did what you thought you had to do for that one girl. You helped dry a small drop of water in a endless sea of poverty and hunger for one moment in time. It is what you could do so you did it. You may never find the answers to your questions, but your heart is big as the eyes that beeseched you for some generoisty.

  16. Wow. Writing is a good step. You can create change in our minds at least and maybe in our behaviours. I hate that powerless feeling when there is so much in the world we don’t know how to change.

  17. Oh that sounds so hard. I feel a mixture of both sadness and disgust at the mother who would let her child beg. But I am not Romanian. I do not live in their culture and I do not live their lives. I cannot judge – only feel.

  18. i do wonder what she saw, in that moment when you handed her the candy bar. i hope she saw that kindness still exists.

  19. It is difficult to know what is helpful and what is not it this kind of hardship. I think we both need to change, especially about the way we think, so writing about it is a good step to start with.

  20. I believe we all have seen hunger in a child eyes. I remember walking the streets of India and watching little girls tell me how they liked my shoes or clothes and then immediately asking for some money. It is heartbreaking and I often wonder what they are carrying inside of them and what it would take to steer their life in another direction. Perhaps hope? I believe you gave that gift to that little girl. Thank you for doing that.

  21. You are an amazing story teller. Like you I don’t have an answer either but I think change has to come from everywhere instead of just one source (or group) for it to be lasting.

  22. Change of the global kind…I love the perspective you offer. We should be challenged by this experience of yours, and I am grateful for the window to what you see. You were both changed in the moments you shared, and that in and of itself can be motivation to make those moments count. Change depends upon it. MMF

  23. The important thing is that you didn’t look away. That takes courage, too.

  24. i could see the people you were talking about. thanks for giving me a glimpse into your world. and theirs.

  25. Stacia, these minorities are as present in the US as they are in “developing” countries. We recently moved into “low-income” housing (white for a neighborhood full of low-income/working class black people) and have seen how ridiculous racial divides are in our country. Our neighborhood is not dangerous, nor is it poor. That’s other parts of St. Louis – the east side. We have driven through there once, on accident, and much of what you describe exists there. Children, parents, infants begging, looking for something to eat. It makes my heart hurt.

    Anyway, sorry for the long rant I just think you so eloquently touched on a tricky issue, something thing so many of us wish to forget.

  26. A great post, Stacia. I feel like I was there. I wonder if she looked at you and saw hope. Hope that you care, hope that she can grow up and have another life.

  27. First off, my post is entitled, “Spare Change” as well. Great minds, right? But my post is oh so different than yours! I loved this post. As i recall loving EVERY ONE of your posts in the past. How life changing it must be to live there. A reality check daily I’m sure.
    Miss you!

  28. I recently attended a seminar where they discussed the poverty and pain in Romania. This post is amazing . It tells such a sorrowful story. You writing it down is a heartfelt first step.

  29. Oh, I could visualize that scene. SO hard to think about- but thinking about it, like writing it, is a step. It is easier to turn it off then face it…

  30. Thank you for this powerful reminder to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

  31. Your writing is so clear; I could picture myself there. Let’s hope you brought a little hope, or at least a smile, to that family.

  32. The romas. I didn’t know. Thanks for sharing this so eloquently. That photo is stunning.

    • In the interest of full disclosure, I was in no emotional shape to take a photograph that day. This is from Rachel Titiriga via Flickr Creative Commons. (Click the photo to go to her site.) But when I saw it, I felt like she might as well have taken it to go with my post. Just perfect.

  33. I think you did a wonderful thing – you saw her as a child and as a human, rather than as a gypsy – and you don’t need to question yourself about it. You’re a mother and I think motherhood blesses us with the ability to see all children in the way we would want others to see our own children. Probably that little girl will go on to give birth to children no different from herself, but in that moment you allowed her to see herself as someone worth being treated with dignity, and that must count for a lot.

  34. I wish I could say, “I can’t imagine.” I have never experienced THAT per se’, but I have experienced hungry children. I am a school teacher in a poverty stricken area. Daily I ask students if they have eaten and send them to the cafeteria LONG after it has closed for the morning. I think you did what you thought was best and to me following your heart is never wrong.

  35. […] Spare Change — Stacia @ Fluffy Bunnies […]

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