Spare ChangeApril 23, 2012 at 11:54 am | Posted in Me, Transylvania | 36 Comments
Tags: Children, Europe, Expats, Five for Five, Gypsies, Minorities, Prejudice, Roma, Romania, Stereotypes
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.
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.