Touching Down in Pau


On our first morning in Pau we felt the shock treatment of the shift from Spanish to French hours full-force, dragging ourselves out of bed at 8:15 am. The first sign that a new country would require a new approach, our comfortably Spanish habits certainly didn’t match the strict French schedule.

Next thing we knew, we were putting our sleepy smiles into overdrive as we introduced ourselves to the teachers and students at an “alphabetization” class in Pau, put on voluntarily by some teachers in the town to help two families of relatively recent immigrants, Romanian Roma, navigate the French system.

France is a country where neither of us have much of a contact base; so when Simina graciously invited us to stay with her in Pau and meet with these Romanian Roma families she had been getting to know recently, we jumped at the opportunity. But to flip languages, sides of the content and levels of familiarity, and to suddenly start meeting people in a classroom instead of inviting friends of friends to take a coffee — it was a lot of adjustment at once, to say the least.

I was in the advanced class on my own, since I already speak French, while Vicente accompanied Simina to the beginners’ room.

The women sitting next to me were really lovely. They were curious about me, and I tried to introduce myself as rapidly and honestly as possible, while still trying to make sense of the situation and of my presence; but though the classroom atmosphere was soft, relaxed, it was definitely a classroom. I felt I was talking over the teacher, and quickly quieted down, at which point I knew I had lost my moment, lost the chance to significantly introduce myself to anybody.

I listened to the lesson, feeling I was reliving my own French education; I doodled on a piece of paper, ran a few songs through my head, thought of all the words that include the sound “eu”. I was in a strange sweet spot, where I was way too fluent to participate, but didn’t have perfect enough grammar to help the students. Instead I reflected, smiled, hummed.

Apparently, in the classroom next door, Vicente was embodying the perfect student. He learnt how to say the parts of the body in French, and how to introduce himself; when I met him again after class, he proudly announced: “Je m’appele Magneto!” He said he became like a child with all of them; by the end they were all clapping when he got things right.

Vicente in French class.

Vicente in French class.

He managed to steal a few moments during the class to communicate with the others, asking them how their lives were in Pau; “life is difficult,” he was apparently told, “but they’re helping us a lot.” But of course they would tell me that, he told me later; after all, we had come in to this situation as total outsiders, and he was asking within the context of the course.

The students taking the classes were from two specific families. The families did not always get along so well, according to Simina, but they did in the context of the class. One was doing “better” than the other, in terms of finding jobs and ways to gain their lives in Pau. But both were living in two pairs of prefabricated homes, which the authorities had placed on a converted campsite ordinarily designated for people who fall under the French designation of “Gens du Voyage”, in this case Manouche.

Vicente and I later learnt that, in many places in France, French Manouche and other traveling Roma who are French citizens — though obviously living incredibly different lifestyles, and facing different circumstances — were often lumped with sedentary recent Roma immigrants from countries like Romania by authorities, on the basis of their shared Roma origins.

Unsurprisingly, these Roma families hardly communicated with their Manouche neighbors-by-circumstance, preferring to keep to themselves. Though they almost certainly have some things in common, the drastically different historical processes of France and Romania produced marked differences between the types of traditions that were saved and lost for Roma in the two countries; and, obviously, two groups supposedly have similar traditions doesn’t mean they will instantly act like family, especially when forced.

Besides, without knowing for sure, I can imagine that their conversations about each other mirror Jose Maria’s story about smoking taboos; especially once people are unjustly lumped together, they are unlikely to dwell on their similarities.

We went to the campsite to visit one family later that day, accompanied by Simina. She was a familiar face there, having visited often and done a bit of work already to try to help the people of Pau get to know these families. And as a Romanian woman, she represented something familiar, at least in terms of language and nationality.

She greeted the oldest woman of the household warmly, and she was well-received; it was clear that they liked her a lot, and that she came often. She introduced us, and we sat in the small interior of one of the two “mobile homes”; it may have been small, and certainly wasn’t filled with riches, but it was super clean and put together beautifully. The brightly colored cloths adorned with floral patterns that I had gotten so used to at this point hung on the walls as decoration; even in the simple, one-room space, everything had its place.

She invited us to sit, immediately offering us tea; but unfortunately, she did not speak French, and the family members that did were not at home. She chatted with Simina, discussing her strong efforts to quit smoking: she had cut cigarettes entirely, and now she asked her husband to leave the house when he smoked, or else it was just too hard.

I spoke to her as much as I could, pulling the little Romanian I know out of the recesses of my memory, even relating to her the entirety of my terribly sparse Romani vocabulary — luckily, the few words I know of the Roma language carry the pronunciations of dialects spoken in Romania, but since I have been taught informally by friends, I can never be sure when someone will understand me. She smiled at me, and sweetly started teaching me more words.

“Write them down!” she kept saying. “It is the best way to learn, you won’t remember them if you don’t write them down.” Obediently, I pulled out my red notebook and started trying to transliterate her instructions.

At a lull in the conversation, her husband went to put music on the small, but centrally located television, taking out the Polish movie that they had borrowed from the town library. The music, of course, was manele, one style of more “popular” Roma music from Romania. I smiled, reminiscing over the month I spent in Romania earlier this year. My dear friend Alexandra Bahor, who had invited me to stay with her family in Bralia, had introduced me to manele in full force; soon I had started to like it, therein becoming the strangest gadje many of my Romanian Roma acquaintances had seen. Many Romanian Roma like manele, but almost all non-Roma do not; it is solidly pushed out of the mainstream, labeled “the music Roma listen to.”

Throughout all of my attempts to connect over little similarities, to try to demonstrate that I respected their culture, Vicente was uncharacteristically silent. In return, they seemed a little uncomfortable with him, as if they couldn’t quite figure him out — this guy who said he was Roma, sitting quietly on their couch.

We discussed the whole situation later on, spending hours reflecting, going back and forth. He explained that the situation didn’t feel right to him. To go into the home of another Roma family, one that he didn’t know, without being officially invited beforehand; to sit with two gadje women, to not have the language to properly introduce himself; to talk to a respectful older couple, but not to get past the topics of manele, smoking and the Romani language; it was all a little strange.

“I was brought up in a certain way, with certain codes. I can’t take these out of me, I don’t want to. And that wasn’t a Roma thing to do,” he explained, particularly concerned with the intrusion into the personal space of the home. “Really, I would never, ever go to someone’s home without being invited first. I would prefer to invite people for coffee, or a meal.” For him, this was a way to show much more respect.

I argued that though this might be true in many ways, there was still something important to be said for meeting people in their context, in their comfort zone. To come to a new town and to invite somebody for coffee just anywhere — it seemed there were so many manners in which this strategy could make people uncomfortable unintentionally, to strip them, or to break other cultural codes; not to mention that with our linguistic limitations, it hadn’t been a viable option.

In the end, there was one thing we deeply agreed on. The conversations had been nice, we had been received wonderfully, and we’d gotten to know this couple on some level. But we had managed not to talk about anything deep or meaningful, and we hadn’t had the chance to properly explain whom we were and what we were doing.

“If we keep doing this, we will end up drinking tea all over Europe, but not sharing people’s real opinions and stories,” Vicente pointed out. “If I just wanted to drink tea with Roma, I would have stayed home.”

Of course, people have every reason, especially given the troubling historical relationship between Roma communities and researchers, to doubt or misunderstand us, every right to reject sharing their opinions or positions. But it didn’t make sense not to give people the chance to express exactly what they wanted the world to know. After all, the main point of the trip is not to share our own opinions, but the opinions of others.

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