Standing in the forest of campers and caravans that assemble to form a small Manouche camp in Lons, I lean ever so slightly on the back of the vehicle next to me. We have been standing here for over an hour, one hundred percent absorbed in conversation with a couple of gentlemen from the community; I would hardly have noticed the time passing, if it weren’t for my tired feet and the apprehensive glances shot my way by Mathilde.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Vicente and I hadn’t known about this camp in Lons, only a few minutes away from the peaceful, idyllic neighborhood where we were staying in neighboring Pau. Neither of us was aware that, in the picturesque Béarn region of southwestern France, there are only 60 government-sanctioned places for 459 “traveling” Manouche families. We didn’t know that the communities were usually forced by government decisions and popular protest to be confined to living on the outskirts of towns and cities, past the tracks, among the warehouses, next to the garbage dumps, not unlike many of their distant relatives in Eastern Europe or Spain forcibly confined to “Roma ghettoes”.
Neither of us had met any Manouche in our lives, to our knowledge. And yet, with the good fortune of visiting this camp after only a few days in France, we recognized ourselves as an anomaly: for much of the French population, their actual knowledge of contemporary Manouche communities ventures scarcely beyond convenient stereotypes or awareness of a poster campaign. This ignorance must be the reason that French gadjo are capable of organizing protest after protest to halt government attempts to give some Manouche the possibility of living in houses, in towns. It must be the reason that a country whose ethos is based on liberty, equality, and fraternity considers that for the Manouche population, a people that have lived on the territory of the nation since before it was a state, it is too threatening to allow them to be free, or equal, or brethren.
“There’s a hypocrisy in France where we say we don’t discriminate, but in reality it is very complicated,” Arnault Gimenez had told us during our meeting in his office, the day before visiting the camp.
The current Coordinator of the Centre Social Gadjé Voyageurs, this kindly French man had graciously received Vicente and me in the organization’s offices when we wandered in off the street. Though I introduced our project carefully, he still perceived us in the convenient category of “students” and started to recount the history of Roma migrations in Europe. I obediently translated his story since Vicente did not understand Arnault’s French, despite the slight absurdity of the situation. But the man also shared with us the work of the social service-oriented organization, and some reflections from his own experience working with Manouche.
The next day we showed up at the office again, ready to accompany another social worker named Mathilde to an activity she was running with some kids at a camp in Lons.
“It is really out of the way,” she said by way of explanation, as we drove through what seemed like miles of industrial warehouses before arriving at the government-designated campsite. “[The authorized sites] are usually stuck in places far away from town, out of sight.”
Inside the campsite, it was a different world. There were a lot of cars and caravans parked next to small, hut-like pre-fabricated one-room shelters; Mathilde walked into the one full-fledged building in sight, and asked around for kids that might want to participate in the games. She was a familiar face here, so we didn’t get too many funny looks; soon, we were settled at a long table where we played with the kids — or, more accurately, they played with us, making an effort to include us in the games they already knew, to explain to us the rules.
Vicente was uncomfortable at first, outside of his language and environment, but when the kids discovered that he could not only draw, but he could also speak some of their words — Spanish Kalo and the Romani dialect spoken by Manouche in France bears some similarities, though both have adopted the grammar of the dominant language in their region — they gathered around him in wonder. I made fast friends with one little girl, who brought me to her home when the session was done so that she could show me her pink guitar.
Somewhere in the shuffle, the girl introduced me to her mother, who then introduced Vicente to her husband, an aspiring Evangelical preacher. Soon enough we stood between a caravan and a dirt walkway, with delicious-smelling barbecue cooking across the way and happy children and families occasionally passing, looking on in curiosity. Vicente led a conversation with Kenny and Isai about evangelism, racism, gadje and the future.
The conversation leaned immediately into church-talk. Both men were carrying bibles, Isai with a black one and Kenny with a red bible that said Jerusalem on the zipper ring. We soon learned that the two of them were studying to become pastors; but before we even reached the subject, Vicente jumped the gun:
“Are you Vie et Lumière?” he asked, referring to the evangelical denomination that includes Roma from many different groups in France, including members of his own extended family.
“I am from Spain, and I am from Filadelfia,” he continued. “Filadelfia in Spain is like Vie et Lumière in France: Le Cossec, who preached to the founder of Filadelfia in Spain, also created Vie et Lumière in France.”
“Ah, okay.” Their eyes lit up in recognition of the connection, though they did not yet completely trust these two strangers that had suddenly wandered into their lives.
Kenny, who seemed a little younger, was more talkative and seemed that he trusted us more easily. Though later he became increasingly convinced that Manouche and Spanish Kalo shared history, experiences and traditions, he first accepted us as Christians, only later acknowledging that Vicente was a brother in flesh and in spirit.
“For me, Gadjo, Manouche, we are all human beings. And my wish is to preach the gospel all over the earth,” he told us; simple, straightforward, honest. “If you don’t mind, I will share with you my testimony.
“I was an alcoholic, I was a drug addict, I was with women. I was even in and out of prison. […] My wife was Christian before me. But when I converted, when I became Christian, my family life changed totally. We started to spend time together; I started to spend more time with my kids. I have seen what the Gospel has done for my family, and I want to share this with everyone in the world.”
He talked and talked, giving examples of his previous life, testimonies of how he had changed. He gave God full credit for his transformation. As true as this may be, I still saw in front of us a wonderful, welcoming, warm man, someone who had lived a full and difficult life but had had the strength of will to change for his family.
Mathilde seemed a little out of her element as the conversation progressed. We were not only talking about the church, but the conversation was a dialogue held mostly between the men, a relationship between peers, likely vastly different than the social worker relationship that framed her own dialogues with members of this community.
“He is being super honest,” she even noted to us at one point, as if surprised.
“I have nothing to hide,” Kenny responded. “Everything has changed now.”
His scorpion tattoo peeked out as a reminder of the past from under his hard laboring clothing; but as we could tell from his paint-spattered shirt and business card, he had just come from his job as a mason and a painter.
Vicente, touched to hear Kenny’s story, began to tell his own testimony of conversion: how his family life had been hard as a child, his father violent and alcoholic, his family barely held together as they went through turbulence both financially and emotionally. But as a child he had read the bible, and began to go to the Evangelical Roma church in his community. After years of praying and convincing, he had come home one day to find his father, his mother, his brother converted, and their lives changed for good — his father had given up everything, and had even begun to recopy the bible by hand.
Kenny smiled as he listened.
“See, that’s what I consider a true miracle,” he said. “People talk about all of these spectacular things. But that is the kind of testimony that makes me aware of the power of God.
“You know, with Vie et Lumière, we have this massive conference every year near Paris. We all take our caravans and go — in Paris there are thousands of people of all nationalities, they come from the whole earth to talk about Jesus.”
He was referring to the mission in Gien, something we would begin to hear like a mantra throughout our time in France.“That’s one of the reasons I want to keep this part of our tradition,” Kenny said. He was referring to the fact that many Manouche are still travelers in the sense that they have caravans, an updated version of much older Roma traditions of mobility that are often romanticized by western art. They don’t look like the stereotypical horse-drawn carriages of course, but are motorized campers carrying a modest living space.
“I would prefer if we kept our caravans, but also had the chance to have some kind of houses. As it is, we are in the same place for the whole school year of course, but this would allow us to still move around in the summers. Like this trip to Paris every year. I am actually working on building my own house now, thanks to God…”
Arnault’s words from the previous day echoed in my head, the perpetual question ringing — what terrible misperception does the stereotype of a “traveling” people create, even considering the very small percentage of Roma who would still consider themselves travelers?
Eventually, we did turn the subject of the conversation to racism, and to Manouche life in France.
“Only in the kingdom of heaven will racism end,” Kenny told us definitively.
Isai chimed in finally, launching into an account of his time in school as a child. “I was going to school, but they never even taught me how to write. The teacher put me on a chair in the corner while the other children were learning.”
I cringed at the story. If this had been the first conversation I had had this year, I might doubt his testimony; I might not believe that teachers could be so cruel, I might think he was exaggerating. But by now I believed him, one hundred percent. This same experience keeps resurfacing in different testimonies throughout this trip, as if on loop. It is clear to me that just one good teacher can give a child hope, but a single racist teacher can scar that child for life. At the time when the adults of today’s Roma population were in school, and even up until today, the vast majority of Roma seem to have faced at least one terribly bad egg.
“But it has to be a two way street,” Mathilde interjected. “We [as an organization] are working in schools to make gadje understand the culture of ‘Gens du Voyage’, but you also need to change some things, to send your children to school for example.”
Isai and Kenny nodded obediently. “My daughter loves school,” Kenny told her. “She goes always, doesn’t want to miss a day.” The changed mood hung in the air for a moment before I suggested we should go soon, since Mathilde had planned to leave an hour earlier. Vicente took Kenny’s number, and we decided to return later in the evening.
Before leaving, after spending most of the conversation translating and listening, I turned to Kenny.
“I have a stupid Gadji question,” I said. “There are obviously a lot of stereotypes about your community. What is the biggest frustration for you about the way that we perceive your culture from the outside?”
“The biggest problem that gadje have is that they insist on putting everyone in the same box,” he said. “Because we’re Manouche, we get pinned for things that we shouldn’t get blamed for; and this happens all the time.”
He told us a story about one of his brother’s friend. This guy got his fancy car stuck in mud, and they were in a situation where someone had to move it. His brother suggested that Kenny could help to move it. Even being a friend of his brother, the guy’s reaction took Kenny by surprise.
“His friend freaked out. He was a gadjo. He reacted so strangely — it was as if he expected that because I am Manouche, he would never see his car again!
“You know, the discrimination is so strong, it has happened in so many instances, that there are even times when I know that something is the law for all French citizens, that it’s not discrimination, and yet I start to question whether I am being kept apart because I am Manouche.”