If I asked her, Maami Babka was only Romani (or accordingly, Gypsy). If pushed she refused to identify herself, saying nothing but, “sam Roma, som Romnji!” I used to get angry with her, sometimes, as she seemed to deliberately evade or misunderstand my questions.
“Maamija, kaj salas bijandjal?”
Grandmother, where were you born? Where was I? Yes…? Out of nowhere.
These conversations were always circular, rotating around the belief that Romani people were only Romani (and not Slovak or British or American) and that we came from everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. A favourite story of Papu’s told of our journey out of history, into the present and into the sky, our ancestors becoming the stars that shine above us. This story was a favourite answer to the question of where he belonged. “In the sky,” he’d say simply, shrugging his shoulders wearily, as if I should already have known.
In my grandparents eyes, we were not immigrants, we were refugees. Still running from a war-ravaged Europe full of Nazis and hungry smoke. They saw no changes and no reason to change in the world. They didn’t live anywhere. They waited. They waited to be evicted; to be told to move; to be chased by demons of the past.
But, the stories they told belied this fear and continued flight.
They told cotton-wrapped narratives of life on the road. Their nostalgia for the days before subsumed the fear-tinged memories of the time after. Their lives were split into pre-War and post-War. There was no period they called during-War. Like some wandering W.G. Sebald characters, my family were never able to become fully uprooted, never able to fully lose their way. Nomadism for my grandparents only meant travel between here and there. Sometimes, it seemed, between the past and the present. For Maami and her family, our summer travels East drew her closer to her memories, to her authentic past. But, the closer we came, the more she rooted herself in remembering everything but home.
Ever since the seventeenth century, and especially since the nation-building nineteenth century, most philosophies of progress have systematically prioritized sedentarism over nomadism. In so doing they have literally villified nomadism both inside and outside Europe, and suggested that nomadism, including pastoralism (transhumance) and seasonal migration, were characteristics of ‘barbarous’, underdeveloped, and ‘uncivilized’ societies. As such nomadic lifestyles had no place in the civilized world, least of all in nation-building and metropolitan Europe.
Despite this, my grandparents were not settled in the traditional sense of the word. But, neither were they nomadic. It was an intersection, a crossroads. We lived between worlds; always one bag packed, one shoe on, one foot out of the door.
Summers spent travelling saw more and more boulders blocking us from stopping in lay-bys; traveller hitch-sites shrank alarmingly, even though we used such sites rarely. Still, our convoy of rickety cars, trucks, caravans, and camper vans crawled across the continent from May through September. I remember these times with fondness – despite the long hours picking fruit, the countless (often forceful) requests to ‘move on’, the difficulties of travelling in poverty. Am I as guilty of succumbing to the power of nostalgia and forgetting as my grandparents?
“Arakhav, kana soves – I stand watch while you sleep”
This controlled recollection was utilized by my entire family: Baba Edita told wistful stories of her childhood spent as an indentured servant. She remembered fondly the Indian girls from Pune, brought over during the last heady days of the British Raj. Bibi Lemija smiled every time she recalled summer days picking flowers or the gentle pace of life as they walked into Poland every spring for weddings or later for a njilај jejsoskeri zabava. Uncle Bajusiči (his nickname – little moustache – due to his inability to grow much facial hair), would reminisce for hours about walking to fetch water, gathering wood or food, or working all day mending fences, barns, and other wooden items. It seemed they were focused on an edited and useful rather than unwieldy or traumatic past.
Romani are often accused of “being without history” and of being unable to carry and curate our own pasts. But, it seems clear to me that the levels of cultural trauma faced by my relatives encouraged a patchwork version of history. They took what was useful to daily existence, to maintenance of our culture and way of life, and creation of a stable future, and forgot the rest. They were searching for spaces to hold the contours of their lives – the sharp, brittle, shards of memory (of the Holocaust and the War) simply didn’t fit. Nostalgia edited the raw, random material of their history into a cohesive narrative of past, present, and future. In short, they created their very identities through the molding of the traumatic past into a manageable, and certainly more comforting, nostalgic present.
“If anyone faculty of our nature may be called more wonderous than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems to be something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. We are to be sure a miracle every way – but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem particularly past finding out”
Jane Austen – Mansfield Park