[I haven’t posted in a very long time – between falling pregnant and being extremely sick for almost four months and the whole world falling apart (Orlando shooting, the murder of British MP Jo Cox, and the Brexit vote), I just haven’t had any kind of desire to put personal thoughts into the world. I apologize for my absence and hope it can be forgiven. And with that, here are some relevant ramblings:]
When my paternal grandparents fled to the UK during World War II, they did so deliberately. It wasn’t a shot in the dark. They had relatives there already, relatives who said that England was a good place. A better place than Europe. Bombs fell, concentration camps swallowed their victims whole, but the green fens of England were largely quiet. I don’t know how, exactly, they made it to England. Some form of boat probably. They arrived in Portsmouth, I think. Or maybe Dover. I don’t know. But, it didn’t take long for them to travel north, with other families, into an area that was not widely regarded as a Gypsy area and where we were still quite a novelty. After the war, England was shaken to its core, but it was still a much calmer place than the rest of Europe and in the north of England, life had remained largely untouched by German advances.
Maami and Papu had no thoughts of ever assimilating or “becoming British”. They were Roma and Roma they would stay, whatever that meant. They had survived the bombs, the [Schutzstaffel] Einsatzgruppen, the death camps, and the long journey to England. Whatever they faced now, they were sure they could survive. Our culture and way of life was non-negotiable. They would not lose one single ounce of it. They hated when I spoke English. They hated that I stayed in school. They hated that I was light skinned and freckled. They hated that we didn’t live in an osada. But, still they breathed quietly in the relative safety of England and did their best to stay hidden.
Baba Edita had been born in the UK. Her grandparents were from Poland and had come to England in the early 1800s. They had assimilated readily – learning English, learning the basics of reading and writing. They lived in the south of England for years, around the New Forest, Windsor, and Hampstead. They had one remaining wagon for a while when I was a child. I don’t know about my Papo, where his family came from. I know they were settled. I know he had one brother alive when I was small. I know that they were different from other Roma I knew. His surname is predominantly found in one small area of England and it seems it wasn’t their original name, but any attempts at genealogy dry up almost immediately.
They both were as British as they could be – they made Sunday lunch, they watched tennis and cricket on their flickering old television. They made me fish-fingers, peas, and chips. They grew flowers in the garden and received the Sunday papers once a week – even though they could barely read them. They went to the beach with deck chairs and windbreaks and little sandwiches packed in bags. They drank Earl Grey and talked about the weather. They believed they belonged, somehow, to the fabric of British life. They always insisted words like “gyppo” and “pikey” didn’t belong to us, they were directed towards those other Roma.
Growing up I didn’t really think about my identity as British, Slovak, Roma, or otherwise. I just… was. I was other. I was different. I was the same. I was a Gypsy, Gyppo, Pikey, thief, dancing monkey, whatever. It wasn’t until I came to live in the United States that I felt strongly anything in myself. It’s hard to explain. At home, we lived quite insular lives, among extended family almost all of the time. Even at school, at least until I was twelve, many of my classmates were also family.
This past week the announcement regarding Brexit and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union was personally devastating. My grandparents, on both sides, loved England, even if they did so in very different ways. Whether or not they were assimilated didn’t matter, they each took part in British life to varying degrees. We all faced varying degrees of racism and bigotry, but it wasn’t the same level as my family faced throughout Europe. Memories of the struggles my grandparents and even my parents faced, surged forwards. They worked hard to make a life there, in England. A place that now is tumbling headlong into vicious racism and xenophobic hatred. It was always there, under the surface – Britishness always still tightly anchored to its sense of white, colonial superiority no matter the lies it tried to tell the sons and daughters stolen by the Raj. But, despite the rhetoric (the dramatic headlines of “swarms” of Roma coming to steal everything, including your children and the masses of immigrants coming to destroy Britain), it was still a relatively safe place to live.
We were evicted, arrested, moved on, harassed, banned from shops and buses, corralled into single classrooms, spat on, and blamed for everything from a dead sheep to an outbreak of measles, but we were not regularly beaten, burned, or violently intimidated as we had been (and still are) in Europe.
But, now England has dissolved into chaos. A place that I am ashamed to say I once adored for all it gave to my grandparents. It saved them. It gave them space to breathe, to heal as much as they could, to grow, and to move on. It gave them houses and homes and lives that were, although still abjectly poor a damn sight better than where they had been. Most of all, it gave them hope. A hope that was destroyed overnight.
When I was born, in a small village of shabby houses, shacks, and tumble-down sheds, the first thing my parents did was carry me back through Europe, to England. They did for me what they had done for no other generation – they made me legal – a birth certificate. I was British. My grandparents were only ever Romani. Papu used to say, “Roma who at the time lived in Slovakia” or “Czechoslovakia” or “Poland”. They were never from the places they lived. Roma aren’t from anywhere, he’d huff into his cigarette.
I sit here looking at my passport, it’s fake slogans and my staring blank face. I was once proud to hold this passport – a document anchoring me to a place that was mine; a place that had allowed me to survive. Now? I feel betrayed and abandoned by it. I feel ashamed to have fought so hard to prove that England was okay, that we were safe there, that we could stay there forever. In fact, I feel like I have no home any longer.
But, I was never really British, I was never accepted or wanted in the country, no matter how I felt about it.
I was Gypsy, Gyppo, filthy, thieving, dirty…
the whispers of “go home stinking rat” are just more audible now and more threatening.