Anna Ettore – The Gypsy Night


That was my first time there. It was the end of February; the gypsy camp had been reported in the fields behind Chiaravalle abbey. Sitting inside the association camper that brings health care there  were three of us; besides me, the doctor who was also the driver and Mariana, the cultural intermediary. The last girl of our group followed us by motorbike. I had been part of that association for many years, but, among the different activities to which I had taken part, I had never worked with nomads. From a certain point of view, this confused me since I was not familiar with their culture. In spite of my passion for everything that was differernt from me, I felt slightly ill at ease. The road that ran along the small old village passed it and continued towards the fields. The camper moved on through the night; on both sides of the road there were still some thin strips of the last winter mist. We were crossing a dimension that was suspended between darkness, fog and fields and were losing the direction, the sense of time and culture.
All of a sudden, Mariana told the driver that the gypsy camp was on the left.
“We have to leave the road. Go into the field and keep going.”
The camper deviated towards the fields, bumping because of the uneven ground. Inside everything was shaking and the little doors on the furniture opened and closed bumping and following the irregular movement of the van. The camper headlamps lit the ground that we had to cross. The asphalt road was behind us and we bumped along the rough track into the mud. The patches of worn grass were squashed by the wheels that trundled on. A thick piece of cardboard, placed on the ditch border, was maybe there to indicate a point where crossing was possible. The lights lit big rats that were running away feeling disturbed by our presence. At that moment, after crossing the little bridge, we entered no man’s land. This no man’s land of a war of which I had no knowledge, a place with no landlords.
We could not see anything behind us and, unfortunately, still nothing before us. We went on in  total darkness without a landmark. At that point, a part of me realized that, after all, we were four women in the night. I asked myself what loneliness or longing for adventure had brought me down there. Why did I always end up  where the boundaries of reality come apart up to becomegroundless. What pushed me to look  for extremes all the time, to come out from the Prince’s court like Siddharta and never try to enter it.
I understood that the driver was nervous too. Maybe she was unsure of her driving in such uneasy conditions or she felt that it was a piece of nonsense that had led us into that situation.
“How long is it?”, the doctor asked, “I can’t see anything.”
“There it is”, Mariana answered, “ look over there, there are lights, it must be the current generator of the camp.”
The camper went on moving forward towards small faint lights like fireflies fragments. We could not go back. I felt as if I were overstepping the space-time threshold, a mythical place. In that suburban field we were crossing all the ages passed beginning from gypsies’  mysterious migration, since they had left Asia and had started to travel becoming nomads.
All of a sudden, expelled by the darkness, we came out of the clearing opposite the camp. Through the weak lights of dawn we could see beat-up plywood shacks and parked cars. A current generator carried out its job making noise. The camper parked making a circular manoeuvre and tried to settle in order to be effective.
We opened the door to go down and the cold and smelly dampness of the Lombard night called me back to reality. Our trip seemed like a dream.
Paola, the operator, joined us on her motorbike.
The doctor took the situation in hand: “Let’s take out the table and the chairs and set up outside here with data files. I’ll prepare the inside so we can start with the visits.”
The camp inhabitants immediately came up to us. A small forefront of Roms came for greetings and observed us. Most probably they had been informed of our arrival. Two young boys smiled at us and began to talk easily.
“Good evening, Mariana, you got here!”
“Christian, how are you? We had trouble. We couldn’tsee anything from the road, we weren’t  sure where to cross.”
“We settled in the innermost part in order not to be seen, the police knows but they never came up to this place.”
I looked around in the distorted lights: the generator cold lamps had replaced bonfires. On one side of the camp, heaps of rubbish and garbage were spread at the edge of a limited stepping area. At the edge of the circle of light we could see squeaking creatures running around.
Christian’s friend came up to me: “What’s your name?”, he asked smiling.
“I’m Florian”, he said with his strong foreign accent. I took the opportunity to talk to him in Roman.
“Can you speak our language?”, he asked me.
“A little. Please do it too, I need to practice.”
“I visited the country. I studied literature and I also read poems.”
“Wonderful!” Florian said with enthusiasm. Even though I was not sure he knew what I was talking about , probably the interest for something that he felt his own made him happy.
“If you want we can have a walk through the camp.” He showed me the way on little paths among the shacks. Almost everyone of them was a small crooked hut made of plywood, covered with plastic sheets and canvas panels at the entrance. Sometimes they were so near to each other that you could not tell the difference. Florian drew up to a family who was watching us from the entrance of their interior.
“Good evening. The doctors are here for the visits. May we come in? I want to show the house to this girl.”
The man, very dark and strong, was nibbling a chicken leg, while standing in front of us in a very natural way. He looked at me and, then, still biting his piece of meat, he nodded.
“There is no problem. Come in.”
Inside I was surprised by the stuffy smell and the filthiness level, too high for my comfort. I was not prepared to see a broom leaning on a wall, probably used for cleaning. The woman walked before me and showed the house with a gesture of her hand.
“Come in. These are my two daughters.”
Her little girls, with dark braids and long skirts that brushed the floor, looked like her in miniature: small gypsy dolls. Every detail in their dress was consistent with what I could have imagined.
A little over the floor, I noticed a gas cooker on which a pot with vegetable soup was boiling. I was also surprised to see that Rom cooked just like anybody else. This detail let me feel that reality was not confined to what we saw or thought every day. A partition wall separated a bedroom, with bed and blankets totally similar to ours except for the fact that it was on a plastic sheet placed on the camp ground.
I smiled at the two little girls who stared at me with wide open eyes. I decided to rely on language and addressed to them.
“Are you Roman?”, the woman interjected when she heard me talking.
“No, I have studied the language…how long have you been living here?”
“One year. Before we were in another camp, but they have cleared us away. We came here with the other families.” I looked at the little girls and tried to figure out how they could spend their nights in those cold and damp huts. But maybe, if you were born there, you had to get used to it in some way.
“Now, let’s go back to the camper because the visits are starting. If somebody needs, tell him to come there.”
While going back to the camper, I though over what I had seen, the houses where they lived and I asked myself which was the missing link. I needed something in order to understand and justify that way of living. That kind of culture could push you to live always at the edge of society, to bear hunger, cold and discomfort without any other prospects than living tomorrow exactly like today. What gave you the strength or helped you to find a sense?
I went back to the camper where my colleagues had already started to gather the names of the people who wanted to be visited. A  knot of people was waiting and growing impatient. I made my way through the crowd, sat at the folding table and I got ready to file in the statistical tables. A woman gave me her identity card so as to help me understand her name easily. I filled in her schedule with concentration and I also asked her about her medical history: alcohol, smoke and previous illnesses.
“Did you have children?”
“Miscarriages (abortion- termination of pregnancy)?”
“Of course! In fifteen years of marriage…”
“How many?”
I raised my eyes from the paper that  I was filling in and  looked at her face letting my amazement leak. I would have liked to say something but did not know what.
The next patient had only one leg, he arrived jumping on his crutches with difficulty. His clothes were worn and dirty as well as his face.
“Good evening”, I said making him comfortable on a chair in front of me. “In order to be visited you must give your first name and surname.”
“Stelian Radu.”
“Date of birth?”
“1969, but I don’t know the month or the day.” I would have said he was sixty-five instead of forty. Almost all of them got old soon, much before thirty, women began to fade.
Usual answer: “Do you work?”
“No”, he answered with an amazed obvious tone.
“I’m a beggar.”
While I was writing down I cast a eye over his legs. One was cut above his knee and the other one was bound with a filthy bandage. I finished the questions and went with him into the camper because the doctor needed an interpreter.
Stelian lay on the couch and the doctor raised his trouser on the side of the bandage. When she took it off she found a huge festering wound. The doctor started to dress him cleaning the infected flesh.
It made me sick and I felt disgusted by that open wound. I would have liked to go out immediately but her words compelled me to stay.
“Tell him that the wound is very serious. He suffers from a stasis that causes him infections. This is probably why he lost the other leg.”
I translated what she said, trying not to look at her while she was working.
“Tell him he must go to the hospital, otherwise they will also  cut the other leg.”
I did my best in a situation that gave me a hard time. I tried to make him understand the drama of the problem because I had the feeling that his attitude was too fatalist. “Remember to go to the hospital. It’s important.”
“All right. I’ll go”, he assured while going away.

*     *     *

The evening was coming to an end. Christian was still sitting near us, he joked all the time and played with the torch that we were using to light the sheets. He was trying as well as he could to create a contact between us and his people, maybe to help the other Roms to get over their distrust toward us.
All of a sudden, from a corner in the darkness, we heard the charming music of an accordion. The sound came nearer and the musician came out of the shadows. Next to him another man started to play the violin and sing. The people immediately began to clap their hands, the women laughed and some children started to kick their legs.
It did not really look like the place for a celebration, but they had started maybe to greet us. The music, lively and cheerful, took us in a moment to a perfect place where there was also space for joy. I immediately thought about the narrow boundaries of our daily life, where everything had a pre-arranged time and way, almost as if cold and darkness were limits imposed by conventions.

I looked at Christian: he was a tall boy with dark sparkling eyes. He radiated a genuine and open liveliness, apart from him I felt dismayed. In that moment of my life I had lost all my points of reference and I could not see beyond  my horizon. His spontaneity intensified my feeling of confusion. I did not know him and he did not know me. We were nothing to each other. I imagined the fluids running inside his body. I would have  liked to be like him, I wanted to be him and own his strength. I was overcome by that new awareness: I found in him a richness, a gypsy’s bossy vigour.
I wanted to steal something from him, the shameless energy with which he faced destiny. I wanted to steal a gypsy’s body, his sense of life. Because I needed blood, salt and cheerfulness too in order to make the veins of my exhausted body work, give flavour to the food I would eat on that ground and fill my stomach with new beginnings and continuous regenerations.

The faces seen that night whirled in my mind. I understood why I was there in spite of the cold and rubbish, what I was looking for. I needed night fires and songs because life is a continuous search for lost harmony, an illusion of the missing sense that we can hardly find again. I needed dust under my shoes to show everybody how long I had walked too, and how much effort there was behind each step for one who was born at the edges of that camp called love. I needed that bright exhausted moon that was looking us from above, to face the dark moss of my belly and the breaking-up of my mind, walking and hanging by the thread of sense. What did we persist in sweeping, cleaning and tidying up for? Anyway, everything was runaway. How funny was our life, sometimes!

I did not know what Christian perceived of my gloom but he looked at me often and smiled. He was intrigued by the others. He was like a healthy animal living because life has its own meaning in itself. But all this called for courage and acceptance. An impudent sense of freedom and death was necessary to welcome that life.
“Nadia”, he asked me, “Are you married?”
I shook my head. “engaged?” he persisted.
“ I don’t want to talk about that.” I answered with a circumstantial smile. He was surprised.
“I’m sorry”. Then he went on “I beg your pardon again.” His concern reassured me, it seemed to me a mark of respect for what we tend to forget in every moment of our life: that we are not always replaceable and others are not for us.
“I know these are private matters.”
“It’s not a problem, Christian. Don’t worry.” Looking at him, I realized that, in that moment, we were sharing something. After all, we were all wanderers as far as our feelings were concerned, things came and went, kept on moving. We should learn to follow that movement. The people who never moved lived in illusion.
When we left, he reminded me “The next time you come, remember to bring me a torch as a gift. You won’t forget, will you, in a month.”
“With pleasure.”
“See you again,” he said shaking hands.
“I hope so, “ I answered. And I really hoped it.
We closed the folding table and chairs. Under the feeble light of the camper, we arranged the tools and all the things that we had used. When we leant out to close the door, I saw that the clearing was completely empty and all gypsies seemed to have disappeared. “Did you see that” I asked Mariana “they went away in a moment, as if they had disappeared.”
“It’s like that. Before you realize it they disappear all together, without saying good bye. We set the camper in motion and went away through the night: we were the wandering spirits, that time.

Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Irene Tossi)