A Tale of Two Minorities

Suddenly, the music began to blare.  I turned to Katia, my counterpart, for an explanation.  “All the mehani (taverns) turn into discos at midnight.”  My glass of rakia (strong Bulgarian brandy) started teetering precariously close to the edge of our table as my fellow diners leapt to their feet and onto chairs, booths and, particularly impressive in stilettos, bar stools.

Welcome to Bansko, Bulgaria.  As the pre-recorded music subsided, a group of Roma musicians took command of the restaurant/bar/disco, singing, beating drums, and playing the gaida (the Bulgarian answer to the bagpipe).  “They are amazing,” I shouted to a friend standing nearby.  “Glad you think so,” he replied. “It’s all these gypsies are good for.”

Ah, that stereotype.  I should have known that it would not be long before I personally encountered the ethnic hatred toward one of Eastern Europe’s most despised groups.  Part of our required pre-departure reading list had included Isabel Fonseca’s chronicle of the marginalized minority, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey.

Both a conscious and subconscious reaction, I made bridging the ethic divide an unofficial part of my service.  In the classroom, I developed a special curriculum for Roma students, who did not know “a” from “b.”  Their grateful parents asked that I tutor them in English.  I broke up fights between Roma and ethnic Bulgarian students.  Roma kids walked me home.

These actions were carefully monitored.  If I had the town’s attention, why not use it to promote equality?   The Roma and I were both minorities, but held in different esteem.  As an American, I was treated with the type of respect I felt I needed to earn, and not simply be awarded based on my citizenship.  It seemed that I could do no wrong and the “gypsies” could do no right.

I felt close to the Roma in a way the ethnically homogenous Bulgarians could not quite grasp.  We both spoke Bulgarian with an accent.  The tenement building in which I lived was located on the outskirts of the town, just like their “mehala” (neighborhood).

One morning, a Roma family announced itself with the then familiar melody of a donkey-drawn cart.  I peered out my window as mother and children (were there 10 of them?) dropped into a dumpster and started to scavenge.  Was that one of my students?  Turning to my closet, I surveyed the pile of freshly folded clothing that, on account of the “Peace Corps 15,” I could no longer wear.  The next day I placed the clothes into the dumpster.  The family returned and scooped up my shirts and shorts.

To say it caused a scandal is a tad dramatic, but the clothing swap certainly attracted attention.  Weren’t those [my] clothes?  Yes.  Had those “thieves” broken into [my] apartment and stolen them?  No, they were a gift.  Eyes would inevitably widen, narrow, and then widen again.

On my birthday, I was greeted at the school by my favorite Bulgarian folk song blaring over the loudspeaker.  The decibel-level markedly increased as I approached my classroom.  I swung the door open and gasped.  A number of my Roma students, some of whom were wearing my clothes, were pounding on their desks like drums in the front of the classroom (they usually sat in the back).  The rest of the improvised Roma and ethnic Bulgarian chorus belted out the lyrics—in unison.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.