Tuesday, October 22, 2013

American Gypsy

The gypsy or Roma culture is one that has fascinated me for a long time. Spread across Europe but concentrated in Eastern Europe, gypsies have been alternately despised, envied, and often mistreated. What they have done very successfully is retain their culture, which is believed to have originated in northern India, for many centures in exile.

The book"American Gypsy," a memoir by Oxsana Marafioti published last year, tells the story of one part-gypsy family that left the Soviet Union for Los Angeles in the late 1980s. The author was 15 at the time, and had to adjust to life in a big American high school which was as foreign to her as gypsy culture is to most of us. She grew up touring around the Soviet Union with her family of successful musicians. However, in the Soviet Union even money did not overcome prejudice, and her family decided to emigrate.

Their story is both funny and poignant, according to reviews. I have yet to read this book myself, but it is high on my list.

Another book that is peripherally concerned with gypsy culture in Russia is the wonderful memoir "Them," Francine du Plessix Gray's story of growing up with her eccentric mother and ambitious stepfather, Alex Lieberman. Gray's parents left Russia after the revolution and ended up in New York, where Lieberman became art director for Vogue magazine. Her mother, who had been one of the muses of the noted Soviet poet Mayakovsky, developed a successful business designing and selling hats.

 Lieberman was half-gypsy and, in Gray's view, began displaying more gypsy traits as he got older. For instance, after her mother's death, he immediately threw out all the mother's belongings and refused to speak about her. Gypsies believe life is for the living and do not encourage long periods of mourning..

I ahve encountered gypsies frequently in Europe, playing violins in the restaurants of Budapest or hustling for change in Zagreb. A few eyars ago I spoke to a woman at Helsinki airport, complimenting her on her beautiful costume. She said she was gypsy and seemed quite friendly.


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