A Most Ironic Weekend

Last weekend my Saturday and Sunday were juxtaposed on either side of one of the most contentious debates in modern Europe: what to do about the “Roma problem”.    Saturday morning I met a new friend for coffee.   It turns out she is an accomplished journalist (Wall Street Journal columnist, White House press correspondent).  She had reached out to me through this blog – an American living in Budapest for over three years.  In passing she mentioned she was touring a Roma neighborhood later that morning.  When she invited me to join her, I jumped at the chance.

Having lived in Central Europe for the last 18 months, I am fairly familiar with the Roma debate.  The Roma population is more inclined to be poor, under educated and unemployed.  Small villages in the rural most areas of  Hungary and Slovakia have been transformed into Roma slums.  The Roma children have less access to quality schooling.  Their schools are increasingly segregated.  It is a cycle of poverty, and it is growing.  With the European borders opening up, the issues associated with the Roma people are creeping across the continent.  I am not a Roma expert.  I can’t explore the complexity of the issues or the potential solutions in the context of this blog.  I was merely given an opportunity to witness the Roma living conditions first hand.

Our tour was led by a Hungarian sociologist who specializes in the Roma culture.  He was assisted by a graduate student: a bright and articulate young woman who spoke perfect English.  When the neighborhood people gathered around to question what we were doing, she responded with a greeting and broad smile which put everyone at ease.  I was struck by the tidiness of the neighborhood.  The dirt center courtyard was completely litter free.  There was a community vibe as families came and went performing their Saturday morning errands.  This was certainly not the stereotype of Roma neighborhoods I had seen on YouTube videos. That said, it was a poor neighborhood.  Tiny apartments in a three story complex share a common toilet on the main floor.  The showers, if they exist at all, are in the kitchen since plumbing multiple rooms would be too costly.   In some units the windows had been bricked up from inside.  This is to preventing Roma families from squatting in abandoned homes they do not own.  Some would argue this prevents the Roma families from moving to cities and finding self-supporting work.  Squatting, while illegal, enables them to live until they can get their feet on the ground.

The group of people associated with this tour wants to begin to build a bridge between the Roma community and the mainstream Hungarian community.  They are engaging the support of experts from organizations which have dealt successfully in bringing together communities in the aftermath of conflict including effective ways to heal after a hate crime.  One seminar will be with experts skilled in the establishment and operation of an NGO (nonprofit) structure.  This tour will be repeated in the months ahead as these experts fly to Hungary to understand the uniqueness of the Roma situation, share their skills and explore solutions.   The young graduate student, it turns out, is a Roma woman who grew up destitute in a Roma village. She is a flicker of hope.

Sunday morning, Pat and I visited a French bakery on the Buda side of the river.  Behind a pane glass window, men kneaded and baked the baguettes and croissants which were then sold warm in a shop which rivals the best bakeries of Paris.  The tiny dining area overflowed.    People dropped in to pick up a baguette and tuck it amongst their produce in a wicker basket dangling from the crook of their arm.  We bought a baguette and two croissants.  I didn’t check the price before ordering.  My Sunday morning breakfast is my guilty pleasure.  Finding a Parisian style bakery moves us one step closer to feeling at home.

On most Sunday mornings, I wouldn’t consider my ritual a privilege or a luxury.  Honestly, I wouldn’t consider it at all.  But on this particular Sunday, I pondered the irony between today and yesterday, my life and the very different lives playing out across town.  A bunch of questions popped into my head.  Why was I born in relative affluence instead of as a barefoot girl in a Roma settlement?  If I had been raised in a poor Roma village, would I have differentiated myself to become an articulate graduate student?  What can I do to help?  And why can’t we build a bridge?

Categories: Insiders Budapest

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