In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco (the bastard!) writes, “What good is it to have an affair if later you can not even…savor it now and then as you lie snug beneath your covers on a stormy night?” and that “The best part of having loved is the memory of having loved.”

Travelling a lot, with a life full of entrances and exits (I am now in the midst of an exeunt omnes), I have more than enough opportunity to remember and savor people and places.  I have also tasted a melancholy (and horrible-sounding) variant of the second quotation: “The best part of not having let yourself love is that eternally preoccupying question, ‘What might have been.'”  Which far outlasts any attempt to continue a relationship in absentia.

The Political Scientist, my best friend from Japan (who recently relocated to become my best friend in Lithuania), always impresses me with her skills of cultural observation.  I guess it makes sense (ethnologist by profession), but she has taught me how to relay cultural data in a way that is informative, passionate, and personal all at once.  A perfect example came in the form of an email describing her chance meeting of a Rom woman at a public bath in Lithuania.  I have highlighted portions that I found particularly well-presented.

There are about 3000 gipsy people living in Lithuania.  I have never even talked to any, except for those times when gipsy women would try to talk you into letting them read your future from a palm; saying ‘devochka, davaite ja vam povarazhu’…(‘come here, girl, I will tell you your future’). There is also a common distrust, as gypsies are regarded as thieves and criminals by most of the public. Like I mentioned, I have never talked to any of them till the last Thursday, my first time ever to go to a public Russian sauna.

I was impressed with how seriously gipsy women take this action of washing themselves, they really make it a ritual. We were told that they start taking babies together since they are only 7-8 months old; they get accustomed to the place and learn how to take care of themselves while being that young age. And really, though from the first look some of the gipsy women you would meet on the street might not seem too clean and you would never believe they actually take care of themselves, what I saw in that bath proved totally different side of all the common believes.

Few to three hours would be the least these women spend in the bath. It starts with washing themselves in the shower, washing their children if there are any, then scrubbing each other in the way that us who were watching thought if it hurts as hell… and then entering the sudatorium room, lambasting, no talking while doing all that. Leaving the sudatorium,  taking shower again, then going to the other room for tea and chatting; this is where most of our talking happened as well.

I can’t remember exactly how and why all of it began, but later on the topic of gipsy wedding traditions developed

Marriages take place anytime between the age of 14/15 to 18, but many women have their first baby before 19. I didn’t know that one of the most important aspects apart from ‘party for everyone’ is bride’s innosence and proving it for the guests. After the official ceremony the bride is taken to a separate room prepared by a few old women who know everything about the way ‘these things’ should happen; all the clothes are taken off and naked bride is left in the bed waiting for the groom to come. After he enters, the door is closed and everyone is waiting outside, maybe hurrying them up if it takes too long. We were told ‘it’ should take somewhere between an hour and two, and afterwards the ‘proof’, a snow-white sheet with some red spots on it is exhibited for the rest of the party time and sometimes people even dance with it for a while in the name of a successful beginning… If defloration happens before the wedding, the guy must save ‘the proof’, otherwise the wedding ceremony cannot be held. The couple can still live together and will be considered as a married one, but they would of course bring a disgrace to the family and everyone wants to avoid it.

After marriage, life for the women gets tougher as they have to both work – make money – and take care of the children/husband/parents. He can have as many lovers as he wants as long as he can keep it in secret; for her it is a sin and the husband has a right to kill the wife in case of infidelity though it doesn’t happen too often anymore.

Children are extremely important; even if the mother doesn’t have money for food or more decent clothes, the child would be dressed fine and fed and taken care of. The problem is the number of children in the families, but it’s decreasing quite rapidly due to the lack of money.

You don’t have to tell me all of this is very ordinary information I can find browsing the internet; there were many things I already knew and some things I didn’t, I am not trying to prove anything new and am not drawing any conclusions. The most important thing for me was the fact that I have been told all this by people who really live these kinds of lives. It is not like I will help them anyhow and maybe I will never understand them as I am not a gipsy and I’ll never be able to experience that kind of a lifestyle. But while talking to them, listening to their stories and asking questions, I could see all the images in my head and being able to imagine meant a lot at that moment.

I know that this does not constitute an academic analysis of the Roma culture, but that is exactly why I find it so touching.  We get a sense of the author’s point of view through her self-concious commentary.  There is no analysis of the facts presented, no judement, it is almost as though we are sitting next to Indre as she shares a cup of tea with this woman.

I think that it is a valuable way of looking at the world.  I grate my teeth when I hear people talking about how they wish that there were no such things as nations or different cultures; how they would be happy to do away with religion, etc (apologies to Mr. Lennon).  It’s a dangerous point of view, and a dispassionate one.  The friction between different cultures and beliefs is the engine that drives cultural evolution.  People who advocate global homogenization (most often Americans (ignorant Canadians?) and Canadians (self-righteous Americans?)) are often the same people who decry economic globalization.  It seems to be a strange ideological clash: they demonize the movement that is most likely to achieve their ideal of “one world, one culture.”

Vive le difference!  Without it, we lose the skills of empathy and understanding.

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