Far from the madding crowd

Enamoured of a Gypsy woman and a countryside that reminds him of 19th-century novels, British writer and journalist William Blacker spends half the year living with Transylvanian peasants. Portrait of a man between two worlds.

Published on 21 July 2009 at 14:54

In a Transylvanian village near the city of Sighisoara, the locals gather every evening in the only tavern around, waiting for the cattle to return from the pastures. Some Romanians, a handful of Saxons and several Gypsies lounge around on the empty beer crates. A couple of young Gypsies dance to a quiet tune. Then, suddenly, the kids stop playing and run towards a man approaching on a bike: “M’ster Uiliameeee, M’ster Uiliameeee!!!” The man, sporting a white beret and circular spectacles, beams at them. A murmur goes up from the villagers, “English has come to see his Gypsy.” The new arrival’s name is William Blacker. He was born 46 years ago somewhere in southern England, but has put down deep roots in Transylvania, a region he hit upon purely by chance. He has been living here for nine years and has a 3-and-a-half-year-old son, the fruit of a love story with a young Gypsy woman from the village.

He has been part and parcel of the community for a long time now, and speaks nearly flawless Romanian. A day in his life in the country bears no resemblance whatever to that of his friends in England. He toils in the fields alongside the Gypsies, mowing grass with a scythe or re-liming the walls of the old Saxon houses. In the evening, he plays chess with the village elders. Sometimes Blacker pays a visit to his ex-girlfriend, Marishka, the little Gypsy for whose sake he settled here in the first place: “Coming back from a trip to England, I found her pregnant. At first I didn’t think it was mine, but as you see we’re as like as two peas in a pod,” says William, putting his arms round Constantin, who is heir to his father’s smile and blue eyes. The little lad lives with his mother in the Gypsy musicians’ family house, only a few minutes from Blacker’s place.

From Berlin to Satu Mare

“The first time I set foot on Romanian soil was only a couple days after the revolution of December 1989. I’d left England with plans to visit Berlin, the Wall had just come down,” recounts the Englishman. The news on TV about the Romanian revolution and a few articles he had read about the painted monasteries were enough to lure him to the East. He went through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and, from there, to Romania. He spent a night in Satu Mare (a big city in Maramures County in northern Romania) in a hotel without electricity. The next day he was struck dumb with amazement: “There were horses and carts on the town’s main square. I thought the world ought to look like that.” In his capacity as journalist and writer, the Briton had “done” India and some South American countries, but Romania fascinated him more than anywhere else. “I’d read Thomas Hardy and Tolstoy’s novels, and when I got to Romania I said to myself: ‘Wow, now I can see all that with my own eyes.’”

In 1996, no longer wanting merely to see peasant life, but to live it, too, as one of them, William Blacker moved in near Satu Mare, “before the West got here too”. For four years of his life amid the peasants of Maramures, he took part in weddings, funerals, festivities, even the slaughtering of swine: “I suffered, I cried, I laughed.” But Blacker was still drawn to the life of the Transylvanian Gypsies. In his book Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story, which has just come out in England, he describes the Gypsies as a people possessed by the idea of il dolce far niente, people who can sing and dance divinely and who believe life is too short to spend it slogging one’s guts out 24/7.

For quite a while, the Englishman kept going back and forth between Maramures and the Transylvanian village where he now resides. His life in the village of Halma (the made-up name used in the book) smacks a bit of a Romanian soap opera replete with neighbourhood romGypsies. He wrote a pamphlet about the plight of the Saxon houses deserted by the ethnic German population that left in the ’90s, and he succeeded in raising donations to fix them up. At the time he ran a foundation called Mihai Eminescu funded by Prince Charles himself.

It was only later that he met Marishka and they moved into one of the Saxon houses together

It did not matter that Marishka had completed only five years of school, whereas he had a degree from a prestigious English university. He persuaded her to read. “I gave her a copy of Pride and Prejudice in Romanian. After a few days, she was already commenting: ‘That Darcy is so arrogant!’ she’d say to me. But as she read, the book kept getting thinner every day. She was using the pages she’d read to start the fire!” Marishka and William never got married. But they incurred the ire of some of the Romanian villagers, who tried to tear her away from the “riff-raff”. Now those days seem forgotten. The dust has settled and everyone speaks well of him. “He’s a marvellous man. He never mistrusted Gypsies,” says Marishka.

20 years after he chose to live in an ex-Communist country, his choice no longer seems eccentric. From time to time Blacker wonders what his son’s life will be like among the Gypsies: “My son is half-Gypsy, half-English. I’m happy he’s living here, for the time being.” And he recalls his parents’ reaction: “They weren’t overjoyed. I was 30 and they wanted me to have a decent job. I had to explain time and again that I felt good here, that’s all. It’s the right place for me. My childhood in the south of England, in the country, could be one explanation,” he supposes. “I wanted to live in a beautiful place again.”

IDENTITY

They came from India

This year’s traditional Roma gathering will be held in early August in Sibiu, Romania, and presided over by gypsy king Florin Cioaba. “This will be the moment to talk about passports for the king’s loyal supporters, and about changing the name given to gypsies,” reports Evenimentul Zilei.

Cioaba has come up with a draft constitution, a new designation for his people – henceforth “Indoroma” –, and a passport, so that “Roma will no longer be confused with delinquents”. “I intend to wash our ethnicity’s stained image clean,” he affirms. “With our new name, people will distinguish between Romania and Roma, and we will prove we come from India.”

The gathering will be an opportunity to adopt the future Roma passport: “biometric, made in Sweden and impossible to forge,” according to the king. “It’s good for us to have a passport, we gypsies who are craftsmen: those who break the law damage our image,” explains Cioaba.

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