“Except for the occasional vehicle, Barbulesti resembles Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of 16th-century peasant life: Animals and humans wander along rutted dirt streets lined with wood and stone houses. It is in these impoverished, tucked-away places that the Roma are most often found.”
The village of Barbulesti is where writer Ben Judah begins his profile of the modern Roma people, also known by the pejorative “gypsies.” Judah meets teenage Roma deported from France, families “living like the last survivors after a nuclear holocaust—in the middle of a functioning E.U. welfare state,” and odd “traditional leaders” including the “emperor of the gypsies on a throne in a dingy corner next to a buzzing refrigerator.”
Judah paints a sad picture of a people who seem to have been forgotten at best and at worst intentionally pushed aside. His portrait, which appears in Moment magazine, is not unique. Last fall in The Virginia Quarterly Review, J. Malcolm Garcia wrote a similarly bleak, if not more depressing, account of the Roma living in the Osterode Resettlement Camp where “cold winds carry lead-filled dust from a nearby slagheap, a hundred million tonnes of toxic tailings, and scatter it on clothes hanging from laundry lines, on open buckets of drinking water, on the dirt children play in.” He continues:
[A]lmost everyone agrees that moving Roma families next to a toxic slagheap, onto land highly contaminated with lead, zinc, arsenic, and other metals, has caused dozens of families to suffer severe health problems and spawned a generation of brain-damaged children.
Lead blackens the children’s teeth, blanks out their memory, and stunts their growth. Other symptoms of lead poisoning include aggressive behavior, nervousness, dizziness, vomiting, and high fever. The children swing between bursts of nervous hyperactivity and moody depression; they have fainting spells and epileptic fits.
While Garcia’s account of the resettlement camps and the toxins slowly poisoning the people who live there will turn your stomach, Judah’s tale will leave you dizzy, wondering, as the writer does, just where the Roma belong in the modern world. “Europe continues to march into the future,” Judah writes, “but the Roma road seems to be veering in its own direction, neither forward nor back.”