Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Gypsy Connection

At risk of blowing my enigmatic rep, here's the story behind the gypsy influence in my life.

As previously mentioned, my Mother's side of the family is Hungarian. In 1972, my Mom and my Grandmother took me to Hungary - it was the first time for Mom and me (Grandma came over on the boat in 1923). We spent time in Budapest with Mom's half brother (my Grandfather's son) and extended family, then went to the tiny village of Rábacsanak to visit with my Grandmother's cousins. Going to Rábacsanak, at the time, was like time-traveling back 40 years or so. No one had indoor plumbing of any kind, no one had phones, all of the roads were still dirt roads, the milk on the table came straight from the cow and the chicken roost had to be checked for eggs every day. I have pictures of my cousin Josi (YO-shee) making a new broom from gathered twigs. To my 10 year old mind, it was all magical, and even at that tender age, I could appreciate the bigger picture that I was being shown.

One morning, we suddenly heard the sounds of the most beautiful violin music coming from the street. Mom and I rushed out to the yard to see two old, weathered men standing in the street, dust clinging in layers to their dark jackets and hats, dark eyes glinting in the morning sun. They were gypsies, and even better, they were gypsies with violins, and they were beyond good. The music they brought to the day would have humbled Perlman and Stern. Mom and I stood there, watching, listening, completely enthralled. All the while, my cousins were running around, barking orders in Hungarian, "You! Go guard the chickens. You! Stand by the back door." Evidently, the gypsy ploy was to distract with music and send another contingency around to steal whatever could be carried out. It was their means to survival, their way of moving through life on an endless road. No, I don't approve at all of their thievery, but I do approve of the wandering spirit, and, boy howdy, can they make some music!

When I was 16 years old, I went back to Hungary by myself and stayed for nearly four months. I spent most of the time with my cousins in Budapest, but I trekked to Rábacsanak again for a few weeks. It felt like coming home. The villagers and I could barely communicate - my knowledge of Hungarian being fairly shaky, and their dialect being harder to understand than my city family. Even so, we managed to bond all over again as I worked along side them in the fields, picking raspberries; learned to milk the cows (thank the gods for patient cows!); tend the chickens. We worked hard, we ate plenty, drank even more, and laughed much. It's a time in my life that is nearly sacred. The night before I left the village, I felt such huge sorrow. I went outside to stand by the well and have a good weep. It wasn't long before my cousins Joska (YOSH-kuh) and Ilonka (EE-lon-kuh) came out to stand beside me, tears streaming down their faces as well. For once we didn't need to find words.

The next day, they put me on the train back to Budapest. I had to stop in Győr to change trains and had a couple of hours of layover to waste. So, I wandered out to the town square to people watch. It wasn't long before a family of gypsies sat down not far from me. Once again, I felt drawn, just as I had been six years previously. Their dark eyes pulled at me; their rough hands made me ashamed of the softness of my own; their rugged looks spoke of a life that was full of adventure; their few boxes and suitcases held everything they owned. They sang to each other; they talked constantly; and there was a deep mirth evident in every move they made. They were happy. Everything in me wanted to be one of them.

I still want that.

Nearly ten years ago I stunned everyone who knew me when I left almost all of my possessions behind in Maryland and moved, via greyhound bus, to the West coast. Shortly after, I was sitting by a clear mountain stream, up in the Trinity Alps of Northern California, feeling like - to paraphrase John Denver - I'd come home to a place I'd never been before, and I thought of the gypsies again for the first time in a long time. Right then and there, I penned one of my best (I think) poems, Gypsy.


I have wandered
into your land -
its verdant cry
has pierced my soul.
Mine are
the dust-covered colors
of a violent sunset;
see my skirts swirl
ablaze in the summer wind.
My heart is
a magician’s cache
of tricks and turns –
invisible to the eye,
startling with their vision.
My wit is
a dark night cast
with stars that shine
promise of other worlds.
My eyes are
a noon sky –
have stared too long
at suns and moons,
have seen days
become years.
I am deeply ancient.
I am tabula rasa.
I knew you
when you were born, yet
discovered you only yesterday.
I will always
be this curious and wise
gypsy woman –
dancing in the wind,
walking on fire,
wading the river,
for the lush pine grove
that whispers in the evening,
that sings my soul’s music
in a voice that is yours.
© Barbara Ann Black

Just this past August, I rediscovered the poem, and the feeling of culmination that I experienced in writing it. In trying to get through some of the darkness of losing John, I felt the need to wander again, to hit the open road and see something new, to be by myself amid tall trees and mountains. So, I hit the road a few times throughout August and September. Friends would be astounded and even concerned that I'd just jump in the truck and go (one such trip took me on a 2400 mile journey). My response would be, "Hey, I'm just a gypsy." And, the label stuck, much to my great pleasure.

The great irony here is that in Hungary, cigány* (gypsy) is a pejorative - the standard view is that they're nothing but a bunch of dirty thieves. I'm sure my clan over there would be appalled if they knew I was aligning myself with "that lot." Too bad, because this Gypsy's got "miles to go before I sleep."**

*cigány (TSEE-gahnyuh)
**Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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