BRATISLAVA – You couldn’t miss him: a 30-something Rom, on crutches, with five-day-old stubble. (Matching mine.)
He had planted himself smack in the middle of the stone-paved Old Town, his feet pointed inward, like an extreme case of pidgeon-toed-ness. He was begging from passers-by, who averted his eyes and refused to break stride, the prejudice against “Gypsies” too deeply ingrained.
Normally, I would check him out, but not stare too long … and probably keep walking. I just couldn’t imagine doing what he was doing. What line do you cross when you start to think, “Then I’ll go beg.”
It occurred to me: Why do I feel sympathetic to a bedraggled Caucasian in the streets, but not this guy? Because I’m not immune to the nasty stereotype of the Roma as beggars? Or that it’s all some kind of “scam”?
(To my eye, and I’ve lived in the region since 1993, beggars represent the thinnest sliver of a widely diverse nation that numbers anywhere from 10-15 million. For some reason, though, the ethnic majorities who the Roma live among often conflate the two, defaming an entire people.)
I was hurrying to have a productive afternoon, so couldn’t stop to chat. Yet there’s always time for a brief interaction. I flipped through my memory bank and pulled out So vakeres? That’s Romani, I believe, for “What’s up?”
Fishing out a euro, I approached his open palm. I tossed out my friendly greeting. He locked onto my eyes, smiled large, and uttered something in Romani. (It certainly wasn’t Slovak or Hungarian.)
It was a cool moment, on a cold but sunny day.
I don’t quite know what it meant to him. (Let’s assume it was meangingful, OK?) For me, though, I realize that after a year of training young Romani journalists in how to explore interesting Roma topics, I’ve become a Roma-phile. I can’t help but humanize them whenever I can.
If this fellow wants to earn a living this way, why not help out now and then.