Road to the Bosporus
We, Gypsies, are like the clouds, my grandfather, Inko, used to say. For us, there are no borders. Have you seen a cloud stopped for a check? Accordingly, the Gypsy caravan crosses all kinds of barriers, yet unlike the cloud it does not rain or evaporate off, on the contrary, it swells and enlarges.
When I was younger, I remember, we kept crossing barriers. Then, there were many barriers inside the country. As the Gypsy katun caravan travelled, a many-coloured pike would turn up suddenly the middle of the road, and with it a ditch, dug out like a trough, in which the whole Gypsy caravan would go. For months later, our clothes stank of the white powder they used to put in the town toilets. With the caravan, we don’t medley much in towns because the authorities have never liked caravans. Albeit, there was so many barriers between towns and between villages then that my grandfather, Inko, used to say, it was as if we were in a contest: a Gypsy caravan with hurdles. I should write the IOC – International Olympic Committee – to adopt that discipline, my grandfather said. And he would do it; he wrote to Indira Gandhi so his eye wouldn’t blink at the IOC. Fortunately the regime changed in the meantime and they stopped putting barriers at will. Now they simply can’t continue to exist. No barrier, no pike, no stick will remain – we will carry it away, chop it, burn it. It is democracy now; we’ve had enough of these barriers. We don’t bear to see even the road signs now. But let me not digress. I wanted to tell about those years when I moved with the Gypsy caravan and the crowd of children wondered why the majority of people crammed into houses and the houses grouped in curving lines and all that jam was called settlements. With the caravan, we moved free and untroubled, and my grandfather, Inko, led us far and wide to the joy of our Gypsy souls.
I say, it was springtime, five or six months before the outbreak of democracy. Our Gypsy caravan has always moved unobstructed. Granddad Inko had a special paper from the authorities – in the past he had protected guerrillas in the Gypsy caravan – although with much effort, he had been permitted to move with the caravan so that the trade wouldn’t get extinct. It was good that it was for that paper. That spring, which I’ll remember a hundred lives, the authorities had blocked all roads. Granddad Inko uttered the prophetic words that if the authorities start obstructing the roads and searching the people, their end has come. Only a blind man couldn’t see it; pay heed rascals – I was like you forty-five years ago and I still remember. I’ve seen a hundred year old man and a hundred year old tree, Granddad Inko went on, but I haven’t seen a hundred year old rule.
Our Gypsy caravan roams the plains but we try not to get too far away from the Balkans. At the foothills, you could take cover more easily, the plain is open and the caravan is not protected in case of threat. But that spring, we heard that the Turks from the Deliorman hurried towards Turkey. Despite being Gypsy, we are Christian: we honour Bango Vasil, we slay the Gergiovden lamb, and we keep a Bible in the chest with sacred things which only grandfather unlocks – the thickest book I’ve ever seen although I’m not much of a reader. We have seen all sorts of people in our lands and we’ve passed through Turkish villages. They, the Turks, haven’t got caravans. Granddad Inko said that they were like bees: industrious and humble, with orderly gardens and little houses – whitewashed and with painted fences and gates. But, God forbid, stirring such a hive. It must have been a great pressure if the roads should be so congested with people – all moving south towards the border in whatever they had: dilapidated automobiles laden with household belongings, rugs, cookers, television sets, tables, chairs, bags full of various things, anything – more like a Gypsy caravan. The rumor went that they couldn’t take everything along with them.
Their houses stood abandoned in the villages. Then Granddad Inko decided that we start towards the Deliorman. It was for the first time that I had seen him in trouble to explain why he did something. I feel we should go, he kept repeating. I don’t know what exactly is happening but it is not good – so many people leaving without a reason. There is something that we must unravel. My grandfather keeps a transistor radio in the caravan and he listens to the news; his sons gave him the portable television set four years later, so at the time we only listened to the news. But they, the authorities, would have hardly shown on television what we saw and what Granddad Inko said he’d never seen but had heard from his father, our great grandfather, that in the Balkan wars the same great number of people, only Bulgarians then, came over from Aegean Thrace and Macedonia. Now there wasn’t a war. We moved peacefully with the caravan and even the crowd of children sat motionless under the covers faintly scared by the unknown, which we were approaching. After that, some people in camouflage uniforms and red caps blocked our way. They held automatic guns in their hands and they pointed them at us. Granddad Inko tried hard to convince them to show them the paper. For a long time, they didn’t give in. We were at a distance, didn’t hear clearly what our grandfather, Inko, was saying. Afterwards, when we passed, he explained to us that it was difficult. At first, they didn’t even want to listen. „I say, boys, we are on the side of the authorities. I have been helping the authorities too; it could be your fathers that I saved in the fascist period. We’re caravan people – nature’s sanitarians -we’re useful rather than harmful.“They didn’t say yes, we shouldn’t enter the village, quite simply an order. For a long time after we passed, we didn’t dare to stir, not even turn, lest those with the rifles should fire at us, we didn’t want to cause any trouble.
But the trouble was inside the village. My goodness, what a sight. We heard the mooing even on entering when we were by the road sign. Cows, goats, dogs with their tails curved were straying the empty streets, hens were cackling. All that livestock roamed without any direction, mooed and whined, barked and fluttered; here and there by the gates and the fences, donkeys were lying – neither alive nor dead. People weren’t seen anywhere. With his unerring instinct, Granddad Inko led us to the village square. It was almost dark. The square was empty. At one end, some light was seeping out of some building. We approached and entered. It was the pub. A somewhat sour smell of pub and mould hit us and at first we didn’t notice the people sitting by the walls. They watched us silently and menacingly while my Granddad Inko was explaining that we were peaceful gypsies. At first, they refused to speak – neither Bulgarian, nor Romany or Turkish. Then the talk flowed in some strange Balkan Esperanto and we could understand what had happened in the recent days. The village people received an ultimatum to emigrate in Turkey. Many of them didn’t want to go but the authorities threatened them. It was the same in all nearby villages. The ten people we saw in the pub were old and feeble. They didn’t know what to do. The imam was the oldest one; he had locked himself inside the mosque and waited to move to Allah.
My grandfather, Inko, is a sympathetic and quick-witted person. He commanded the whole Gypsy caravan to help. At first the cast off locals resisted that. A great moment of persuasion ensued until Granddad Inko convinced them that we won’t harm them and that there was no Hindrance for them to get on with us. We would transport them to where their relatives had gone. They consented. We were loading their belongings all night. In the morning, the sun shone on us on the way to Kapa Kule. Our bizarre caravan had become even more bizarre. For days and weeks on end we waited at the border where, as my Granddad Inko noted, a real Babylonian congregation had come together. Looking at the departing people, Granddad Inko crossed himself and said, „Remember, rascals, if so many people are leaving this country, be they Turkish, then the Bulgarians won’t stay long in it either. Then our kingdom will come – the Gypsy one. We will stay here.“