Fernanda Eberstadt

In 1998, author Fernanda Eberstadt moved with her family from New York to Perpignan, a small city in the extreme southern end of France, near the Spanish border, with one of the largest Gypsy populations in western Europe. There her lifelong fascination with these elusive people was rekindled by the haunting music of the local Gypsy rumba band Tekameli. She gained privileged access not only to the musicians, but to their extended network of family, friends, and business partners. Eberstadt arrived at a time when this remarkably resilient and insular culture was experiencing the social upheaval that seems the fate of tradition-bound societies around the world. From her friendships with Gypsy families comes Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of France, a book few of those friends may read, as Perpignan’s Gypsies are largely illiterate.

Eberstadt lived among the Gypsies of the St. Jacques region of Perpignan in southern France, where a Gypsy presence goes back to the Middle Ages and politicians take care to court the Gypsy vote, even if by fraudulent means. They speak a mixture of French and gitan, itself a mixture of Catalan and a Spanish dialect of Romany. No longer nomadic (the Vichy government outlawed nomadism during the Second World War), most Gypsies make their living from a combination of odd jobs and state subsidies. Few have much formal education, and those that break with tradition to pursue degrees or professional positions often meet with stern opposition. Last year, hostilities between Gypsies and Arabs in Perpignan helped fuel the riots that later swept the banlieux of Paris. Perhaps the most famous man to hail from Perpignan is Zacarias Moussaoui.

I knew Fernanda Eberstadt primarily for her novel The Furies, about the failed marriage between Gwen and Gideon, an upper-class career woman and a struggling Jewish puppeteer. The couple are pulled apart not only by their many differences of upbringing and temperament, but by the stresses of modern American marriage and childrearing. Throughout the novel, Eberstadt seems to hold out the possibility of a different kind of family, a way of life somehow more healthy, more compatible with the human heart. Even in idyllic southern France, she is still navigating between the comfort of tradition and the lure of modern possibility.

Our series of email and phone conversations ranged over Gypsy culture and its complement among French Muslims, domestic surveillance in the United States, bombings in the London subway, and the dizzying pace of construction around my Shanghai apartment.

 

In Little Money Street, Eberstadt sets out to document a particular group of Gypsies and does so with meticulous attention to regional detail. Given that the people known collectively as “Gypsies” live all over the world, speak a variety of languages, and belong to a number of different faiths, does it even make sense to think of “Gypsies” as a unified ethnic group? She answered by reminiscing about a group of Gypsy neighbors she would observe living in an Upper West Side brownstone. “The women didn’t wear long multicolored skirts and gold-hoop earrings; the children didn’t beg; they didn’t do anything you traditionally associate with Gypsies the world over,” and yet she felt certain they were Gypsies, a belief she later confirmed with one of the family.

“Having observed for several years this band of Upper West Side Gypsies, I asked myself, What is it that makes Gypsies so instantly recognizable, even after they’ve given up their nomadism and their tribal gear?” Though they were superficially indistinguishable for any number of other New York ethnic groups, “it seemed to me that Gypsydom lay in a certain defiance towards outsiders and the larger, non-Gypsy culture, a lawlessness about conventional time, a permanent provisionality. When my Gypsy friend Diane calls my son Theodore ‘un vrai gitan,’ what she means is that he’s headstrong, insubordinate, ungovernable, and likes to thumb his nose at authority.”

Pervasive, negative stereotypes about Gypsies have origins as old and apocryphal the Gypsies themselves. Eberstadt dismisses some of these—her friends do not steal—while others are grudgingly accepted—her friends are unreliable about appointments and debts. Though Little Money Street is obviously affectionate, Eberstadt does not deny that Gypsy society is marked by widespread illiteracy, poverty, and startling sexual inequalities. “People have such contempt for Gypsies and such ignorance of them that I felt obliged to be pretty scrupulous about telling what in my experience was true and not true . . . That they are generous and kind and unfailingly hospitable, that there is nobody you’d rather go to if you were down-hearted or in trouble. That Gypsy society is in some ways dysfunctional, but that Gypsy modernity would be a wonderful thing.” Yes, Gypsies fall short of various educational or economic markers, but “I think I wanted people to recognize that there are other sets of values than our current ruling ones.”

A number of more admiring Gypsy stereotypes prove to be equally false. Eberstadt explains in Little Money Street that “Gypsy life is not ‘free,’ but on the contrary far more hierarchical and prohibition-bound than that of secular Westerners.”

Women, in particular, are hemmed in by a system of prohibitions so strict that those Gypsy women who have run away to marry Arab Muslim men revel in their newfound freedom. Gypsy parents keep their daughters out of school not only to keep them away from boys, but with the fear, in the words of one mother, that “if my daughter learns to read, she will escape.” This sexism is “pure social habit”—not only groundless (there is no written scripture supporting these cultural practices) but totally one-sided, as there are no restrictions whatsoever on the behavior of men. As for the French officials, “they feel like the worse it is for women, the more likely they are to escape.” Indeed, the dissatisfaction of women is perhaps the single biggest contributor to cultural erosion through intermarriage.

“The Gypsies I know,” Eberstadt explains, “live according to rules designed to keep women imprisoned. Certain recent social changes, such as more generous welfare programs, have made Gypsy women’s lives even more circumscribed. The grandmothers I know all had to earn money outside the home: they worked the markets, they put on puppet-shows in the square . . . Now most Gypsy women I know are stuck at home.” The roving, rootless Gypsy of countless myths is little like Eberstadt’s descriptions of “women who from the windows of their project can see the icy slopes of Canigou, the highest mountain in the Mediterranean Pyrenees, but who have never in their lives touched snow.”

Before the past century, most French Gypsies were Catholic. They worshipped in French among non-Gypsy parishioners, the church a window on a larger world. In the fifties and sixties, southern French Gypsies were still partially nomadic, traveling from market to market throughout France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where they encountered French Pentecostalist preachers. This “Flannery O’Connor, big tent experience” led to a large-scale Gypsy conversion from Catholic to Protestant, to a Pentecostal faith “much more immediate . . . more emotive and popular” than Catholicism. Surely the natural Gypsy aversion to authority played some part in the move from a state-sponsored Catholicism to a minority religion for Gypsies alone. Today, worship services are in gitan and exclusively Gypsy. An already provincial people — women in particular — are thereby isolated from one of the few truly “multicultural” experiences of their ancestors.

In perhaps the most frustrating section of the book, Eberstadt attends a conference on Gypsy education at Collège Jean Moulin, St. Jacques’ junior high school. A group of professionals debate ways to convince Gypsy children to stay in school, including offering night courses (Gypsy children regularly stay up until two in the morning and then sleep all day) and courses in traditional Gypsy trades like shoeing horses. When the student spokesperson, thirteen-year-old Samuel Cargol, is asked about his grades, it is clear that he was not even aware that grades were given out at school. Imagining a Gypsy night school with a lesson plan of blacksmithing and repairing carts, I couldn’t help but remember my childhood in the California public school system, where Diversity Week required students to sing a native song or share a foreign food, reducing individual cultural experience to a dance, a dish, a costume. Now in France, too, well-meaning but paternalistic people fret over diversity, hoping that superficial alterations to the school system can assimilate a “completely different attitude towards work, family, free time, landscape,” in Eberstadt’s words.

“What you see beginning to happen now in France is what’s already happened in America: the death of an ideal of assimilation, in which immigrants—or, in the Gypsy case, ethnic minorities—were expected to suppress their home culture and integrate, in exchange supposedly for all the benefits of citizenship. It didn’t work, partly because there was too much ingrained racism for those benefits to be forthcoming. But it was still a good idea. It’s been replaced by multiculturalism . . . The old system was brutally insensitive to difference; the new one is fake-sensitive to differences it defines.”

“The only way Gypsies can succeed is by learning how to use computers, not how to shoe horses. But one curious thing I found was that the savvier and more educated Gypsies I met were the ones who were most interested in Gypsy culture, Gypsy tradition. That suggests there is such a possibility as ‘Gypsy modernity.’”

 

It’s impossible to read about attempts to integrate Gypsies and the “French” (a term Gypsies apply to outsiders, but not to themselves) and not think of the failed integration of Muslim immigrants into French life, the unease personified in Little Money Street by Hajiba Mohib, a Moroccan immigrant caught between the traditional allegiances of faith and family and the French expectation of total cultural immersion. “The old French model,” Eberstadt explains somewhat wistfully, “was a citizen before all, religious and ethnic particularities behind closed doors. That was the ideal.” How is this new multiculturalism different? “It is kind of selfish and divisive. There is a break down of political conviction, of political action, everyone is enjoying their own lifestyle. Multiculturalism is an extension of that.”

I couldn’t help but draw a connection to present day China, where increased economic freedom exists alongside draconian restrictions on political liberty. New shopping malls are being built on every block, but limitations on speech remain firmly embedded. Eberstadt was quick to find parallels in our own country, including “the lack of public outrage” at domestic surveillance and the torture of prisoners. “There is a breakdown of civic convictions,” she concludes. “We are post-politics, post-political consciousness. Everyone is involved in their private life,” while governments here and abroad are “buying political acceptance with consumer goods.”

I asked Eberstadt whether she had been in southern France for the much-publicized riots that occurred over four weeks in October and November of last year. Eberstadt informed me that the riots really started in Perpignan. In May 2005, weeklong riots followed the murder of an Arab by gang of Gypsies who beat the youth to death with baseball bats when he tried to prevent a fourteen-year-old Gypsy boy from stealing his car radio. In the days that followed, Eberstadt recalls French Arab kids running through the streets, riot police being called in, and front page headlines every day. It was clear the French government had no idea what to do.

“Everyone is examining their own model of assimilation. Everyone has had their own shock this year,” she concludes, not only with the riots in France but with the London train bombings and the failed U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina. 2005 will go down as “a year of exploding ethnic misery and violence.”

“What I recognized in the course of writing Little Money Street is that writing about Gypsies was a way of writing about outsiders, about poor people in the modern world who are caught between tradition and consumerism. It’s a weirdly widespread phenomenon that I’ve come across in the slums of Palermo or shantytowns of Istanbul. Lots of people around the world are living in a split-screen of what I describe as ‘biblical-archaic and strip-mall modern’: boys who wear Adidas track-suits, listen to hip-hop, eat Big Macs, but when they marry, expect their mothers to pick them a virgin from a good family.”

“Gypsies,” Eberstadt writes in her book, “are peculiarly vulnerable to the smallpox of consumerism, in which people are persuaded to express their love for their children through the acquisition of crappy goods they can’t afford . . . The feeling of unworthiness if you don’t spend money you don’t have on junk you don’t need is not peculiar to Gypsies: the American economy is based on this particular pathology . . . But people whose sense of self-worth is not strong, who feel stigmatized by strangers, are especially vulnerable to the lure of consumption.” Gypsy children are “gargantuanly spoiled” and tend to obesity. Yet Gypsies “want to consume American culture . . . but they don’t want to be American, because being American implies a willful amnesia, a loss of inherited familial and societal values, a preference for individualism over solidarity.”

For Gypsies, “it’s unthinkable to move away from your family.” She compares this to the similar attitude of the French Arabs and remembers Hajiba’s reaction to her Catalan husband’s elderly relative dying in a nursing home, something his wife found “disgusting, absolutely inhuman.” The Arab reliance on family is to large degree for security, defense against a wider world that is often hostile or at best, indifferent. But it is also “human, natural, kindly.”

Hearing Eberstadt speak of what is natural and kind, I am reminded again of the sense of loss and confusion that permeates her last work, where educated Manhattan mothers look at childbirth as something monstrous. “Gypsies are completely dysfunctional but there is something cozy about it:” girls have babies early, but with the support of an extended family of grandparents, aunts, and cousins. It’s not the “horrible, terrifying responsibility” many educated U.S. women feel it to be.

Eberstadt is the first to admit that there are no easy answers. Idealizing Gypsy society for its attitude towards family is no different, no more accurate than the idealized roving Gypsies of the past. For Americans, “there is so much freedom, so much choice, but there’s a lot of anxiety that comes with it . . . We put work first—and it’s stimulating, it’s exciting—but the love-life, the marriage side, the children side is completely screwed up as a result.” Alternative family structures and modern medical practices have led to a world where “everything becomes a kind of lab experiment—everything is possible, but nothing is natural.” We believe in “entitlement without consequences,” where aging, illness, infertility, and death are seen as even more unnatural and alien than childrearing. What is the future of a society where “instead of ingenuity and enterprise, what people value here is neighborliness, respect, stability, leisure”?

 

“If it wasn’t for the music, they would just be welfare cases,” Eberstadt explains, and Little Money Street another dour sociological treatise on poverty, obesity, or racism. Since their earliest traceable beginnings in North India, music has been a fundamental part of Gypsy heritage, a sound “intense, unmistakably, distinctively their own.” In every country, Gypsy musicians adapt local sounds and instruments, but the flamenco-inflected strains of southern French Gypsy music are “absolutely emotional, heartbreaking, despairing, this kind of wail.” It is best described in spiritually charged language, “a music that seemed to express the perverse vagaries of a soul yearning for union with God.” Flamenco is “the art of desperate measures, the winning of a fugitive grace from failure, bankruptcy, shame. It’s this spirit of sly abasement, of antinomian reversals and tear-soaked triumphs that makes it so inherently religious.”

The fate of Tekameli, quite possibly the greatest Gypsy band in western Europe, is typical. The music—deeply spiritual, deeply personal—exists for its own sake and even the most well-meaning attempts to commercialize their extraordinary sound go awry. The most gifted musicians are stubborn, lazy, and scared to travel. They won’t rehearse, fail to show up for concerts—one guitarist sold his guitar strings the night before he went on tour. The very unstudied casualness that makes their sound so raw and so affecting guarantees no one outside of Perpignan is likely to ever hear it.

 

Is it possible to pick and choose values? To accept the comparative gender equality of the modern world, for example, but eschew its materialism? “You’ve got to be smart to do it. You need to take a little more responsibility for your own destiny.” For those Gypsies who have intermarried and moved away, “I hope they can keep a foot in each camp,” she concludes, though even in the course of our conversation, Eberstadt seems to vacillate between an optimistic belief in the possibility of “Gypsy modernity” and a more bleak view. “My own belief is that the Gypsies of St. Jacques are history. Their real estate is just too valuable for them to hang on, and their birthrate is only just above replacement. In ten years, the storefront church where today Gypsies sing flamenco hymns will be a Occitane store selling lavender oil.”

At one time, Gypsy culture seems to be disappearing into the mainstream—Eberstadt predicts gitan will be extinct in just a few generations—while at the same time she warns of a society increasingly blinkered and resistant to change. The pressures of the outside world seem designed to draw away those Gypsies most educated, open-minded, and eager to embrace new things, while leaving behind a hardened group of those least educated and most traditional. What’s the future of alternative ways of living? Eberstadt fears that “few governments today challenge the idea that American-style, free-market capitalism is the only way forward, and if this means losing everything a society cherishes.”

“After the two murders in May, there was a real sense of crisis, that things have gone too far.” During the riots, Eberstadt recalls Gypsies barricading themselves inside their apartments. Police raids revealed substantial arsenals of everything from submachine guns to baseball bats. The sight of these panicked stockpiles was a wake-up call to the Gypsy community, shocked at “how ugly, how weird” their own communities had become. “There was a time when Gypsies could think they had a lot more fun than everybody else.” Now Gypsies view the fun of the outside world with varying degrees of envy and mistrust.

The question for Eberstadt is, “Can the ones that get away retain some gypsy-ness?” For young people, the motto is becoming “adapt or die,” though no one is yet sure what that means.

“My private conviction is that our own social economy is getting more ‘Gypsified’—that the older agrarian/commercial ethic that prizes hard work, thrift, sobriety, trustiness, has been replaced by a new intensely mobile, rootless society of conspicuous consumption, of people with throwaway jobs, living on credit. The difference between our culture and Gypsy culture is Gypsies aren’t aiming to get rich.”

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