My future hometown is in a long, narrow valley flanked by cliffs on either side. It’s very dramatic. On the east ridge is the ruins of a fortress that shows evidence of Turkish, Bulgarian, Soviet and modern traffic. Krasi, my supervisor and very gracious tour guide, hiked up there with me yesterday. We identified our school, the other schools, my apartment, my hotel, the stadium and the hospital from above. The hospital is on the other edge of town as it climbs up the west ridge, in the mahala. Krasi speaks very little English, but likes to practice her impressively random vocabulary (and perhaps assumed I don’t know the word “mahala”) so when she pointed it out from the east ridge, she said in English “ghetto.” This is where the gypsies live.
Peace Corps and everything published in the last two years calls these people “Roma,” but I hear “gypsy” much more often. Our dictionary includes “gypsy” but not “Roma.” They were nomads who came to Europe from India like a thousand years ago, and have received no end of grief about it. They are concentrated in Eastern Europe but can be found all the way to England and the USA. I am not sure what they call themselves since I still have not had a conversation in which anyone identifies herself as such. Iskar, my training site, has a large but indeterminate Roma population, and is “integrated,” meaning they are not all in the same neighborhood. A Bulgarian visitor, employed by the Peace Corps, remarked that Iskar seemed to be “majority Roma,” and on the little information card about my host family, they were identified as Roma. On the question of mahala, Iskarvites tell me everything from “there is no mahala” to “we live in the mahala (from my host mom’s sister who lives down the street from us).” Some parts of town show more signs of dereliction but it doesn’t seem to have any relationship to the color of the residents.
And so back to my host family. Many integrated Roma do not identify as such. I have no idea if they are really Roma or if the Bulgarian who wrote their little profile card just assumed they were. They proudly proclaim to be Turkish and they have the old names to back it up. In 1984, the soviet government ordered all the Turks in Bulgaria to change their names (Roma, particularly Muslim Roma, had to change their names too but you don’t hear about that much). Nora was Nurei, her father Ruslan was Ramadan, etc. They are remarkably upbeat when they talk about this. Usually, late in the after-dinner conversation, they call each other by their old names. There is a whole lot going on that I can’t begin to understand at this point. In Iskar almost everyone is Roma, and at the same time no one is Roma. Everyone’s name is Bulgarian.
Back on the ridge, I ask Krasi about the mahala. It is dangerous, she says, but we have a few students from the mahala, and she assures me they are good kids. “Everyone is equal at my school.” From the ridge, I can see tiny people walking across the train tracks.
Later, I would walk up to the hospital with Cassie, the town’s current PCV. The lower end of the mahala is uncannily beautiful. Narrow staircases are carved into the ridge, with chaotic but well-kept houses on either side. Most people have gardens and prayer flags of laundry. There are horses and cats and chickens. In an American town, this hillside would be the most coveted real estate.
Coming down the hill from the hospital, Cassie and I are enjoying the American sounds of each other’s voices. Behind me I hear “Zdrasti El-A!,” Ela being the newest incarnation of my name. But I don’t know anyone here, I think and spin around to the voice, and suddenly I am transported back to Iskar. A handsome tenth grader with rakish facial hair gives me a big bright smile. He is sitting at a table with some older men. We met yesterday at school, he will be one of my students come September.
“Wow, see, you’re integrated already,” Cassie jokes.
High up the ridge, behind the hospital, there are more houses, more laundry, more glassless window frames.