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Safe journey

An encounter with gypsies, racism, religion, and relatives in Eastern Europe leaves our author content with history and fortunate for the present.

by Tony Soyka


She was unusual, especially for a dentist. There was something about her that was both known and mysterious; close, yet distant; still, but moving. Her exotic style of dress and vivid skin made her stand out, a challenging task in a place like San Francisco. Swathed in colors, jewels, and ornaments, she stood out without trying.

It was during the last few months of my teaching at the dental school that she and I became good friends, part of a circle of the more unusual dentists. A relatively recent movie was showing nearby and she strongly urged me to see it.

"It's called 'Latcho Drom,'" she said, "and it translates to 'Safe Journey.' It's about the plight of the Gypsies, or the Romany people as they're also known. Like the Jews, they were to be exterminated by the Nazis and still suffer persecution. Originally coming from India long ago, they have maintained their nomadic culture for centuries. I don't know if you knew, but I'm part Gypsy myself."

That made sense, from what I knew of her. She had travelled extensively throughout the world, and was in fact planning on moving on, like me, in a short period of time. I really didn't know much about Gypsies per se except that my Russian immigrant parents had a tape of folk music called "Play Gypsy Play."

I went to see "Latcho Drom" with my then girlfriend Annabelle, and found the music and images stunning. I was really into Klezmer music at the time, and could see similar roots in Gypsy music. Being a musician, I was always drawn to the power of minor chords, which evoked in me a sense of vague melancholy. Both Klezmer and gypsy music used many minor chords.

I soon left the Dental School and never saw her again, but it wouldn't be the last time I would encounter Gypsies.

A year later, in 1996, I gathered the funds and courage to go to eastern Europe and visit my relatives in Belarus who I'd never met before. I over-planned, seeing four different countries -- the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Belarus -- in less than four weeks. Knowing some Russian, I picked up the local Slavic tongue only when it was time to move on to the next country to learn afresh the customs, phrases, and currency.

My initial week in Europe was in Prague and I experienced a profound culture shock. Travelling by myself, I had no one to speak with, and not knowing Czech well enough to converse, I found myself in a state not unlike solitary confinement. I did manage to strike up a conversation with a Bulgarian plasterer renovating a flat near the river who wanted to know if I wanted to rent it out. Bulgarians and Russians are pretty close in language and customs, and he and I had a conversation in Russian. He also jokingly inquired how many wives Bill Clinton had, seemingly impressed by his infamous prowess I said that he has one wife but many girlfriends. The Bulgarian laughed and translated for his Serbian co-workers who then laughed vigorously, raising dust.

I traveled overnight by train from Prague to the tiny town of Tatranska Lomnica in Slovakia at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, near the Polish border. Topping off at 9,000 feet, the Tatra Mountains are large, jagged, often called the Eastern Alps and are very popular for skiing and mountain climbing, Rumor has it, Lenin himself climbed one of the claw-like peaks.

While in this village in Slovakia, I ventured into a little hut of a restaurant. Anna's I think it was called. Made entirely of logs, the place had a cozy feeling, sort of like something from Lake Tahoe done in early rustic Communist style. I was eating some sort of chicken stuffed with ham when in walked these two small gypsy men in greasy maroon outfits. One had a violin, the other an accordion (I include a photo of some Gypsy musicians dressed in far cleaner clothing). The big blonde Slovakian woman, who I took to be Anna, the proprietor, immediately started scowling, and this was my first taste of anti-Gypsy sentiment. They started playing this great music, much to the enjoyment of the patrons, and soon some huge entirely bombed Slovakian man barged in and started conducting them, waving his arm vigorously yet sloppily, speeding up the tempo, slowing it down. They complied; he seemed quite threatening. He insisted they drink shots with him, until they were as sloshed as he was.

Eventually, a boy came in, maybe 4-years-old, dressed in the same greasy maroon outfit. The violin player gave him his violin, which he played quite well, albeit slightly out of tune. The huge Slovakian man liked this too, and started conducting the boy -- his drunken enormity looming over this tiny marooon speck playing the violin. Although I didn't know the language very well, I could tell that the man was impressed, and he kept bellowing, "He will be the next Mozart!"

What was really remarkable about the Gypsies was that they made eye contact with everyone in the room, smiling nonstop. Everywhere I went in Eastern Europe, people usually looked askance if I tried to make eye contact with them, and few smiled. Not so with the gypsies -- they seemed to have nothing to hide. The gypsies also had a certain indefinable unbathed glow to them, as if they had some sort of gritty magical powers that would wash away with soap. This manifested in some great music, and as I left, I threw in some coins into their cases, much to the chagrin of Anna and her big blonde Slovakian troop of workers.

I was next heading to Warsaw, where I was scheduled to stay with conservative relatives of a dental school friend. The wife and the son knew English, and within minutes of meeting me at the train, she launched into a gentle tirade about how "you Americans have too much freedom," having once visited Los Angeles and San Francisco. Their 19-year-old son, wanting to impress the American with his knowledge of English, later took me to all the various spots of martyred Polish saints, both ancient and recent from the Soviet occupation. "Can you feel the intensity?" he asked at one spot, his eyes fervent with hardly concealed fanaticism. "I can feel your intensity as you speak of it," I responded. "Then you didn't get it," he said dejectedly.

My main purpose of being in Warsaw was to get a visa to get into Belarus. Not only did I get my visa, but I had another encounter with gypsies.

The son of the conservative family had tipped me off to one of their techniques: A cute kid would hold your hand and smile. While you were distracted, another picked your pocket. Sure enough, at one point I felt a small hand on mine. I looked down at a cute face and then immediately moved away. A cluster of other kids flew off like pigeons.

I was chafing at the collar to get away from my friend's relatives. I had a conversation with the father in Russian, and I realized how difficult it was for him, since the Poles and the Russians have an indelible animosity toward one another. Still, he wanted to directly converse with this American stranger of Belarussian descent, and we initially started talking about harmless topics, like my passion for mountain climbing and the time in the Tatras in Slovakia.

I had mentioned the Gypsies, and how warm they seemed to be. His demeanor changed. He called them "useless thieves" and "pagans." Unfortunately, the topic of gypsies led to a general topic of religion. I asked about the rumors of Jesus Christ traveling to India and gathering wisdom fro his travels during his youth, the time missing from the scriptures. He scowled and leaned over and whispered in my ear, "The church tells us that isn't important."

I got my visa the next morning and was then on an almost entirely empty plane to Minsk. No one wanted to go there it seemed. The contrasts in living conditions became immediately apparent. While in Poland, most people spoke English and had cars and computers. These were rare at best in Belarus.

Walter had a job as a chauffeur, and I was flabbergasted to see them pick me up in an absolutely top of-the-line BMW. I guess there were a few rich people in Belarus amongst all this relative poverty. Alex, my other cousin, inquired basic stuff about the flight, and I kept tripping over my Russian, being so excited. My Russian never really recovered, and I think I had overestimated my grasp of the language in the first place, since many times in a collective throng of relatives, one would ask me a question about America, asking a question like, "Do they have flounder in America?" I wouldn't know the word for flounder, and, as I furtively scanned my translation dictionary, I heard murmurs saying "he didn't understand," going around. That pretty much described most of our conversations.

We got to their apartment building, a high-rise in a sprawling complex of 20 or so other high-rises, each more monolithically Stalinist as the last. Food then came, along with the traditional shots, and by dark, I was bombed and passed out on the couch.

I puked the next morning, hungover from drinking their moonshine vodka. I felt better later in the day, and after some sight seeing of war monuments in Minsk, we then took the big trip to my father's ancestral village of Traychan, about 50 miles away and not 100 miles from Chernobyl in the Ukraine. I felt like I had stepped back a hundred years into a world described by Tolstoy. All the young people had left for the cities, leaving scarf-wrapped babushkas tending their pigs and vegetables, scuttling into the small houses -- each one with the characteristic light blue shutters with globose poppies growing in the front.

The village itself was small, without plumbing or even a store. There I met my father's remaining siblings: sisters Lyuba, Anastasia, and Eudoxia, and his younger brother Stephen, who as I understood had a son who looked exactly like me. They greeted me with a glass of whitish liquid. I later found out was birch sap. Birch trees are highly revered in Russian culture, and I took this to be one of the highest honors for a traveller and relative having come so far both in terms of distance and of time.

This was a propitious moment. They still spoke fondly of their brother, my father, who they hadn't seen in half a century. They had to tell me important stories about him numerous times so I would understand the details. I didn't know about it earlier, but my father helped to keep them alive in the days after WWII by sending packages of food and clothing. The one story that stuck with me the most was the story of my father and the canal at the beginning of the Nazi invasion in 1941. They had to tell it to me three times before I understood it, and as we were now heading out to the woods, passing the ancient canals that made the naturally swampy land of Belarus more farmable, on the way to prime mushroom hunting spots deep in the forest.

It was a hot summer day in 1941, and Nazi Germany was rolling across Russia unabated. My father says the initial ease of their invasion was due to people so tired of Soviet purges they thought Hitler was a savior from Stalin. Communists tortured and killed his my grandfather and uncle, and my father wouldn't fight with the partisans who forcibly conscripted all men. The penalty for refusing was death, and my father was to be marched out to the woods by a single gunman for his execution.

They came to a canal, and my then 18-year-old father asked the gunman, "It's such a hot day, and as my final wish, I would simply like to have a drink of water." The gunman allowed him to get in the canal and drink. "Hey, y'know, this water is refreshing, you should come down and have some yourself." Being a hot day, the gunman was dehydrated, so he went in too. My father, seizing the moment, kicked the gunman in the canal and ran off into the woods, only to be later captured by the Nazis and sent to a work camp where he met my then 12-year-old mother.

I thought about the woods we were now wandering through, looking for the choice delicacies growing under rotting logs. I wondered if we may have passed the very canal where that incident took place some 55 years earlier.

My uncle Stephan, being the wise man of the woods, knew which mushrooms were edible and which were not, which he called paganka. I was going through another spasm of culture shock, since here was a whole clan of blood relatives who knew each other and were doing the very thing I loved the most, being in nature, and yet I felt that I was a stranger with them. I came up to my uncle, and with tears streaming down my face, said "Uncle, I have lost the culture." He looked at me with wisdom and compassion and responded, "Well, you're an American. The culture was never yours to begin with."

As we got back into the old car, one of the relatives put on some folk music, and we rumbled up and down bumps through the primeval Belarussian forest, one song that played on the scratchy tape recorder still resonates in my head five years later: "We live like we always have, together."

I left the village the next morning after a one of the most restful nights of sleep I've ever had. The absolute stillness of being away from lights and city noise had a profoundly rejuvenating impact. This must be why people still live here with practically nothing in freezing cold winters. That morning, we all had feasts at the homes of the various relatives, and the kids really enjoyed the dried Trader Joe's tropical fruits I had brought. They all wanted to touch me, like I was some sort of intergalactic traveller who had just beamed down.

They were all happy, and they had pretty much nothing compared to American standards. They did have one thing missing for the most part in America, and it was an extended clan of relatives who all knew each other, and to me, it seemed that that's all one really needs.

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