mercredi 24 juillet 2013

"Roma Stories" - in English!

Quelques-uns des étudiants de Mme Kelly McConnell, que je rencontrerai ce jeudi à Dartmouth College (au New Hampshire) dans le cadre d'une conférence sur mes "Histoires de Roms", ont accepté de relever le défi, et de traduire en anglais mon plus récent billet, "Et vous, votre dossier, il est comment?". Je reproduis donc ici intégralement, et avec la plus grande admiration, le superbe travail de Teddy, Emma, Dario, Nicolas et Anabelle.

Many thanks to you all! Au plaisir de faire votre connaissance très bientôt!



In France since 2009, Clara and Fabian have lived from one squat to the next, in homes and in gymnasiums, and even in the basement of churches and in huts in slums. However, they say that it is paradise next to the life they led in Romania.

She is 38, and he is 34.

Fabian loves chocolate so much that he knows all of the different brands, flavors, and varieties of chocolate bars sold at Carrefour, even their prices.

Clara has a serious problem with her weight, which would require dieting over the course of several months and a complete reassessment of her everyday health. She has an inoperable abdominal hernia as a result of this weight problem and the fact that her lungs and heart are ruined from cigarettes and many years in the streets. Her life expectancy is dwindling, especially if nothing changes.

In Romanian, if I understand correctly, “morcov” is a carrot, “multumesc” means thank you, “tigari” are cigarettes, and “te pup dulce” translates to I kiss you tenderly.

Clara does not put up with the fact that Fabian is not clean-shaven.

Clara and Fabian occasionally lie to me when I call them to ask how they are and if they have enough to eat, in order to not worry me and to not ask for too much.

Clara does not like being told what to do. When, for example, we scold her because she smokes despite what the doctor has told her, we get it thrown right back in our faces, in the form of jokes and a stream of mockeries. This makes Fabian fall over laughing.

When I have photocopies to make or a train to catch and am lacking a bit of change, Clara always has some. She buries it in my hand in a domineering way, suggesting to me that there is no chance I refuse. Likewise for Fabian with cigarettes, no question that I reject those that he offers me. It would be insulting.

Fabian loves to make us laugh, Anaïs, Phillipe and me, playing the role of a guy who, in the relationship, claims to be the decision maker even though deep down, everyone knows that it’s his wife who calls the shots. Clara and him, laughing, love to reenact the scene of the ugly stepmother and the poor guy who has fallen in love with her.

Fabian was not born Roma. For three years, he worked as a mechanic in Romania repairing fancy cars. The company that employed him shut down and fired everyone. He thus went from being a good employee, capable of paying his taxes and of reimbursing his monthly bank loans, to… a social reject, a pariah. He recounted everything to me, one day. He said: “In order to get the bank to stop harassing me over there, I adopted a Romanian name, one that you know – that of Clara. But I am not Roma. I became Roma by marriage.” By way of love and necessity. Since then, I have often thought about this life as a non-Roma Roma and about what that choice signifies.

Clara is as affectionate as me. When we see each other, we spend a lot of time holding each other’s hands, cuddling, playing with one another’s hair, wiping each other’s tears – tears of laughter or sadness, or of anger. When we walk down the road together, it’s always arm-in-arm, like a funny couple.

Fabian doesn’t like that I walk through the rain in summer dresses or that I might catch a cold. Whenever we’ve spent a moment in a park talking together, and whenever a storm hits just as I have to leave, it is out of the question that I return home without letting him lend me his jacket.

Clara adores gardening and disco balls. She entrusted me with two of them, so that I might store them at my house. A thing that someone offered her in Romania. We will install them in her first real apartment, she told me, and we will have a big party. I brought them back to my house, smiling. It was without a doubt the first time in my life that I regarded disco balls with any sort of tenderness.

Fabian is more enamored with freedom than anyone I’ve ever encountered. Those times when he is welcomed into a gymnasium or a hostel with dozens of other people, those periods when he must share a large common room with a group of other homeless people, Romas and non-Romas alike, he suffocates – it is as if he is going to burn out. But when he finds a plot of land where he can build a home for them, in the way that he alone knows how to build them, a home that will then be decorated by Clara with love, he suddenly seems ten years younger, and becomes a trickster, mischievous like an adolescent.

Clara doesn’t often listen to the advice of doctors. She resists them; they annoy her when they’re too restrictive, she laughs at them and talks about their orders and prescriptions with a cranky and sarcastic tone, as if to say “keep talking, you don’t understand anything anyway.” She has a little rebellious side that tends to be self-destructive when one tells her too directly that she doesn’t do everything she could to prevent a disaster.

Since meeting Fabian, his dialogue on the possibility of finding work and one day earning a decent living in the building trades he excels in has changed. The weariness has settled in. He’s sort of in the process of giving up. I try to snap him out of it. I tell myself that I have only known them for ten months and that he and Clara had to have other phases of dejection, that I must hold on for two when he no longer wants to hold on at all.

Clara is fed up with being sick and suffering, and when Anaïs’ doctor, who agreed to take care of her, quite firmly explained that she might outright die, right now, if she didn’t change her life, she burst into tears and began to be very afraid. But, when we saw her a few days later, she had faced her fears by “choosing” casualness and rebellion. Anaïs and I almost argued with her because we learned (thanks to Fabian’s confidences and because we have started to get to know her better) that she was continuing to smoke like a chimney and that she often exceeded the dose of medication prescribed by countless prescriptions. Antibiotics that knock a person out, anti-inflammatory drugs that mess with the stomach, painkillers that aren’t effective anymore, paracetamol that’s become a kind of useless, but reassuring candy... She is caught in this spiral, too. She has had enough. She wants to send everyone packing.

Clara and Fabian have been on the margins of society for so long that by learning more about them, I realize that, even if we share the same dreams and the same hopes, I tend to forget that the means I propose to them to bring them closer to their dreams are completely inappropriate to their reality. That they’re too stupidly and naively related to my own dreams.

They force me to confront my own fixed, programmed notion of commitment, typical of the Western privileged person that I am. Fabian and Clara, whom I appreciate more as I discover them, and of whom I learn to love what some would call "flaws" - which are actually the marks of their irreducible and radical alterity, those that we discover when we befriend anyone we choose to truly discover, and not try at all costs to make them fit the image we first had of them. Like them with me, I guess. Our respective characters, with all their roughness, appear little by little.

My relationship with Fabian and Clara is starting to change. It brings to mind that phrase that, as an adolescent, I loved to shout like a tenacious refrain at the adults who wanted to force their help on me—and for whom “helping me” also meant making me conform to their point of view: “It’s not help if I never asked for it or wanted it!” They make me question everything, starting with the perception that I had held until now of my own commitment (engagement) to them and other Roma whom I met and whom I have yet to meet. They take me to this difficult frontier, the one where the naïve conception of the cause for which you fight is replaced by the reality of faces, of bodies, of emotions and of stories of people who have to be no less human, no less imperfect, no less indomitable or disobedient than you give yourself the right to be.

I am discovering that Clara, Fabian and I have radically different backgrounds, but, it seems to me, incredibly similarly temperaments. That which could, in the eyes of some, make them "difficult cases", wells up empathy from the bottom of my heart because, without ever having known a quarter of the difficulties they have experienced, I have experienced plenty of rejection and severity (sometimes completely justified, sometimes stubborn and unjust, as life sometimes goes) because I am like them. I was always a difficult case. As the years past, I learnt to adapt while remaining fiercely attached to the preservation of the “less suitable” areas of my dossier.

Clara and Fabian were not accepted to the residential clinic that Anaïs, Philippe, and I tried to place them in. We mounted the best possible case, with the help of people from Doctors of the World (Médecins du monde), who were extraordinary, effective and generous. But Clara’s pathology is rare and necessitates long-term care that the residential clinic couldn’t offer. Also, and maybe most importantly, the “case” of Clara and Fabian resembled the text I have just written. It is complex. It presents some areas of shadow and others of light, contains both risks and treasures, never presents a guarantee of “social” success or of successful integration (God, how they love that word in France! I had never even heard it before I came here!).

I don’t doubt that Clara and Fabian tried their hardest to conform to what they thought was expected of them during the evaluation interview. I don’t doubt that the people running the residential clinic had valid reasons to decide that they could not admit the couple.

I don’t doubt that the strict, obligatory, and necessary supervision over all of the residential patients terrorized Fabian and Clara when it was explained to them. And that their fierce need for freedom and independence did everything but reassure the people who met with them to discuss their potential medical care.

I received the bad news without bitterness. Since then, I’ve gone through dejection, fear, worry, unease, and a terrible feeling of inadequacy and guilt.

So I wrote this column to put my ideas in order and put a name to the disorder of reality. The unexpected complexity of political engagement. Recognizing it. Facing it.

And I will face my pain soon or maybe tomorrow, when I visit Clara and Fabian to say goodbye before returning to Montreal for a month, buy them a coffee, bring them a couple little treats, break the bad news to them…and face their reaction, without hiding myself and without any prevarication.


P.S. There is good news, however: we found the man whose violin was destroyed by a bulldozer. Anaïs was thus able to return the instrument that a marvelous woman, nicknamed “Blue Light,” brought to us after having waited for over an hour in traffic jams. The man was overjoyed and made all of the necessary repairs himself. He’s even made others jealous: one of his neighbors, an elderly man who plays the violin as well, asked Anaïs if, by chance, she couldn’t get her hands on another violin, even a damaged one, even if it needed to be repaired…Accordingly, the request has been made…if you happen to have any leads…



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