When we noticed the security booth marking the building’s entrance, I became skeptical. We had no appointment. “This will be interesting” I muttered to Morgan.
We approached the window, and a stern-faced guard emerged, frowning at the sight of the two 22 year olds who dared interrupt his non-activity. He skeptically surveyed our clothing — we didn’t exactly fit the mold of suit-wearing government officials with our bicycle jerseys and blue jeans. “Who the hell are you?” he seemed to fire off in rapid Romanian. Confusion ensued as we tried to explain, in highly gestured English, that we’re foreign journalists. We weren’t getting anywhere. I started making mental notes to schedule an appointment the next time we returned to the Roma Political Party’s Office. Then, Morgan happened upon the magic words. “Los Angeles.” “Hollywood.” The security guard’s eyebrows raised, and we were shown inside.
That was on our on first day in Bucharest. And now, as the two of us approach the end of our investigation into education issues surrounding Romania’s Gypsy population, it’s been elucidating to retrace our journey from blind door-knocking in the capital to actually developing a network of reliable sources across multiple counties. Looking back on the security guard episode, I’ve realized just how many of our leads came together through similar acts of trial and error…or plain luck. While a network of sources has really come together in the past two weeks, it took a lot of failures along the way to get there. We’ve had a few takeaways from the process:
The Importance of Finding a Breakthrough Person
Before Cezara David we were lost. We spent days wandering around Bucharest, having intermittent luck getting into NGO’s and government institutions, but failing to really connect with anyone there. There were a lot of unanswered emails.
Cezara was our first advocate – the first person who was as intent in helping us research our topic as we were in writing it. An activist at an anti-discrimination NGO named Romani CRISS, she excused our unannounced visit and sat down to give us a fascinating, 2 hour overview of Gypsy history that was pivotal in guiding Morgan and I towards finding our angle for the story in education. She made sure we didn’t leave the meeting without three published studies on Gypsies, and a list of contact recommendations that made our previous internet research seem laughable.
Door-Knocking. It Works
More than once we were derided by ruffled secretaries for not calling ahead. But honestly, we tried that. Many times, to no avail. The best way we found to get the attention of the powers that be? Show up on their doorstep. Sure, we encountered some awkward situations like the one I described with the Roma Party’s security guard, but that allowed us to at least get inside and put a face to our names.
The Politician’s Circus
Politicians are a good source for official statements, but haven’t exactly been enthused to show us the way deeper down the rabbit hole. They are, however, more than willing to direct you to other politicians. This is coupled with an impressive knack for saying a lot without really saying anything.
Our initial interaction with Romanian politicians was when we met with the president of the Roma Political party in Calafat. He asked us if, once we got to Bucharest, we would like to meet the only gypsy representative in Romania’s congress. It sounded almost too good to be true.
After a series of back-and-forth phone calls, we were told everything had been arranged for the meeting. All we had to do was call him from the capital, at which point his people would send a car to pick us up from some corner and take us to an undisclosed location in the city. The James Bond scenario sounded sketchy. Suspicions were confirmed when our translator informed us what the president had really said over the phone with his Bucharest contacts. Nothing about journalism; rather, that we were wealthy Americans who wanted to donate money to their party. And that if we delivered, Bucharest would owe the Calafat branch some political favors.
Our experiences in Bucharest with political speak weren’t much different. Electing to visit the Roma Party on our own, we were met inside by an enthusiastic aid who started giving us some interesting statistics about the Gypsies’ true, off-the-record population in Romania. We were hearing some controversial numbers when the Roma Party’s PR person arrived. Seeing who we were talking to, she quickly cut her off –
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” She said curtly.
She rattled off some statement about the official census numbers in Romania. Everything we needed to know, she assured us, would be answered in an email. After multiple follow ups, we’re still awaiting its arrival.
It Doesn’t Always Take an Expert
Some of the best leads have been passed on to us by the most unlikely of sources. People like a young volunteer from Uruguay, or a pair of charming hostel owners in the heart of Bucharest. It’s the casual conversations over a few beers with friends that have precipitated some amazing opportunities – like the weekend Morgan spent living with Stanley and his family in Baleni, or the Gypsy wedding I was invited to in Calafat. We’ve been invited to borrow apartments for the weekend, received offers to translate interviews for us, and been taken on personal tours of schools working with gypsy children. Our friends are the informal support network that allow us to keep pushing forward.