Mihai and Andreea Popescu are what one might call a typical Romanian Couple. He’s a web developer. She’s unemployed. Together, they live in a small, one room studio flat in a gated community on the outskirts of Bucharest. Impeccably organized, the flat is their sanctuary away from the rude and rowdy streets 13 floors below. The young 30-year-olds’ personal touch animates the place. On one wall, a hand-painted mural of a tree adds splashes of red and green life to the room, and scattered across the shelves are photos and mementos from their travels abroad. Spices from India. Sketches of Spain. But travel is still a rare luxury. Like many of Romania’s middle class, the couple worries about the mortgage they’ve taken out on their home. They dream of making it big someday, perhaps by starting a business of their own in tourism. But for the time being, they’re skating by. Family is important. The couple visits their nearby parents regularly, and talk about beginning a family of their own one day. On weekends, they can be found working in their garden, or in the city center bar-hopping with friends. They are — by all means — kind, articulate, and well-educated individuals.
They’re also deathly afraid of Gypsies.
Our hosts for three nights in the Romanian Capital, Mihai and Andreea (whose real names have been changed upon their request) echoed many of the opinions about gypsies that I have heard in casual conversations with other white, ethnic Romanians. “For us, this isn’t even an issue” Andreea explained to me. “You’re reporting on a lost cause. [The gypsies] simply don’t want to integrate.”
Early on in our conversations, the couple made a point of telling me their views about Roma people weren’t governed by stereotypes or media portrayals; everything, they explained, is based on what their parents taught them, and what they had experienced on their own. Indeed, having grown up in Bucharest, Mihai and Andreea have had more than their fair share of experiences with gypsies. Few, they told me, have been positive.
From a young age, Mihai and Andreea were instructed by their parents not to associate with Roma children. The gypsy children were regarded as bad influences, as thieving and deftly manipulative. “Our parents would get suspicious any time we came home with things that weren’t ours – even things like extra erasers or pencils.” It was their parent’s way of dissuading theft. They wanted to instill values different from those of the gypsy children, who felt no remorse when taking things that didn’t belong to them.
Hearing the talk about values was a discussion I’d repeatedly come across while listening to ethnic Romanian’s views on gypsies. The problem with Roma people isn’t the color of their skin, or even necessarily their cultural practices. It’s their attitude.
“I think they actually like their situation – everyone going by and saying ‘oh, look at those poor gypsies,’” Andreea remarked. “They’ve realized they can profit from it.”
Gypsies’ sense of entitlement and refusal to work is also what Mihai sees as one of the main roadblocks to their integration. He told me a story of six Roma families who once lived in the old city center of Bucharest. The specific neighborhood, known as the Jewish Quarters, used to be dangerous and underdeveloped — essentially a ghetto. Then, about 10 years ago, some savvy businessmen saw the area’s potential and started opening high-end bars and restaurants. Property values shot up, and suddenly the six gypsy families found themselves owning hot commodities. Mihai believes they easily could have opened up profitable stores on the properties, or at least rented them out to wealthy tenants. But instead, five of the families immediately upped and left – selling everything they had and relocating to another slum. “Even with opportunity staring them right in the face, they refused to change their ways…just incredible,” Mihai mused.
His view is quite common. In fact, there’s actually a well-known expression in Romania that people use upon friends who are acting unusually cheap or lazy. “Don’t be such a gypsy.”