The Washington Post
Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of Franceby Fernanda Eberstadt
In 1998, Fernanda Eberstadt, her husband, and their two small children moved from New York to an area outside Perpignan, France — a city with one of the largest Gypsy populations in Western Europe. Here she found a jealously guarded culture, a society made, in part, of lawlessness and defiance of non-Gypsy norms; and she met MoÏse Espinas, the lead singer of the Gypsy band, Tekameli.
As her relationship with the Espinas family developed over the years, progressing from mutual bafflement to a deep-rooted friendship, Eberstadt found herself a part of the captivating Gypsy life–a life rich with tradition and culture, but slowly being consumed by the modern world.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Washington Post
—The Seattle Times
“In Eberstadt’s talented hands the sojourn becomes an intriguing look at the mores of a mysterious and maligned subset of Europe’s underclass, a fascinating freeze-frame of a fading culture.”
“[Eberstadt] has made her way into Gypsy life far enough to bring back telling, often touching stories.”
—The Boston Globe
“A passionate personalized portrait of a people whose soulfulness surges through the raw wails of their flamencos, rumbas, and fandangos.”
Read an Excerpt
Diane isn’t much of a cook. She lives off Marlboros, reheated black coffee, and morphine, and I have never in all these years seen Diane offer food to her husband or children. Every time I visit, she greets me with the ritual inducements to eat, drink (that is, have a cigarette, a glass of Coke, some Cheez Doodles). But only once have I eaten a meal at Diane’s house.
Diane, I think, was feeling a little guilty about the Yuri Buenaventura concert. Yuri Buenaventura is a Latin American salsa star who has a passionate following in southern France, where we live. This spring, his European tour included a gig at Perpignan’s Mediator. “I’m gonna die if I don’t hear Yuri live,” Diane had been saying for months.
If you spend much time with Diane, it’s hard to resist wanting to be her fairy godmother. Six weeks in advance, I bought four tickets to Yuri Buenaventura’s concert, thinking, Alastair and I, Diane and her husband, Moïse, could all go. “Moïse” is pronounced “Mo-EEZ.” But Diane and Moïse are Gypsies, and married couples’ double-dating is not Gypsies’ idea of fun.
Diane asks Moïse if he’d like to come along to the concert.
Moïse, at twenty-eight, is one of the greatest Gypsy singers in France. But Moïse has a complicated attitude toward music, as if his own gift lies in a state of untaught purity that might be defiled either by too much use or by exposure to other people’s music. Moïse scowls. “No way, woman. It’ll be full of Gypsies.”
“No, it won’t.”
“Sure it will: Gypsies love salsa. Every lousy little Gypsy in Perpignan will be stuffed tight in that place, you know it.”
If Moïse doesn’t want to go hear Yuri, does that mean he’ll stay home with the children?
This is when a familiar game begins, the funny-sad cat-and-mouse routine of a couple who have been married since they were seventeen, and know in their sleep how to drive each other mad.
“When’s the concert?” Moïse asks.
“Thursday, Thursday, Thursday.” Moïse furrows his brow, as if “Thursday” were a friend of Diane’s whose face he can’t quite place. Finally, he relents. “Fine—I’ll stay home, rent a video for the kids.”
At the good news, Diane explodes into a shimmering volcano of joy. She jumps to her feet, shoves her favorite Yuri tape into the player and rolls the volume to the max, grabs me by the hands, and salsas around the apartment, a gap-toothed grin on her face. She picks up her cell phone, presses autodial to call her sister, her nieces, and her cousins to gloat, for the Yuri concert is famously sold out. “Christine? You’ll never guess where me and Fernande are going Thursday night. . . .”
A dozen times already I’ve made such plans with Diane, who is permanently crazy-itching-mad to burst out of the house, to flee the confines of being a stay-at-home mother in a culture that places pathological restrictions on women. Diane’s ambitions are not really so extreme. She wants to go for a drink at Boca Boca, a chic Cuban-style bar with me and two “French” (i.e., non-Gypsy) friends. Diane needs this phalanx of palefaces: when she tries going to Boca Boca with her niece Tanya and an Arab schoolfriend of Tanya’s, they are turned away at the door. She wants to go out for her birthday to a seaside disco with me and a bunch of girlfriends. Not so much to ask. Just a girls’ night out, no men, because it is only with other women that you can relax and enjoy yourself. My working-class “French” friends make the same assumption: if you want a good time, it’s girls with the girls and boys with the boys.
Moïse will stay home with the kids, because Moïse is open-minded; he allows his wife to go out, as long as she is properly chaperoned and goes to a place where she won’t be spotted by other Gypsies. We are going to lie to Moïse—we are going to tell him we are going to a concert at the Mediator, when in fact we are going to a disco at Canet Plage. (The difference to me appears negligible, but subterfuge is an essential element to the bust-out: if you didn’t have to lie to your spouse about what you’d done, it couldn’t have been any fun.)
Every couple of months, Diane and I concoct such Nights to Howl. But something always gets in the way, usually at about eight o’clock on the destined evening. An obstacle, which to me seems insignificant, after a brief acquaintance with Diane comes to be painfully predictable. Diane’s “fate”—the ill-health and fatigue that are the bodily expressions of her unhappiness—intervenes.
Yuri Buenaventura Night, when I ring Diane’s buzzer, the shutters are barred and the lights are out. Her sister Linda, who lives in the apartment upstairs, explains over the intercom that Diane and Moïse have taken the baby to the doctor. Even though Baby Marlon’s had a cold all week, it’s only just at eight that evening that they’ve decided to get the doctor to check him out.
When I next hear from Diane, she asks me if I videotaped the concert for her, and when I say no, she invites me to Sunday lunch. 2
Moïse and Diane live in a bright, whitewashed modern apartment building on the Boulevard Aristide Briand, one stretch of the pentangular road that engirdles the medieval city center of Perpignan. Across the street from Moïse and Diane’s building begins St. Jacques, the prime Gypsy neighborhood of the city.
St. Jacques, a ramshackle slum, is five hundred yards from Moïse and Diane’s door. Their window overlooks the street on which all of Diane’s and most of Moïse’s relatives live, but to Moïse and Diane’s minds, they have left St. Jacques far behind.
Boulevard Aristide Briand is a dusty commercial thoroughfare, but its stores—a motorcycle showroom, a string of real estate agents, doctors’ offices—suggest a population whose purchasing power is royal compared to the squalid penury of St. Jacques. In Moïse and Diane’s immaculate apartment, the furniture is showroom-new. Today, on this particular Sunday noon, it’s filled with Moïse, Diane, their sons Kevin and Marlon, Diane’s sister Linda and her two children, me, and two other non-Gypsy friends of Diane’s—Marie, a grandmotherly woman who is a human rights activist, and Marie’s friend Nicole, a surgeon’s widow.
Diane and Linda squabble over what to serve their guests before lunch: Diane offers us a digestif; “Idiot,” says Linda, “that’s for after the meal.” Diane instead serves us Malibu, a coconut liqueur, and whiskey. Moïse obligingly puts out a plate of cookies; “Idiot,” says Diane, “that’s for dessert, you need to give them salted peanuts.”
For lunch, Diane orders take-out pizza. The thing I remember chiefly from Diane’s lunch party is the expression on the pizza deliveryman’s face.
I know the man already: he runs the pizzeria across the street from Diane’s. When I take my children there, he spoils and praises them: Americans in this area are a high-prestige rarity.
Today I see another face. The pizzaman has obviously come to the apartment not realizing that Gypsies live here (Diane’s surname is North African, the neighbors are all “French”), and once the door has been locked and double-bolted behind him, he looks as if he’s been lured into Fort Apache, the Bronx.
Straightaway there is the question in the air of are-we-going-to-pay, and what’s he going to do about it if we don’t. The bill is only about twelve dollars, as Diane—no eater herself—has ordered two small pizzas for ten people, but neither she nor Moïse seem able to cover it, nor will they hear of their guests’ chipping in.
The pizzaman surveys us, one by one, with a contemptuous smirk, fear disguised as a sneer. It’s a look I see again and again when I am with Gypsies, a look that gives me the sense of being on the other side of the looking glass, of what it might be like to be an Undesirable in the developed Western world—the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong income bracket. When the pizzaman’s gaze comes to me, he does an involuntary double take, as if he’d spotted a supposedly respectable neighbor soliciting in the red-light zone, before his expression once again hardens.
The showdown ends in a fumble of embarrassment. Diane produces a checkbook, but can’t figure out how to fill out the check. “Give it to Marie,” suggests Moïse, in a rare gesture of husbandly protectiveness.
Diane’s friend Marie makes out the check, and the pizzaman escapes alive. 3
Diane and Moïse are both exhausted. Fatigués, fatigués, Diane complains.
Gypsies are night owls—even the women, who stay at home, watch television all night, and sleep as much of the day as they can.
Moïse, as usual, got home at five o’clock this morning. Moïse’s band, Tekameli, was giving a concert outside Toulouse. Diane stayed up to let him in, and then got up two hours later when the baby awoke. But whereas Diane is stressed to black hysteria, Moïse is a calm sort of grouchy, like a bear awakening from the winter.
“Aren’t you going to eat, Moïse?”
Moïse isn’t going to eat; Moïse has only just crawled out of bed. In a couple of hours he’ll get hungry, and then he’ll grab something: his eating hours are permanently jet-lagged, he explains, apologetically.
Diane now raises the pizza knife, and thrusts it toward her husband’s heart. “I haven’t yet settled accounts with you, Mr. Espinas. I gave you a break because of Toulouse.”
Two nights before—the night when she was supposed to go to Yuri Buenaventura but couldn’t, because they had to take the baby to the doctor—Moïse had gone out afterward, and not come home until eight the following morning.
“He says he was at the movies,” she explains, sardonically.
“It’s true: I went to the cineplex at Rivesaltes,” he insists. “Look, I’ve even got the ticket stub.”
She examines it. “So what’s that prove? You went to the nine p.m. show. Then what did you do till eight the next morning?”
He stands there, sleepy, but not a bit abashed.
She turns to her women friends. “You know what he tells me? He tells me, I was enjoying nature.”
The Rivesaltes cineplex is in a supermall right off the superhighway to Spain. There’s a supersupermarket, a mega bowling alley, a McDonald’s with an indoor playground the size of a college gym, the French equivalent of Home Depot, but not much in the way of nature, unless you count the Super-Mega-Hyper Pet Supply Shop. There is a perverse beauty to the idea of Moïse, an overgrown slum kid, enjoying nature in the flatlands mallscape in the middle of the night.
And Moïse, at this moment, is also enjoying the idea. He stoops to pick a slice of cold pizza from the box, but Diane stops him. “Look what a slob you’re becoming. Didn’t the doctor say you have to lose weight?”
Moïse is a handsome man who radiates a quiet comfortable sense of his own attractiveness, but he is indeed getting pudgy.
The women discuss Moïse’s weight, and what is strange about the conversation is its air of irreversible doom. Everyone agrees that Moïse should take off twenty pounds, and yet it seems equally evident to them that he will instead continue to balloon.
Moïse stands above us, in a clinging black rayon T-shirt bedecked with a big gold crucifix, and a pair of black polyester stretch pants with a built-in buckle like an airplane seat belt, and he smiles a winning, baby-toothed smile.
No, no, he informs us happily, he has it all figured out: he is going to go to a health club where they give you massages! Now the gestures unroll, the salesman making his pitch, Moïse basking like a seal, luxuriating in his imagined weight-loss regime: he’ll even swim a little in the health club swimming pool, just to get himself really relaxed for the massages! Moïse, in fact, can’t swim, although he lives by the sea.
“He’ll never do it,” says Diane, darkly. “He’ll go once, maybe, but never again.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Fernanda Eberstadt is the author of four novels: The Furies, When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth, Low Tide, and Isaac and
His Devils. She graduated from Brearley in New York City and from Magdalen College, Oxford. She lives in France with her husband and two children.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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