(Encounter with a Gypsy)
A girl’s green eyes met mine as we exchanged the standard greeting, “Merhaba”—welcome. Immediately she returned her eyes to the walking trail. The Turkish heat was setting in and my son’s nap-time was approaching. It was jarring to meet another person on the beaten dirt path behind our building as my son and I returned home to the shelter of our apartment following our morning walk. Our family lives in company housing; usually we see only workmen. Her green T-shirt was wet with perspiration. The girl’s headscarf barely covered her dark hair; its floral pattern highlighted her dark skin. The edges of her long skirt were ragged—it was most likely her only skirt, a cast-off from her too-young mother. Fuchsia sandals made of cheap plastic were the only protection her feet had from the rocks and snakes in the olive grove where she and her family were working, next to the water treatment plant.
She tried to hide the jug of water as we passed. It was close to 109 degrees out and it was not yet noon. How could I be angry that she’d sneaked over the fence for water from our tap? We live at the water treatment plant; here water is plentiful.
Her hands were battered and rough. These were the hands of a village woman who’d worked in the olive groves for years, not the hands of the adolescent she was. The girl hunched forward trying to hide her budding chest, like so many girls do. I knew the stoop; I’ve seen lots of hiding. I’ve been a middle school teacher for years, in both America and in Turkey. The girl should have been in school, in middle school. Maybe that’s why I felt like I knew her.
I should have said, “Take as much water as you’d like.” But I didn’t; I just walked on. My husband, like most Turks, despises the çingene—gypsies. He says even the children are thieves. He says you must always be wary of them, regardless of how innocent they appear. My husband, if he’d known there were çingene near, would have told me to double-lock our doors.
Thousands of çingene descend upon our seaside village in the summer months. They work in the olive groves, collect trash, and sell packets of tissues and wilted roses to guilt-ridden European tourists. They move into uncompleted houses and make homes from tarps on empty dirt lots beside million-lira homes on the shores of the Aegean. Their residencies are characterized by swarms of dirty-faced children in plastic sandals enjoying childhood, seemingly oblivious to their poverty. There seems to be more of them this year, much like there are more million-lira homes brandishing “For Sale” signs and fewer guilt-ridden tourists. Turkey’s working poor, in addition to the çingene, have been hard hit by the world’s economic problems.
Turks, like my husband, loathe the çingene because they appear unwashed and so often steal to survive. But to me, the girl in the pink plastic sandals wasn’t someone to despise. Just last year she was that dirty-faced kid kicking the flattened ball in front of her tarp home, enjoying her childhood in oblivion. But this year she is a budding woman; this year she begins her adult life, one of hard work and void of education.
I wanted to tell her about the options; I wanted to give her education like I would in my classroom. I even wanted to take her into my home and show her photos and essays and books and possibilities.
But I didn’t. I went inside and I double-locked the doors—because the çingene were near.
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