Yesterday we were treated to two food events, Serbian chocolate in our language class, and Hungarian lecsó, a paprika and tomato stew, and beef stew for dinner!
This hearty feast set us up for a lecture by Michael Stewart (UCL Anthropology) who told us about Gypsies, or Roma as they are otherwise known, and their culture in the Danube region. We learned that many people try to define different peoples, including the Roma, in terms of their supposed “origins”. People often ask “where do the Roma come from?” But perhaps this is the wrong question. It suggests that they have a fixed ethnic, or even genetic identity that has survived over the centuries to the present day. We also learned that the Roma form a nation, but not in the modern sense of the world. They are not from a nation state, and they don’t have a state of their own. It was fascinating to hear about some of the “ecological niches” that the Roma “filled” in the past, performing jobs that other people perhaps didn’t want to do, but often also finding themselves squeezed out onto the peripheries of other communities and settlements. The way in which communism also affected the lives of the Roma was an eye-opener, with the regime at once aiming for equality by providing mandatory employment, but also ignoring other Roma communities living in mud huts in areas with little industrial development. After some of us spent time at a club last night, it was great to see videos of Roma communities enjoying themselves and performing traditional dances that are very unlike the ones we do on our nights out!
In our tutorial sessions we expanded on the topics given in the lecture, and learned more about Gypsy dances and music, and the ways in which one of the dances we were shown, the verbunkos, was originally a “recruitment dance” from earlier times, when people literally made a song and dance to get young men to join the army! We also heard a lot about modern-day discrimination against the Roma, and how many of them still lack opportunities for fuller economic and social integration. It was funny to hear that our course navigator did business with a Roma family where he lived, giving them scrap metal to sell in exchange for wood, so he could build some bookshelves!
After lunch we heard a sociolinguistic account of the language practices of Roma in Kosovo, many of whom speak four languages: Albanian, Turkish, Romany and Serbo-Croat. It made us think about the different contexts in which the Roma use different languages (for example, when at home or when dealing with bureaucracy), and also made us think about what attitudes people have to particular languages. In our language class we learned about the locative case, and also how to say some basic phrases to describe where we are from and what languages we speak.