Me, My Two Grandmothers, and the Roma Bride Next Door
“Why on Earth… Has he lost his mind?”
This was whispered with raised eyebrows and followed by a somber sip of coffee by yet another neighbor visiting my grandma Mimi in the afternoon lull.
Baba Mimi and her many friends
Grandma Mimi, or Baba Mimi in my native Bulgarian, was always in the center of things. Jovial, welcoming, a great listener, always ready to laugh at jokes, always ready to help people out, she was now a retiree in a Soviet-style building full with other retirees. Her days comprised of taking care of us kids for a few hours after school, watching television, and hosting friends for coffee and gossip.
I was 11 or 12 then and had grown used to having a daily visitor in the afternoons. The steam from the coffee pot, the biscuits or pieces of cake arranged neatly on the table — it all meant I’ll be doing my homework later because far more interesting things were about to be discussed right now.
So many of my childhood afternoons were spent sitting at the table in Baba Mimi’s kitchen, munching on a biscuit, and listening to her and one of her friends doing an in-depth analysis of the human condition.
Now, something so big had happened, that for days and weeks, every single guest in our kitchen was talking about it.
Like a chorus, the elderly women would shake their heads, tremble with horror, and whisper,
“But how? Why?… Has he lost his mind?”
Our next-door neighbor had married a Roma woman.
The Roma bride entered the building
The guy in question lived in the apartment next to ours, together with his two elderly parents. His parents and my grandparents had spent many evenings-turned-into-late-nights drinking and singing, long before I was even born.
The entire building was like a village but positioned vertically instead of horizontally. Everybody had known each other and kept an eye on each other for decades.
The neighbor hadn’t grown up to be a source of pride. He had an alcohol problem, a gambling problem, and years later, was fired from his job as a policeman due to corruption.
By the standards of the Babas from the building, he was by no means a catch. And yet, they focused all their intuitive and analytical prowess on figuring out how “a Gypsy tricked him into marriage.”
“It must have happened when he was drunk,” was one theory.
“She got pregnant on purpose and blackmailed him,” was another.
The theory they all settled on came from the groom’s mother herself.
“She must have cast a spell on him.”
In my mind’s eye, I can still see her face when she said these words to my grandmother over a half-empty cup of coffee, holding up a cigarette. There was such sorrow in her eyes.
I don’t remember when I first met the Roma woman. I don’t remember when she moved in with her new family. I actually don’t remember much about the short time that I knew her — was it months or weeks?
I do remember she was stunningly beautiful. She was 20 years old, with short hair, and visibly pregnant. And we became friends.
She came over almost every day in the late afternoons. My grandmother, ever the hostess, never turned away a guest — but I don’t remember a single interaction between the two of them. My memories are only of me and my new friend, sitting in the two armchairs in the living room, watching television, and talking about life.
She was happy, sweet, full of joy. She talked about how excited she is to have the baby. How all she wants is to take care of her child and have a simple life.
One time, she said that she would love to take me out — we’d go for a short walk in the nearby park, she’d buy me a juice. But our friendship never grew outside of Baba Mimi’s living room walls.
Baba Valya brings a conclusion
My grandmother Valya hails from Siberia. Her thing is not warmth, jokes, or gossip. When she has you over for coffee, you sit back and nod along to her long stories about the harsh nature of life.
She came to visit us from out of town. It was at another kitchen table — the one in my home, my mother cooking dinner at the stove and Baba Valya smoking a cigarette — that I excitedly told her all about Baba Mimi’s new neighbor.
The meltdown that followed is the last thing I remember clearly from this story.
Baba Valya went pale, started sweating, said she might have a heart attack. Then she explained how a wave of intuition had washed over her, warning her of grave danger.
“She’s grooming you,” she said. “Are you this stupid? Why else would a 20-year-old hang out with you? She’ll call her handler, take you out for a juice, “Let’s go over there,” she’ll say, “just around the corner,” she’ll say, her gang will be waiting there to shove you in a car, and off you go for a life of prostitution in Germany. This is how these women operate. It’s a whole network. Why else would she marry a policeman? It’s for cover!”
By that point, my mother had long abandoned the pan on the stove. She was sitting right alongside us, horror-struck. “I had no idea this was going on,” she said half-pleadingly, half-accusatory.
“All contact with her must stop!” Baba Valya demanded. “This is serious. Oh, my heart. Look, my hands are shaking. You idiot. They’ll take you! They’ll take you, and we’ll never see you again!”
What happened was, my Roma friend was the one we never saw again.
Everything that followed is a blur in my mind. I have a vague memory of my mother calling Baba Mimi, telling her to stop inviting the Roma woman over. I don’t remember seeing her ever again. At one point, she must have moved out. I have some flashes of memory about elderly women sipping coffee in Baba Mimi’s kitchen and talking about how the policeman divorced. I don’t remember seeing a baby.
I don’t know where she went.
I don’t even remember her name.
When I think about her, her name barely touches my consciousness. I can feel it at the tip of my tongue. But it refuses to surface.
Twenty years ago, when all this went down, I was scared out of my mind. Human trafficking was an ever-present danger when I was growing up. This was not the last time Baba Valya used it to scare me into doing what she said. “These women,” as she put it, meaning Roma women, were associated with human trafficking and prostitution because they were victims. They were, and still are, the most marginalized people in our society. Prime targets for traffickers. Prime target for prejudices and scapegoating.
For years, I thought I had barely escaped human trafficking.
When I thought about my nameless friend, it was with Baba Valya’s script, “How could I be so naive? How could I be so easily fooled?”
Today, I still ask myself this question — when I think about all the Babas who I listened to with wide-open eyes and heart.
This council of old women, in their infinite wisdom, never thought that the 20-year-old Roma woman might have liked to spend her time with me because I liked spending time with her. Because I didn’t see her as a witch, or a thief, and didn’t give her pointed looks or whisper behind her back.
She was excited for me to meet her baby. I loved hearing about her day and she loved hearing about mine. I thought she was beautiful, warm, sweet.
Until I didn’t.
And now I’m trying to remember her name but it refuses to come back.