Returning from almost any journalistic raid – which is what I always feel I’m conducting when I enter the private lives of people I don’t know, bearing a microphone – it’s the unrecorded sounds and gestures that linger longest.
Rolling by train through the flat Hungarian countryside from baroque, sophisticated, once imperial, now global Budapest, I see tiny village after tiny village beside the railway stops. Small wooden, stone or stucco houses; thick, dark windows. One church steeple, invariably Catholic. An electric line, loping across immense fields, tilled by the sorts of enormous tractors you see in Kansas or Nebraska.
One day Gyula Vámosi and I drove to one of those villages a half hour outside his home city of Pecs. We were trying to find a young Roma woman who had been abandoned by her husband. The houses seemed to be in good condition. There were maybe 45 or 50. I asked Gyula what these people did. They are farmers, he answered. I told him I didn’t understand how that could be possible – there were too many houses, too many people for the number of farms. Big fields and big tractors mean only a few people are actually working the land.
It’s hard to explain, he said. Once upon a time, the farmers all lived in the village and had little plots. This was before the war, before the Soviet era. Then the farms were collectivized. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, many of the old farmers got their land back, but most didn’t really want to farm anymore. And anyway, the big tractors had already come, and you can’t go back to the old ways. So now a lot of the people in the village have a cooperative share in the farms, from which they get, say, so many bushels of wheat, so many tons of sugar beets.
And what might a household do with seven tons of wheat? Well, they don’t actually get the wheat, he said. A kind of informal barter market opens up. I’ll trade my seven tons of wheat to a bigger “farmer” who will give me a credit he has with a plumber. If I don’t need any plumbing, the plumber will trade my plumbing credit for a credit he has with a car mechanic, who can fix my car or maybe get me a used car from his brother, who sells them.
And the Roma, can they take part in all this? Gyula raised his eyebrows. No… and yes. The Roma, of course, never got to own farms, even if they lived in the villages. That’s still true, but you know how markets are. Then he returned to the theme he struck again and again during our days together. We don’t ask, we Roma, for anything special. Just to stop the discrimination so we can live like anybody else.
In the meantime many, maybe most, Romas live in a world that’s betwixt and between. Not fully Hungarian, not fully traditional. Not always official, not always underground. Often they make money doing what others would prefer not to do. Gyula’s father-in-law became a successful dealer in junk and scrap metal, a respectable business. But other junk metal dealers find it easier to work the chopped-up car parts game in certain large American cities.
Talking to Gyula about all this brought me back to something Marika, his wife, had told me about child marriage. By the time the boys are 17 or 18, and working two jobs, with their wives at home feeding three babies, they simply give up. They drink. They go away. They find some kind of “easy work” – buying and selling whatever it is that wealthier Hungarians would like to have, leaving teenage mothers in little places that look like farm towns but have no farmers.
– Frank Browning