Little Money Street
Gypsy life has long held a unique fascination for many who live by the demands of conventional Western society. A life on the beckoning open road, plaintive music that speaks of pain and passion, fortune-telling, and horse tradingall offering a wonderful escape from the sameness of suburbia and cubicle offices. Gypsy culture has functioned as a sort of fun house mirror to “respectable” society for centuries, evoking fantasies of feckless freedom along with the darker ones of stolen children and evil rituals. The truth about Gypsies, at least in a globalizing world, is somewhat different from this mirror imageand more depressing, as the author of Little Money Street ultimately discovered.
Fernanda Eberstadt, an American journalist and author of several acclaimed novels, is a longtime admirer of Gypsy music. When she and her British husband moved to the border region of southern France, she hoped to hear Gypsy music up close and perhaps to learn her way around the still-alien culture that produces it. Perpignan, a polyglot city that dates back to medieval times, is the last stop in France on the Mediterranean coast. Along with strong Spanish and North African émigré communities, the city has the largest number of Gypsy inhabitants of any place in Western Europe. Despite its historical sites and a modest tourist presence, the city Eberstadt describes is gritty and economically depressed and definitely unglamorous. It is built on a collection of hills that roll into the Pyrenees, and its twisty streets have names reflective of eventful personal histories: Street of False Witnesses, Iron Hand Street, and the sadly descriptive Little Money Street, where many of the book’s events take place. Perpignan housing follows the Mediterranean pattern of harsh, forbidding facades with their treasures hidden behind closed doors.
Among Perpignan’s residents, the most hidden and reclusive are the Gypsies. Eberstadt lived in the region for eighteen months before she managed to meet her first Gypsy inhabitant. She surprised the more respectable people she met by her quest. Why on earth, they wondered, did this American woman want to meet Gypsies? Most everyone else went out of their way not to meet them. She persisted, however, along the way hearing many urban myths that shed light on the distance between Gypsies and the rest of the community.
Her first actual contact came at the concert of a Columbian swing band. The opening act was a group of six young teenagers, basically slum street kids, who called themselves Rumba Mayor. The Gypsy rumba they playedwith only rudimentary instrumentsthrilled Eberstadt with its wild energy and incredible range of musical effects. If she had not been hooked before, then she was after hearing them.
At that time, a Gypsy group called Tekameli that originated in Perpignan was setting sales records across Europe with its “world music” compact disk. Eberstadt particularly wanted to hear Tekameli in its city of origin. The group’s mix of flamenco, a cappella voices, polyphony, Eastern, Arabic, and Pentecostal elements was unique to this region where cultures had mixed for centuries. At first it appeared that the group had dissolved. She could find no trace of Tekameli in their home city, until one evening she asked a musician at a trendy restaurant about them. “I started them,” he said matter-of-factly. This was a good lead, but her real entrée to Tekameli and Gypsy life came through a cable television salesman whom she knew. The account of how his Gypsy customers manage to get cable service is hilarious. Each Gypsy woman has at least three legitimate names, which they use to repeatedly subscribe. With free trial periods and warning notices, usually they can keep cable for the better part of a year without paying. Then, when the bill collector comes, he finds himself surrounded by a phalanx of Gypsy men, flashing knives and challenges.
Eberstadt’s friend, however, had less dangerous business in St. Jacques, the Gypsy quarter, at this time. He offered to take her along in the hope that she would meet members of this famous group. As it turned out, the home they visited was that of Moise, Tekameli’s lead singer. A handsome man, Moise usually projects an air of vague menace, but on...
(The entire section is 1748 words.)