An important exhibition of photographs finished recently at the Historical Museum of Heraklion. Gypsies, or Tsiganoi, mainly women, made a photographic documentary about their lives that was revealing and touching. In January we talked about that exhibition. This time, we decided to visit their home for the last twenty years, the ‘illegal’ Gypsy camp at Nea Alikarnassos.
I have no Gypsy friends. Those Gypsies I’ve seen, in Greece and elsewhere, have been passing phantoms, the fortune telling, flower selling strangers. I used to see campfire lights in the distance as I walked home as a kid, growing up in Staffordshire, England. Years ago, during the grape-picking season in France I discussed with friends the possibility that we might follow some noise and the lights and invite ourselves to their source, another Gypsy camp, which we never did. It would have been too strange, or too daring.
Last month I mentioned in the Crete Gazette that I would visit the Gypsy (Tsiganoi) camp at Nea Alikarnassos, outside Heraklion, prompted in some ways by the recent exhibition of photographs, taken by Gypsies, mainly young women, shown at the excellent Historical Museum of Heraklion. I had little idea what or how I would write about the Tsiganoi before last month, but following a series of seminars and various films at HMH, I was sufficiently confident to produce a piece of writing. Even doing the article, I felt like I didn’t know half the story, and still I am aware that I can only interpret what I see, with a foreigner’s eyes. Despite feeling like a tourist, I had to visit the camp to meet people face to face.
Finding their ‘camp’, however, was no easy matter. My companion, a woman who has lived many years in Heraklio, was also surprised that it took us so long to locate an entrance to a site that houses approximately 600 people, a sizeable village. We eventually saw an ‘agrotiko’, a pick-up truck, that looked as if it was heading for the camp and followed it. The site lies next to Heraklion’s industrial estates, and it clings to the side of a landmark hill, atop which sits a great white sphere, the guidance system for the airport.
We walked through the area as night fell and were noticed, greeted pleasantly and directed to one of the two coffee houses. My first impression of the site was that it is full of life; homes are well lit, fairly solid and quite open, made from wood, plastic sheeting, corrugated iron and tarpaulin. This was the first evening without rain for several days and everywhere we looked, clothes were hanging out to dry. There are items of scrap, tyres, old pushchairs etc. but not many, and they sit between the paths that criss-cross the camp, serving as road or corner markers for the vehicles that drive through. There is no bad odour in the air, nor is there any sense that the people here are living in a rubbish dump.
Electricity is coming into the camp, but not from a legal source. During the month I visited, police arrived at the camp in order to allow workmen to disconnect the power supply, which had been illegally ‘tapped’, presumably from external cables. I have no opinion, one way or another about the rights and wrongs of the stealing of electricity in this case. In principal, it is wrong to steal. Also, in principal, it is wrong to cause children, who have no choice in the matter, to be cold in January when other options exist. I am sure, however, that somehow the Gypsies have found a way to ‘hotwire’ the camp once more, quite likely at some risk to those carrying out the operation.
It was warm inside the kafeneion, with so many bodies and a wood-burning ‘somba’ giving out heat. The atmosphere was lively, the card games being paid much more attention than our entrance. But still, it was obvious we were outsiders and everyone glanced up from their cards at some point. That would be the case entering any village place where strangers rarely drop in.
We found another, quieter room at the back, which doubles as a shop and bar. A strikingly beautiful young girl came to take our orders after we had found some chairs, and told us that there was no hot coffee, only frappe. Anyhow, the frappe was good, and I felt like I needed to have something in my hand. Not nervous, exactly, just wondering what our role would be; journalists or sightseers. I felt ignorant as strangers do, yes, but also quite welcome.
Children approached us first. Quite quickly their curiosity brought them to our table asking what we wanted there. Not easy to answer so direct a question, we just said we would like to meet someone about the exhibition of photographs. This led to our being introduced to Mrs. Seraphimopoulou, whose family had contributed so much to the exhibition. We spoke briefly with her, and with others, about the uncertain future of this settlement.
Our conversation touched on many issues. Life is hard and yet they, on the whole, choose to maintain the security of living together, preserving their identity as Roma. It is not simply a matter of poor living conditions, but the fact of their being so excluded from the ‘mainstream’ of society that is difficult to comprehend. The Roma are one example of a people ‘out of time’, being pressured to change and become like the rest of us, instead of being ‘helped to live humanely’ as Anna Lidaki has said in these pages. The story is still being written, but it must be a dialogue, not just the handing down of a prepared ‘script’.
I sensed a desire to speak to the outside world from people in Nea Alikarnassos, and I will visit the Gypsies again, because here is one authentic face of Greece that will stay with me for a long time.
Article by Louis Tracy