While a nomadic at its origins, the Roma community is today in its majority a stable population. The prestigious and impressive houses that look like palaces, or the PVC unsanitary houses at the outskirts of numerous cities, they both represent Roma’s realities today.

 

The Roma have for centuries been a nomadic group without a stable place. Many of them had no homes and lived in tents on the edges of villages. While on the move, they rarely settled near their place of origin. They always preferred to settle where they were completely unknown.

At first, they were not interested in houses and invested in gold, but after the fall of the communist regime in Romania, the Roma minority felt the need to redefine their identity. After several centuries of slavery, they wanted to recover their lost social prestige and places like Huedin, in Cluj county, or Recaș in Timiș county, are famous for the impressive palaces, with their bright colours and dozens of turrets. On every Roma house in Huedin, the names of the owners are written in large letters, usually illuminated with multicoloured lights. They are easy to recognise due to the excess exterior decorations, statues or marble columns. Often the roofs of the villas are adorned with lions’ heads, emphasing the power and prestige of the Roma. The walls inside are decorated with the “Kidnapping from Serai” carpet. The carpet has become a symbol of kitsch, but the Roma associate it with their nomadic history.

One of the biggest villas in Huedin has a lounge on the ground floor that can accommodate about 400 people. The house is designed like a fortress and was built by the owner together with his craftsmen. When running out of ideas, they used to put on a video tape about houses in India and Japan, and then they would get back to work.

Many Roma in Huedin built these palaces in order to offer some justice to their ancestors, but also out of a need for stability. This architectural phenomenon is representative not only for Huedin, but also for Buzescu commune, in Teleorman county, Recaș in Timiș county and Strehaia, in Mehedinți.

The “Gypsy architect”, Nicolae Bușilă, has designed dozens of Gypsy palaces since 1990. The architect had many bizarre commissions, from a copy of the Capitol to the former Central University Library in Bucharest.

The architecture of these buildings is different from region to region. In the southern regions, the palaces refer to traditional Romanian houses, in Transylvania they are inspired by the architecture of Catholic churches and in Banat by neoclassical architecture.

Some palaces are built after a particular official building which had a deeply emotional impact on the owner’s life. Such is the case of a Roma man from Buzescu commune, who died in 2012, that built his house after the Caracal court-of-Law, where he was sentenced to prison.

One of the Roma leaders from Buzescu says that “the first palaces were built in the early 90s, when the Roma managed to recover some of the gold confiscated by the communists.” The gold was represented by gypsies’ chain of gold coins handed down from generation to generation. Since nomadic times, they invested all their wealth in those coins since they were easier to transport.

In obvious contrast to the extravagance of the palaces, many poor families in the commune of Cotlău, Maramureș county, seem not to have evolved much since the times of tent or cart, were they used to live. The Roma here were given a one-room house by the state, without a fence, with a plank closet and a curtain instead of a door. A few kilometres from Cotlău, in the Craica district of Baia Mare, the reality is even harsher. Around 750 families live here and their houses are made of a variety of construction materials or of cardboard, canvas, pieces of abandoned doors or bricks.

Many of them pick things from rubbish bins, sleeping in the cold during winter. When it rains, water drips through the cracks of the rooftops, so they collect it in rusty pots and use it for washing.

The vast majority of them make their daily living by searching in trash bins and the unsanitary living conditions lead to the complete marginalisation of this community by the population.

The present lives of the Roma are rooted firmly in their past and in the end, this ethnic minority, divided into two contrasting ways of living, is seen through the same discriminatory lens of a free and untainted society.

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