Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Scholar Gypsy

Nil admirari prope res est una, Numici,
solaque quae possit facere et seruare beatum.
Horace, Epist. I, vi.

You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.
The Gershwins, “Embraceable You”

Horace’s famous advice to his friend Numicius—Nil admirare, “Be astonished at nothing”—became as sacred scripture to generations of European sophisticates. The advice was of course merely an elegant and classical version of the usually whispered injunction of embarrassed mothers to their gawking offspring: don’t stare. Horace’s phrase was the actual motto of one of the most admirable scoundrels of world literature, Byron’s Don Juan. It was the proper attitude of the ultimate sophisticate, the terminal cosmopolitan, the man who had been everywhere, done everything, seen it all. A group of my undergraduate college friends in a Romantic poetry course—none of us had been very far, done very much, or seen even life’s previews, let alone the first reel—invented an imaginary companion, Neal Admirary, who epitomized the sophistication for which we aspired. I suppose it is not surprising that hicks feel the fear of being thought a hick with a particular acuteness.

Well, half a century later, after many decades of life as a wandering scholar, I’m still at the aspirational stage; for on my second day back in Paris I found myself gawking in the street right in front of our apartment. I would have thought that simply having an apartment in Paris ought to be enough to assuage Neal’s savage breast for at least a day or two—but, no. Having an apartment in Paris is by no means a sufficient guarantor of the Nil admirari spirit.

The neighborhood of the apartment, very near the Eiffel Tower, is I suppose more like the upper West than the upper East side, but it is still plenty “fashionable”. In the short half-block to the east there are two grocery stores, one a cadet outpost of a large chain, the other the more typical and ludicrously named local “SuperMarché” presided over by north Africans. Both of them have beautiful fruit and vegetable stalls on the sidewalks in front.
a local Paris fruit-stall

There are two reasons that the fruit displays in French shops look so scrumptious. The first is that the fruit is scrumptious. Retarded French agriculture is years behind America in the race for the tasteless apple and the sawdust orange. The second is that the shopkeepers invigilate their wares ferociously, immediately discarding any plum, pear, apricot, or kumquat may that betrays the slightest blot, crease, wrinkle, or inappropriate softness. The rejects go into a kind of poubelle shopping cart, and thence into the large green and yellow garbage bins at street-side.

garbage can belonging to local Paris fruit stall

Early yesterday evening as I returned from a long day at the library, there were six gypsies, five women and a male teen, ransacking these garbage cans. All the women had the little, wheeled, grocery-carriers popular with French housewives. They had, in addition, several suitcases of various sizes. The young man had some kind of homemade pushcart. These they were cramming with discarded fruit and vegetables. Their attitude was utterly lacking in anything hurried, furtive, or embarrassed. They treated the well-dressed pedestrians on the sidewalk as minor nuinces to be tolerated in a spirt of noblesse oblige. This was not the pitiable dumpster-diving of a New York down-and-out. Though they seemed in fact to take everything, they still examined each piece with the leisurely expertise of Parisian shoppers. Neither the store clerks nor the numerous passersby took the slightest notice. Nil admirari. I was the only one gawking. Still, this was surely an “admirable” sight to come upon in a middle-class neighborhood of a European capital?

It is now politically incorrect to speak of “gypsies,” the authorized term being some form of “Roma people.” Certainly gypsies have been among the groups facing discrimination, and with Hitler attempted annihilation. But the weak foundation of political correctness is often easily undermined by having read a book or two. One of the favorites of my childhood was George Borrow’s Romany Rye, somewhat dated in style, but eternal in its interest. (A “romany rye” was a kind of fellow traveler of gypsidom, a non-gypsy who knew gypsy lingo and ways, as Borrow certainly did.)
Jan Yoors, scholar gypsy and gypsy scholar

Its modern equivalent is an extraordinary book by Jan Yoors, The Gypsies. Yoors (1922-1977) was a Flemish-American artist and photographer. As a young lad in the Low Countries, animated by a spirit of reckless adventure, he once ran off with a gypsy caravan. He soon enough returned home, and his avant-guard parents, instead of punishing him, agreed that on a regular basis he might spend a part of each year on the road with his gypsy friends. This he did throughout the decade of the 1930s. His account of his experiences is gripping. Several years ago I was lucky enough to find on Ebay a signed copy of his book, together with four or five of his own stunning, unpublished photographs. If Borrow and Jan Yoors can talk about gypsies, and they do, so can you or I.

Such anti-gypsy feeling as I have encountered in this neighborhood, and there is some, grows out of repeated episodes of annoyance experienced in the Champ de Mars. This is the pleasant and well populated rectangular park running between the Eiffel Tower and the École Militaire, a space sacred to joggers, nannies with children in strollers, pan-Mediterranean boules-players, hyper-hormonal adolescent lovers, Asian photographers of themselves with tower, African hawkers of tower gewgags, and gypsy beggars and ring-scammers. If you live around here you cross the park frequently, just in the course of your daily business. On approximately forty-three per cent of crossings you will be accosted by a gypsy ring-scammer.

In search of a useful photograph, never found, I happened upon another American who has written about the ring-scam at length; so if you want a whole bague-blague-blog, go here. Bref, the deal is this. As you are walking along you become vaguely aware of a person (usually male, but not always) walking toward you. Just as you cross, or are about to cross, this person suddenly reaches down to the ground and appears to pick up a gaudy gold ring. This is then shoved in your face. “Here’s your ring,” (s)he says, always, as in the miracle of Pentecost, in your own language. “You dropped it.” Since it is not your ring, and since you did not drop it, since it is indeed nearly impossible to imagine how one drops a ring while walking in a park, you are likely astonished by this person’s reluctance to take no for an answer. But if you are insistent enough your interlocutor will give up, transforming instantly from exotic gypsy ring-finder to common-or-garden variety gypsy beggar. Like most scams, this one depends upon the cooperation of the victim’s own dishonesty and cupidity. You are supposed to claim the “lost” ring with feigned expressions of gratitude. The “finder” will then suggest that an appropriate reward would speak even louder than your words. The ring being worth thirty-five centimes, anything above five euros will do. I have never seen this scam work, or heard of its working. It is impossible for me to believe that it has ever worked. But of course I have never heard of the “Nigerian banker” scam working either, though you know it must sometime, somewhere. People do not send out millions of emails or “find” three thousand rings a week just for their health.