Gypsy Grillparty

The first of May is the start of the grilling season in Berlin. The parks become dotted with groups on weekends, usually consisting of large families, setting up grills in their outdoor living rooms in parks all over town. I had observed this many times, and sometimes been bothered by the smoke and the garbage. We had had some picnics with friends, but never on this scale.

Now we were invited as guests of a gypsy family from Bosnia to attend the May 1st party. The two young men of the family were out early with a borrowed car and drove the living room table and an enormous amout of food, drink and charcol to the spot where the family always celebrates, a good ways into the Görlitzer Park. There was a parade of finely dressed women, children, baby carriages, and the grandfather on crutchwheels heading out, but Grandpa gave up soon and decided to go back.

The rest slowly made their way to the chosen spot. Blankets were opened up, cushions spread out, and the grill fired up. A horde of children "helped", throwing paper into the fire to get it to start. Soon meat was cooking away. The neighbors had an entire lamb on a spit, turning on Y-supports driven into the ground. There was a bit of sauerkraut salad and some roast peppers, other than that, this was meat-and-white-bread-with-cola only. And onions. My husband made some garlic bread, everyone was amazed that a) it tasted so good, b) was easy to make and c) was made by a man. The gender roles are quite traditional in this society.

As honored guests we had the first meat off the grill. Eco-consious folk that we are, we always grill on aluminum foil, use only top-grade meat and marinate well before grillin. But in this case I tried to make an exception, trying hard to block out the images from all those documentaries about how the cheap chain stores obtain their meat. At least they had lamb and chicken and fish.

The kids played soccer, came up for food, ran through the bushes (which were also used as toilets, as there were no facilities around - I just praised my American iron kidneys and tried not to drink too much liquid), screamed, smoked (I pulled a cigarette from a 6-year-old, his 12-year-old brother was too strong for me, though), talked, teased, kissed, and just generally had themselves a wonderful time.

The matriarch took me on a walk and explained that she knew all these families - they had grown up together in a part of Bosnia and now partied here together. Many were somehow related to her. Her daughter remarked that she did not know half of the people, and had once gone out with a guy only to discover that they were cousins. Germany's problem with too few children could easily be fixed by giving the gypsies all German citizenship and schooling the lot. Seems every woman has 6-8 kids.

One of the daughters-in-law (you marry by Gypsy custom by having a kid together) is a mother of a 1-year-old son at 17. She confided in me that she is bored to tears. She cleans constantly to have something to do. She dreams of finishing school and learning to be a nurse or a hairdresser. But her husband is jealous of her and keeps her home. Veil or no veil, the pressure on the women is intense.

The step-daughter of a cousin is pregnant at 17 - with no husband to present. She sat sullenly during the entire party, speaking with no one. I've met the girl many times before. Her goal was to get married and out of the family. She quit school, has no desire to learn a trade, her only interests being television and the disco. The plan backfired, and now she is facing being a mother and putting up with the scorn of the family.

Another daughter is pregnant with her 7th or 8th child, they have lost count. Two of her children are growing up with her mother, she shows no motherly feelings towards them. One child died when it fell out of the window, playing in the apartment. At least one more is in a foster home. Two children are at home, a very bright young boy who asks lots of questions and is an insufferable pascha, dropping paper on the ground expecting the girls to run and pick it up for him - and they do, without a word. The other, a girl, only has black stumps for teeth. She likes sweets, but appears never to have seen a dentist or a kindergarten. Next year she will start school. Her German could use a little polishing. The father of the baby is a German - so this is the ticket to a German "green card", growing in her stomach, as the baby will have German citizenship. His dog, as can plainly be seen, is a real German dog, all ready for the World Cup in soccer this summer.

The son of the matriarch had just gotten out of prison - according to his story, which had a lot of details that did not quite fit. He lectured the young boys to straighten up, not do anything stupid, and avoid prison. Good advice, at least. He is 24 and has 4 kids with 2 wives, but does not live with either family. He quit school and does "jobs" for friends.

There are so many sad and troubled stories - lost homelands, dead relatives, husbands gone, children dead or in prison. Yet when I reviewed the pictures I took during the day, everyone is happy! They smiled, laughed, told stories, sang, danced - life was wonderful, the sun was out, it was not raining like last year. Being a gypsy seems to mean learning to cope with life's problems and not losing your humor.

I wish I could somehow capture some of that joy and bottle it up for myself.

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