Marianne, photo by Susannah Conway.
Hello gypsy friends ~
I’m traveling through the South at the moment, so I thought this might be the perfect occasion to introduce a special gypsy guest, my dear friend Marianne Elliot, author of “Zen and the Art of Peacekeeping.”
Marianne leads an incredible gypsy life and I am so excited to announce that she will be a regular contributor to this column, sharing some of her stories and insights by my side.
Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy every single word. You’ll sure be inspired by everything and anything she has to say…
“When I was 13 years old our English teacher gave my class and assignment to write a diary for a week in the character of someone other than ourselves. She told us we could choose any type of person, from any part of the world at any time in history. I chose to write my diary as a gypsy girl. At the time I didn’t know much about the reality of life in twentieth century Europe for the Roma people. What I knew was that gypsy families traveled by caravan from one town to the next and that they were often mistrusted and ostracized by the ‘town-dwellers’.
My gypsy character was a 13-year-old girl who was traveling as part of a gypsy caravan through Spain. Wherever they stopped she found that the town people watched her suspiciously if she entered their shops. The young girls of each village looked away if she tried to approach them and ignored her efforts to join them watching the local football team play at the park. Although she was hurt by these snubs, she was also proud of her family and their life. She wrote in her diary every night before she went to sleep and every night she finished with the same prayer, that when she woke up the next morning it would be time for the caravans to move on.
A quarter of a century later (eek!) I’m still learning that the gypsy life can be mysterious and suspicious to many people and I still often go to bed at night hoping that I will wake up to a new journey. But I’m learning that there are ways to share your love of the gypsy life with others in a way that they can understand, and that there are many different kinds of journeys to embark on in this life and that not all of them involve travelling to far of places. Some of them can take place here at my kitchen table.
My first journeys were with my family. When I was a pre-schooler my parents and my older sister and I moved from New Zealand to Papua New Guinea where we lived for a little over a year. The shift from a dairy farm in New Zealand to the jungles of Papua New Guinea was relatively easy for me despite changes in climate, language, culture and food. I think that when we are very young we have a strong grasp on what is absolutely essential to our sense of stability, usually our family, and we instinctively understand that everything else can and will change. At the age of four I think I could have moved anywhere in the world without too much bother as long as I was with my parents and sister.
Later, when my sister and I were in our early teens and our youngest sister had joined our merry band of travellers, our parents took us abroad again. This time we visited our aunt, uncle and cousins in Guatemala. We stayed with them for a month, and the spent another month travelling back through Mexico and around North America. This time the cultural changes were more of a challenge. I was frustrated that I couldn’t communicate clearly with my new Guatemalan friends and saddened by the poverty and suffering we encountered in the city and in the many villages we visited.
In one village where we stayed with a local family who were friends of my uncle, I enjoyed watching the mother of the household make tortillas and tamales over an open fire in her simple kitchen. In the middle of the night, however, I almost wet my bed because I was too scared of poisonous scorpions and stray dogs to climb off the sleeping mat and walk outside to the drop-toilet.
By the time I finished high school I was ready to see more of the world. Throughout high school I had been learning to speak French so that I could travel there as soon as I had saved enough money for the ticket. On the first flight available after my final school exam, at the age of seventeen, I flew solo to London. I landed at Heathrow airport with detailed instructions for how to get the train into the city and then another train to the neighbourhood where I was going to stay with a friend of my aunt.
As I stepped off the plane I was hit with the exciting realization that I was completely anonymous in this city. Somewhere out there was a woman who I had never met who was expecting me to turn up at her house some time that evening. But apart from that I was entirely on my own. It was exhilarating and ever since that day I have always looked forward to those first moments in a new city or country. The mysterious potential of an unexplored place never fails to excite me.
By the time I returned to New Zealand three months later I had made Tunisian, Turkish, Moroccan and Algerian friends in Marseille and had been on a date with an American sailor whose ship was in dock in France. It was a heady time for a farm girl and I was learning that the life I had led in New Zealand was unlike that of most people around the world. I was increasingly aware of how privileged my life had been and by the time I got home I knew that I was going to find a way to use my life, and my privilege, to try to bring a little bit more balance and justice into the world.
Those early journeys played a big part in planting the seeds that later grew into my life’s work in human rights, development and humanitarian assistance. But they also feed my appetite for experiencing different ways of life, different food and music, learning different languages and dances, meeting different people and learning a little of what matters most to them. They were the beginnings of a gypsy life that eventually lead me to meet Alex and to find in her a kindred spirit, another Gypsy Girl. I’m excited about writing about my experiences here at Gypsy Girl’s Guide and look forward to reading more about Alex’s adventures and reflections on the gypsy life too!”
Bio: After a decade working as a human rights advocate in New Zealand, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and Timor-Leste, Marianne returned to New Zealand in 2008 to write down some of the extraordinary stories she had gathered along the way. Today she divides her time between writing, working as a policy advisor and advocate for Oxfam (a not-for-profit international development agency dedicated to finding lasting solutions to poverty and injustice) meditating and teaching yoga. Her current writing project is a memoir about her life and work in Afghanistan, and you can read more about her experiences at “Zen and the Art of Peacekeeping.”
May 23, 2009