Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Candle is All Flame

One late spring day around 1934 Jan Yoors, a Belgian boy of twelve, overcome with curiosity from his father's stories, wandered up to the grassy periphery of a gypsy camp on the edge of town. Boys from the kumpania approached him, and engaged him in conversation, showing him their horses. Though they barely could understand a word between them, a natural ease set in - they were at an age when such things were possible. Jan would gradually realize that he had freely slipped through a door between cultures rarely traversed and if he had been older or much younger, there wouldn't have been the ghost of a chance.

The pull was so strong that Jan seemingly forgot that he had a warm,well-furnished home and two loving parents to return to - one night with the gypsy kids out under the stars led to another and soon he was accepted by the elders and traveled freely with the caravan. It took a great deal of time for Jan to shed the veneer of "civilization", and adjust to the constancy of travel:

"On a few occasions I was distressed when we left a particularly pleasant or convenient camping spot...Rupa chided me for this, in her gruff way; she said I would, by losing it, cherish the memory of this place even more, with the tenderness reserved for incompletely satisfied longings. She said in time I too would learn to possess the single passing moment more passionately, more fully, without regrets. She tried to tell me that the Rom lived in a perpetual present: memories, dreams, desires, hungers, the urge toward a tomorrow, all were rooted in the present. Without now there was no before, just as there would be no after.
She said that 'to the Lowara (their Gypsy branch) a candle is not made of wax, but is all flame'. In the stories they told, the Rom praised extravagant lavishness and most of them practiced this all consuming generosity, at times to the extreme of outright squandering. In their language thriftiness, or any other word denoting carefulness, was translated as stinginess. They strongly disapproved of saving, with the result that between red-letter days, worthy of legend, there were hollow ones, more frequent than bargained for."

Fortunately, his parents were a liberal-minded pair; his mother Magda, a human rights activist and his father Eugene, a renowned stained glass artist. When Jan finally returned home they reached an agreement that he could live with the Rom half the year and live at home, attending to his studies.

Yoors wrote "The Gypsies", describing his life with the Gypsies and also a connected book "The Crossing" which deals with his work - in tandem with the Gypsies - as a resistance fighter in World War II. He was arrested twice and narrowly escaped execution by some paperwork foul-up by the Nazis. A majority of his dear traveling companions were less fortunate, and perished in the death camps.

Amongst the companions lost to him was his Gypsy "father" Pulika.
This from Jan's son Kore's reminiscences of his father's stories in the introduction to "The Heroic Present: Life Among the Gypsies" a compilation of Yoors photos and writings:

"One day in the 1930's, as winter approached and Jan was preparing to return to his parent's home, he asked Pulika to pose for a photo. Pulika asked, "Why do you need a photo of me? Are you going to betray me to the police?" Jan replied that he wanted the photo to remember him by.
Pulika responded, "If you need a piece of paper to remember me by, forget me!"

Jan Yoors is the tall, very white, teenager second from left in the top photo.


Trombonology said...

Such a story! There are, always and yet surprisingly, those to whom that which is foreign – and yet familiar – calls. There is something to learn from these relatively few, I believe. In reading this post, I was reminded immediately of tales of Jack Teagarden's youthful sojourns into the black-dominated areas near his home in Vernon Texas, the places and people whose kindred music beckoned him.

It is rather against the way that I, for years, thought the sound way to live, but I have to appreciate the gypsies hovering in the now.

I like this line: "...she said I would, by losing it, cherish the memory of this place even more, with the tenderness reserved for incompletely satisfied longings."

Tom the Piper's Son said...

The emphasis on acceptance of impermanence put in me in mind of the Gypsy perspective on washing that may or may not be tied into their "philosophy"; this from "The Gypsies";

"Nanosh wanted to find out about some of the other strange practices of the Gaje (non-gypsies). He had heard it said that they fill large containers with boiling water in which they lay down to soak. In this 'extract' they later washed their face and hands. The Rom only used running water and certainly would never wash the lower parts of the body and the face and hands in the same stagnant, dirty water. The idea of using a handkerchief appalled them: 'Why on this sweet earth would the foolish Gaje want to preserve the dirt of the noses!' But then, as everybody knew, the Gaje were strange and totally unpredictable..."

persephone2u said...

"The gypsies are coming, the gypsies are coming!" Wonderful story. I've recently become acquainted with the music of Belgian gypsy Django Reinhardt and it's amazing stuff.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

You may well have seen the French movie(Louis Malle) called Lacombe Lucien (a familiar name, Persephone!) from 1974 that opens with Lucien, I believe, riding his bike through the countryside with Django's swinging guitar providing the musical background.

Here is one of the most fitting f depictions of the incomparable exuberance of his Django's playing.
Although the movie, set in Nazi occupied France, and fate of Lucien takes a very serious and controversial turn (Lucien becomes a collaborator when the resistance rejects him for being to young) - this scene always stays in my head for the feeling behind it.

Subsequently, directors began using his music more indiscriminately and frequently but this one will remain the touchstone.

persephone2u said...

A poster on a messageboard I frequent mentioned the movie Lacombe Lucien a couple of weeks ago, and I was ashamed that I wasn't already acquainted with it given the familiar name involved! The shame, the shame.

I've been meaning to find it on DVD to watch, and find it really interesting that opening begins with Lucien riding his bike while Django plays in the background. It sounds so fitting even without having seen the movie, and now I can see that I have some homework to do.

Anonymous said...

It all sounds so Buddhist to me.


Chandra Garsson said...

Tom, you suddenly disapeared from Facebook. are you O.K.? I can't find the email address you gave me long ago. I don't really want to put mine in your blog comments, which probably are not quite private. My email address is at my website.