Waiting and Wondering

There is a little hole-in-the-wall grocery shop down on the main road through town, just at the crosswalk to the primary school. Everyone always called it “the evening store” because it was open until 6:00, while all other stores are open only until 5:00. I am always confused about how people who work a regular job are supposed to shop for anything in this country. I’m told it is because bureaucrats usually work even fewer hours and can take long lunch breaks whenever they want to.

In any event, the people who used to own the evening store sold it and now there is a large Vietnamese family running the place. There were always a few Vietnamese people in town, sometimes with booths on the square, and some had a small electronics and cheap clothing store in the local mini-shopping center. But this appears to be a new family.

Dusan and I were delighted because the Vietnamese ownership means that, all of the sudden, the store is open until 9:00 at night, which is definitely handy. It is also open all of Saturday and may eventually be open on Sundays as well. The Vietnamese simply work it out by having various members of the family work different shifts. When I go in to the store in the mornings, there is a somewhat pale young woman at the cash register, who seems shy even for a Vietnamese girl, though I don’t blame her much in this small town.

Recently, at one of the evening meetings of the local herbalists club, which I organize down at the “family club” near the square, we ran out of vodka for a tincture we were making. I remarked happily that this was now no problem, because someone could simply skip out and go to the evening store, now that it is open until 9:00. I was troubled, although by now not entirely shocked, when my companions said they would rather keep the tincture imperfectly in the refrigerator until morning. The quite blonde, Helena, seemed simply too tired to consider going the four blocks to the store or even waiting while someone else did. But the older school teacher, Ivana, grumbled under her breath that she would no longer be going to that store, now that the Vietnamese had taken it over.

“Yeah, they’re crawling around everywhere now,” another woman said, using a verb generally applied to insects. I went silent, watching. I can be mouthy, but only when I know the routine and the litany already. I had thought that the Czechs like the Vietnamese, the good, quiet, hard-working, obedient minority. So, this was a new one for me.

Walking home that night, I couldn’t help but think of and worry about my good friend Zuzka and her adopted Vietnamese daughter Star, who is quickly becoming Shaye’s best friend. Zuzka has come a long way, since a year ago when she did not understand why she should learn anything about Vietnamese culture. Recently, she called me up in delighted excitement to tell me that she had found a wonderful Vietnamese woman to babysit for Star twice a week and teach her Vietnamese. I was ever-so-glad that it was working out for them and I felt a bit sheepish that Zuzka had taken what I had told her and gone a step further than even I had yet. I didn’t have a Romani babysitter after all.

Granted, a Romani babysitter is probably somewhat harder to find than a Vietnamese one, given the vast social divide and the fact that unlike the Vietnamese, most Roma tend to live in a few very isolated and segregated pockets. And those who have managed to get out of these ghettos generally are “underground”, pretending not to be Roma at all and are thus hard to find. But still Zuzka had a good idea. She had found her babysitter through a Vietnamese cultural organization.

So, I tried her method by approaching a Romani cultural organization that a respected acquaintance had recommended to me. And sure enough, almost instantly I got a delighted reply back from one of the workers there, excited about the fact that an adoptive family would want to connect their Romani child with Romani role models and the Romani language. The woman said she had an idea of a student who could babysit and I replied to her saying that I would be grateful for the contact. Then, I didn’t hear from her for several weeks. I was worried and confused. Had I said something culturally inappropriate in my second email. I had mentioned how much I would offer the student, thinking that this information up front might be a good idea, so I wondered if the mention of money was somehow taboo in some Romani code of doing business. But surely this woman working in the organization would know enough about Gadje to know that I meant no harm by it.

After a couple weeks, I sent her first one then another follow up email, finally even asking if I had inadvertently said something offensive. Still there was no reply. After a month, I finally worked up my courage to call her. Czech email addresses are pretty unreliable after all and it was possible that she had not received any but my first email and might be thinking that I was a flake. Beyond that, I simply didn’t have a lot of other places I could ask. When I got her on the phone, she said she had been meaning to get back to me and seemed to think it was no big deal. She gave me a phone number for the student, she recommended but clearly did not want to discuss other options with me. I felt confused and a bit disappointed. I had hoped to make more than just one connection to a student through this and her first email had seemed so delighted. Again, I have to wonder if I didn’t somehow offend her, but if so it was something I never could have predicted because I was cautious and courteous at every step.

I arranged for the student, Veronika, to come to try us out on a Friday morning and all seemed well with her. She sounded very nice and responsible on the phone. Then, Shaye and I hurried to get ready and rush to meet her at the train station bright and early, but she didn’t show up. I called her and she answered. There was some background noise of people talking loudly and she said she had been to the hospital the day before and had to have a wisdom tooth pulled immediately. Now, she was not feeling so well. She claimed she had tried to call me, although my phone had showed no missed calls, so it was very unlikely that she had. And yet, having had my wisdom teeth pulled at that age, I could imagine forgetting to call. And I still maintain hope that this is not a sign that she is irresponsible, only very young and disoriented by a good dose of pain medication. She cannot come again for several more weeks, because she has a major exam period. But we will try again later.

In the meantime, it is a perfect spring. The days are sunny but cool again, after the almost summer-like heat of April. The garden is coming along well, with my best patch of radishes yet, winter squash, summer squash, zucchinis and pumpkins, peppers, miniature tomatoes, pole beans, lettuce, chard and carrots. The peas and the green onions have had a hard time coming up this year. I wish I were better at this but every year seems to have its successes and failures. Last year I had a great year for peas. I like to let the garden take my mind, at least partially, off of our bureaucratic troubles and our dream of a second child.

When I met with the woman who runs the only real program in the country for adoptive families with Romani children recently for a chat, she warned me that a new law coming in will close the possibility of adopting a child through the national registry and will put all the power firmly in the hands of Miss Knife-sharpener and her ilk. So, I went to my contact at the national ministry somewhat earlier than I we had planned and we are now registered there as well. And in another two or three months, we will widen the search to include older children and give up my dream of having another baby, forever. If and when that happens, we will be handing a neat little victory to Miss Knife-sharpener and allowing her to ensure that at least one more Romani child must stay in institutional care for most of their first year.

I wish I could fight this bureaucratic child-abuser every step of the way. I wish I could say I would stop at nothing to put an end to her unethical behavior. Once I would have – when I risked only myself. But now, there is Shaye and there is another child, a child which might be ours someday. For their sake, I must go carefully. For their sake, I will wait patiently, bow and scrape and swallow the harm Miss Knife-sharpener may do to the new baby by ensuring a longer stay in an orphanage. You see, she has absolute power over our lives and could ensure that we would never have another child, could even perhaps call into question our adoption of Shaye somehow. Until the second adoption has been finalized by a court, we are effectively bound and gagged. But sometimes I when I lie awake at night, I dream that someday I will find a way to make public all that this one bureaucrat and the whole system is doing. I dream that somehow I can take them down through public outcry, though I very much doubt that is possible. At the very least, I think it would take someone willing to take it on now, in the midst of their adoptions, go to court and get lawyers at this point and risk their own children for the sake of justice. I could wish I had that much courage left but I think I have been beaten too many times too recently.

Zuzka and I now meet every two weeks or so. Either she braves the highways driving an hour to our place or Shaye and I take trains for two hours to reach their village on the other side of Prague. Last week, they came here and Shaye and Star actually played “nicely” together for the first time. Mostly they had just fought over toys and otherwise ignored each other. Now, they actually danced and giggled together and it was quite darling. I watched them and wondered what the future will hold and whether they will remain friends for a long time and how much that friendship might help them in this monotone country.

Shaye could almost pass for Czech, unless she is right next to a pale Czech child. Once the neighbor boys came over to play in the wading pool with her and I felt a jolt when I saw the clear difference in their skin tones, once clothes weren’t there to mask it. I still don’t know if Czechs will realize that she is Romani or not, even if they notice that she is too dark to be truly Central European. Although my Mama-eyes see Shaye as perfect and the most beautiful child I have ever seen, I sometimes almost wish her appearance was more clear-cut. At least, then I would know what we’re up against.

Star is much more distinctive. She will never be mistaken for Czech, although she is actually the one who is half-Czech. Genes play their tricks and Star looks Vietnamese through and through – the striking eyes, straight dark hair and perfect brown skin. Zuzka already knows who in her community will basically accept her child’s background and who won’t. I am still waiting for the verdict to come in and given the reaction of my herb friends to the Vietnamese storekeepers, I have reason enough for concern.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Julie
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 04:47:56

    Pretty heart breaking story, Arie. My heart hurts. I wish my heart hurting did something useful. I wish the people who behave like this were evil so I could hate them. I wish I could think of something useful to say. My heart is with you in the garden in the sunlight with Shaye playing in the dirt.


  2. Brook
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 19:15:14

    ((HUGS)) Thanks for sharing a bit more of your soul with us, Arie. I love reading your blogs, and wish that there were anything that I could do to ‘make everything better.’ I wish you and your little family the absolute best, and I hope that my Ember is a joy and a help to you, too! ♥


  3. Arie Farnam
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 20:25:41

    Oh dear! I thought this one was a reasonably positive and sunny post. 😛 I didn’t mean to be depressing again. I did mean to be depressing on some of them, but not this one.

    Ember is a true joy and makes up for quite a lot of bureaucratic suffering.


  4. frenchhornista
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 22:29:54

    It is such a different world there! It is very intriguing reading about it although a little sad at the same time. Thanks for sharing a little bit of life 🙂


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