Coffessions of a Bad Blogger

It’s time for me to confess. I have been very very bad. Those of you who have subscribed to my blog are the sweetest, most wonderful readers that any writer could wish. And I have sorely neglected you for almost a year.

I do have an excuse. Do you want to hear it? It’s a good excuse, as excuses go.

Last fall I started the school year with an insane schedule, homeschooling kids, teaching 12 hours of classes, preparing classes, helping out one day a week at preschool, working on a video project, canning, bringing in the garden harvest, keeping up the urban homestead and all that. I had no time for anything, I was sure.

My preschool class learning about American Halloween and bobbing for apples, which I should have posted last November.

My preschool class learning about American Halloween and bobbing for apples, which I should have posted last November.

But the longing to write, really write, write something big had been building in me for years.

So, there was that one hour in the week when I had a bit of time, while I watched the kids at preschool during their nap time. I had my laptop with me but no internet connection, so I couldn’t do brainless, relaxing things like catch up with email and Facebook friends. I could have written blog entries like a good blogger… But instead I decided to start a novel.

I thought I would never get anywhere doing it one hour a week but that was all I had. And you start with what you have. This was a novel that had been festering inside of me for twenty years. For most of that time, I thought it was just a weird daydream, not a novel… well, as it turned out three novels. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, I started writing one hour a week. That lasted about a month and a half. It was grueling. I couldn’t remember what I had done from one week to the next and spent half my time rereading what I had already written. And the topic was pretty challenging.

Then, something shifted. The characters – particularly one of the minor characters who I didn’t even think was supposed to be a major part of the story – reached out of the computer, grabbed me by the front of my shirt and yanked me into the screen and into their world. I landed with a thud and when I looked up and got my bearings I was solidly in the alternative reality of my story.

I could kind of walk around in my real life and go through the motions of eating, sleeping, teaching classes, taking care of children and all that but I was pretty spacey. I was mostly in that other world. And the only way to get out of it was to write myself out. So, I started writing in earnest.

My family was patient, mostly. And my friends.

My family was patient, mostly. And my friends.

How did I find the time in between classes, children, housework and all my other responsibilities? There is this time called “night” when everyone else goes to sleep. I discovered that there is lots more time there than I thought. I also decided to try “unschooling” the bad way and let the kids mostly run wild. I cooked the same old dinners over and over again while thinking about my plot and my husband and children had to eat lots of lentils, borscht and lamb stew all winter long. I always had to pull myself out of my daze to teach and I did, but I eagerly dove back into writing as soon as I was done. I snatched every moment.

And three months later I had a series of three books. I won’t tell you all about them here because that isn’t the end of the story really. That was February. Why didn’t I write to you in February? Well, I was editing. Editing takes several months too. Then, I had to figure out how to publish the books and I discovered that the publishing industry is in turmoil due to the massive changes brought about by ebooks and traditional publishing of unknown authors is almost non-existent. I half-heartedly tried to find an agent but it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen, no matter how good my books are.

Today, self-publishing or indie publishing isn’t the pasty, pale desperate freak of the side show that it used to be, sitting right next to the slovenly oaf of the vanity press. Now self-publishing is mainstream and it is the way that new authors get a leg up, make a modest living and thus have time to write.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three months. I’ve been learning how to build websites, format ebooks, build “social media platform”, design book covers, negotiate with photographers and models and other such essential and mostly frighteningly technical skills of indie publishing. I don’t think I”ve had to learn so much in such a short time since my early days as a war correspondent in Macedonia.

So, do you forgive me yet?

Many of my readers here have been incredibly generous with your time, telling other people about my blog posts and helping people who like to read emotionally real writing find my blog.

I have gotten a lot of comments about how you miss my blogging on parenting, adoption, inner healing and social inclusion. I will work on that. Essentially, my books are about social inclusion versus exclusion and the potential of healing for outsiders. I use a world of contemporary alternative reality and harrowing adventure to do it. Many readers may simply think it is a distopian thriller with a fantasy twist meant to entertain. And it is that too. My copy editors have all said it grabs you by the back of the soul, trusts you into the story with real people as the characters and doesn’t let you go entirely even when you’re done reading. So, it’s a gripping story and it takes a swing at issues you care about.

Anyway, that’s my excuse. I have been writing about the same things I did before, just in a different way.

Here is where I’m going to publish it in the next few weeks: http://www.ariefarnam.com/new

Here's the "author picture" that Ember and Tomas worked for hours to get, in order to help me look "cool" to lots of readers. Thanks a million, you two.

Here’s the “author picture” that Ember and Tomas worked for hours to get, in order to help me look “cool” to lots of readers. Thanks a million, you two.

I have also started a few blogs on that site for specific topics. There is one about writing and books at: http://www.ariefarnam.com/books

And there is one about practical herb lore, including a delicious recipe for a healthy summer drink that can replace pop and kids will still love it: http://www.ariefarnam.com/herbs

There will be more soon.

I have scaled back many of my other activities and I’m now devoting a lot more time to writing. (The kids aren’t really scalable, so it still isn’t exactly full time.) And I hope I will be writing A LOT more in the future.

There is one major factor in whether or not I’ll have time to write and that is how well I can do in indie publishing and the key to that is getting the word out, far and wide. Here are the ways you can help and thus insure that I don’t neglect you for so long again:

1. Go to my website at http://www.ariefarnam.com and SIGN UP for brief, monthly updates about my books by clicking on the big orange button. Then, tell all your friends, both online and off, to do the same. This is the single most important thing for independent writers. I won’t spam you or your friends. I will treat the email list with extreme care and I have it protected with powerful anti-spam programs. This is the only way to connect with people effectively in a world that is otherwise full of noise and plenty of things you don’t really want to read. This is how you find what you do love to read.

2. “Like” the Facebook page of my books: http://www.facebook.com/kyrennei

Thank you again for being wonderful and supportive readers.

Arie Farnam

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One River

There are mothers who are told their only value is in bearing children.
There are mothers who raise their children alone.
There are mothers who have no food to give their children.

Their tears are sacred.

There are mothers who must watch their children’s dreams die.
There are mothers who must watch their children taken off to prison.
There are mothers who must watch their children taken off to war.

These tears are sacred.

There are mothers who must work until their bones crack.
There are mothers who must struggle against disease, disability, violence or hatred.
There are mothers who must put their children to bed on the street.

Those tears are sacred.

There are mothers whose children have been stolen away.
There are mothers whose children have died.
There are mothers whose children didn’t live long enough to be born.

Their sacred tears flow into a great river.

There are mothers who are themselves children.
There are mothers who cannot bear children but become mothers of children born by others.
There are mothers who must give their children another mother and go on alone.

All the tears in the same river.

– Inspired by discussion on adoption.com about Mother’s Day and who should be honored on that day.

One cold December night

Eleven years ago, I made a documentary about Romani children facing racial segregation in the Czech school system. At the time government statistics admitted that upwards of 70 percent of Romani children were channeled into schools for the mentally retarded, called “special schools”, where the curriculum and facilities were severely limited. Along with two American students, I followed three children for an entire school year and interviewed a host of other children, parents, teachers, human rights workers, educational experts, school principles and government officials.

The children we chose to follow were chosen more or less randomly. They were simply the kids who were the most open and friendly and willing to commit to long-term involvement with the film. There was nine-year-old Karel, who was from an area where the local government was building a wall to separate the Roma from white residents, and fifteen-year-olds Anezka and Pepino, who were friends who lived in a children’s home. All three of them were exceptionally bright kids who had been placed in the special school more or less automatically when they began first grade. Karel lived in a low-income housing project with three siblings and a single mother. Despite the claims of government officials that parents get to choose where their children go, Karel’s mother had never been offered a choice and had no idea she could choose. In the course of the film, she found out that she officially could switch Karel to a better school and because he was very bright and motivated to learn, she tried to, but she was shamed, intimidated and threatened when she went to the educational offices to force the issue and was eventually coerced into signing papers that would seal his fate in the segregated schools.

Anezka and Pepino had no parents and their state guardians had made the decision for them, but they did have a teacher at the special school, who was kind and motherly toward them and who believed that their placement in a special school had been a mistake. She had them tested and found them to be of above average intelligence. She began to spend after school hours tutoring them in some of the subjects they would have learned if they had attended a school for normal, white children. In the end, she advised them to try to break through a historical barrier and become the first children from the special schools to attend high school. A new law had been passed that made that at least a legal possibility, if not a practical probability. Despite a three- or four-year lag in their education, they passed the entrance exams to attend a very competitive high school, the only specifically Romani high school in the country. They struggled to keep up with their classmates but survived in the rigorous environment and graduated. However, given the shackles they had started out with, they were not able to fulfill their dreams of studying law. Pepino was accepted at a pedagogical university. Anezka, who was generally the more eloquent of the two verbally, was not. Neither had any further support from family or other adults. Their motherly teacher had died and they were completely on their own after the age of 18.

In any event, we made the film eleven years ago. When we finished the film in the summer of 2000, I had very few options for distribution. I made a few attempts to find a distributor but I really didn’t know how to go about it and the film business seemed completely closed to penniless independents. Film festivals and distributors alike demanded fees of several hundred dollars just to submit the film and I did not have enough for more than one or two such attempts. My greatest hope was the One World Film Festival in Prague. It was in the Czech Republic after all and was one of the top human-rights-oriented documentary film festivals in Europe. I also knew an American who was on the selection committee. So, I submitted the film there in the fall of 2000 and received an official letter confirming receipt of the film.

Months passed and I received no reply from One World. I did, however, become a stringer for Business Week and The Christian Science Monitor in Kosovo and Macedonia, during a short conflict there starting in March 2001. As a result, I did not pester One World for a reply. I was in and out of a war zone every couple of weeks for half a year, often with only a few days respite between jobs. I only vaguely registered that the film festival happened and my film was not in it and I had never received a rejection letter. Some time after the festival, I ran into my acquaintance from the selection committee on the street. Amid the pleasantries, he asked, “Why didn’t you ever submit your film to us? I really think it would have had an excellent chance.”

Perplexed I assured him that I had submitted it and received confirmation that it was in the selection process. He said he would have seen it, if it had been submitted. After some investigation, I was told that the film had been unfortunately “lost” in the office before it could be sent to the selection committee. By this time, I knew my chances of getting the film distributed or broadcast significantly abroad were miniscule, and my newspaper career was taking off. I resubmitted it to One World the following year but this time I didn’t even receive the first official letter. There was simply no reply.

I am a fighter. I don’t do well at choosing my battles. But this was one occasion when I did. I knew I couldn’t fight the entire racist Czech system single-handedly. At the time, the racism in the Czech Republic was so blatant and overt that politicians and officials could say that “Most Roma simply are mentally retarded,” or “They are genetically deficient,” without any consequences. I knew that even if I fought over the “lost” DVDs at One World, another reason would be found to reject the film. Ours was an ultra-low budget operation. I had good semi-pro equipment from a grant. That was all we had. We had travelled by train, slept on kitchen flours, barely eaten. I had bought tapes on my half-time local reporter’s salary. There were certainly some technical deficiencies in the film and, if I forced the issue, it would be rejected on those grounds, even if similar films were accepted. Every black person in America knows that story.

I chose my battles and let it go. I fought for my newspaper career and travelled to the Balkans, Ukraine and Ecuador, rather than distribute the film. Nine years passed before there was a public showing of our film in the Czech Republic. A friend of mine ended up in charge of a documentary series at a small artsy cinema and I convinced him, over many coffees and phone conversations to show the film at the end of 2008. He had never seen his cinema so packed. There were people sitting on the stairs, on the backs of seats, on the floor. And since then, there have been six other public screenings, all resulting from contacts made during that one first showing. I was delighted, though there was a bitter aftertaste. It had taken so many years. Now, although the film can be shown at last, it is considered old. Unfortunately, it is not considered outdated. That is because the situation with the racially segregated schools has not substantially changed. The European Court handed down our equivalent of Brown v. the Board of Education three years ago, demanding that the Czech Republic desegregate the schools. In response, the segregated schools were renamed from “special schools” to “practical schools” and everything else remained the same.

I have vaguely stayed in touch with one of the kids from the film – Pepino. I have tried to contact the others but without success. I have many times, over the years, invited Pepino to visit my home. I also invited him to come to the more interesting film screenings with me. He has always promised to visit my home, but never has, and he begged off the film screenings due to his own embarrassment and shyness. He said he does not like being identified as one of the kids from the “special schools”, even if he was eventually vindicated and now is studying at university to get his teaching license.

But he got in touch with me himself this fall and so, when the largest humanitarian and human rights organization in the country, the People in Need Foundation, which runs the One World Film Festival, planned to screen the film as part of a special event to reopen the bogged-down political discussion about school integration, I asked Pepino again. Would he come? I thought the event might result in some useful contacts for him, some opportunity to continue his studies or maybe even a contact that could eventually lead to a job at an NGO, doing some of the civil rights work, he says he has always wanted to do. He spent the entire week before the event going back and forth about it and changed his mind several times even during the day of the screening. By the time, he showed up I was exhausted just from the process of reassuring him and assuring him that he did not need to come to please me but only if he saw some opportunity in it.

The organizers had agreed to meet with Pepino before hand in order to advise him about his future in NGO work, but when we met, they sat us down in a very noisy café and commenced to talk among themselves. They almost entirely ignored Pepino and I, and there was no meaningful discussion of his future prospects. I should have been forewarned by that. I had significant hopes for this screening, because the organization is the most politically influential in the country and because the film was part of an official political event to try to restart the process of desegregation. There were supposed to be a lot of civil society people, educators and officials in attendance.

The moderator was an editor from the country’s primary right-wing intellectual magazine. That did not immediately send up any red flags for me. Despite their rabid stance on things like the war in Iraq and the economy, they generally are so internationally focused that they can’t afford to be racist against the Roma. Pepino and I watched the screening together, the first time we have ever watched the film in the same room. We whispered and shook with silent laughter as we reminisced about various people, incidents and technical disasters that had come up along the way. Finally, the lights came up and the panel of experts who had been invited to discuss the film stepped up to the podium. Even with my healthy bit of cynicism, I was still shocked. They were all white.

I had simply assumed that People in Need, the largest human rights organization in the country with contacts to every NGO in every corner of the land, could get a qualified Romani speaker. But they didn’t, for whatever reason. They had five white panelists – a couple of educators, a government official and one of their own field workers. Before I had even caught my breath from that unpleasant surprise, the moderator took the microphone and introduced the panel, me and Pepino. As an introduction to the debate, she said, “As you saw in the film, this young man is an exception. He was obviously mistakenly channeled into the special schools and he was capable of much more, including university studies. But now, let’s turn to a discussion of those children who are truly in need of special help.” And the debate was off and running.

There followed two hours of very dry, theoretical rhetoric about Individual Education Plans for children with disabilities, teachers assistants, the lack of adequate funding and exactly how to interpret various regulations at the Ministry of Education. The implication was that the concern is over children with real disabilities. The consensus was that Romani children are either slightly mentally disabled in general or so severely socially disadvantaged that they cannot attend regular schools without extra funding and special pedagogical assistants. There were longwinded monologues on the reasons why integration cannot go forward without further funding and how the brightest of the nation’s children could be drug down by an influx of the disadvantaged and disabled.

There was really only one panelist who dissented at all that I could tell, a mainstream school principal, and she did so in a very circumspect way. From the outset, she declared that she wasn’t qualified to discuss the film. She recognized that the film was about Romani children, not disabled children, and she said her school had never had a Romani student. She had been invited to the panel because her school was well-known for successful integration of disabled students but not of Romani students. She diplomatically countered the long diatribes on the need for further funding and special programs with short and concise statements, “If you want to integrate, integrate. At our school we have several children with disabilities in each class. We don’t receive extra funding and yet our math results are among the nation’s top ten. Part of that is the atmosphere and philosophy of the staff. Part of it is because we believe in peer teaching, where a student who understands the material, assists one who is struggling. In this way, both learn more.”

But even that school principal could not bring herself to say the word “discrimination.” Even those members of the audience who timidly tried to argue with the panel did not use such a word. Whenever someone touched on the thorny issue of Romani children being automatically and systematically channeled into the special schools,, they called it “the Strasbourg issue.” They were referring to the European Court decision, handed down in the city of Strasbourg, that had demanded that systemic racial segregation stop. The Czech state had also been ordered to pay financial compensation to the 18 children who were the direct plaintive in the case.

All in all, there was very little real debate. The moderator rarely allowed questions or comments from the audience. There was scarcely time for more than half-a-dozen audience questions in the two hours, because after each question, the moderator asked each of her five panelists to comment, which they did at length, repeating themselves over and over again. Always the refrain was that, the children in the special schools need special help and extra funding. If there are a few children there who could handle regular school, those are exceptions and mistakes in the system, not the norm. One psychologist in the audience went so far as to say that 25 percent of the children in the special schools had never been diagnosed with any learning problems. He was one of those who talked about “the Strasbourg issue” and made other veiled references to discrimination. Finally, toward the end of the debate, he and one other audience member managed to bring up the issue of the economic impact of segregation on the entire society. He had to jump in out of turn with his booming voice not needing a microphone, and I appreciated his attempt. He explained how keeping a portion of the population less educated than they could be and thus less employed than they could be will necessarily drag the entire economy down. It is a point I have been repeating over and over to the Czechs for a dozen years.

Half way through the debate, I worked up the courage to raise my hand to ask a question. I was afraid to do so, because I had been told by the organizers, that it might be appropriate for me to speak but it also might not. They said they might call on me. Pepino, seeing that I could not make eye-contact with the person handing out portable microphones, because of my weak eyes, decided to help me and got a microphone passed to us. For the last half-hour, I held the portable microphone and waited to be given the floor. The panelists droned on with their same old message after every audience comment and then just when I thought I was up, the moderator said, “Well, we really are out of time now. Thank you all for coming.”

Here’s what I would have said, “I don’t want to discount the importance of the discussion of the education of disabled children at all. In fact, I am legally blind and I was among the first disabled children to be integrated in my area of the United States, so this issue concerns me a great deal. But as a journalist, I cannot help but ask, how many of the 70 percent of Romani children who attend these ‘special schools’ need any special attention at all? How many do you think are mistakes and exceptions like the children in my film? I have to tell you that we did not choose them because they were smarter than the other kids. They chose us, because we worked with the kids who hung around us a lot and committed to letting us hang out with them for a year. If they were put into the special schools by mistake, then how many mistakes do you think are being made?”

It was the first time that I was present at a screening of my film and no one came up to me afterwards asking for copies or offering more screenings or just wanting to make a contact. Even at my previous screenings in the Czech Republic, there were people who wanted to talk to me. This time, everyone shuffled out and I got the feeling that no one even wanted to look in my direction. I can’t be sure of that, of course, not with my eyesight, but I saw a lot of the backs of people’s heads.

As we hurried out into the December night, hoping to catch our trains home, mine to the south and his to the east, Pepino told me that one of the panelists who had most vehemently defended the segregated system had come up to him after the film, while I was in the bathroom, and asked to shake his hand because he had proved himself worthy of education in the regular schools. Pepino didn’t seem to like the connotations of the comment, but he said he had shaken the man’s hand anyway.

I was feeling as close and comfortable with Pepino as I ever had. Things had been pretty awkward in the run-up to the screening. I got the feeling that Pepino didn’t understand my motives in being involved with Romani civil rights at all. From his perspective, I was an outsider, someone who could only be involved if I had something to gain for myself. When I told him three years ago, that I was going to adopt a Romani child, he was silent for several minutes. It was a struggle for me to let the silence be, not to break into it with justifications and explanations. I just waited for him to comment, but he never did. Over a few phone conversations recently, I had tried to open some real communication between us.

I had, for instance, told Pepino that what had been done to him, the way he had been shunted off into the special schools, was a crime, that it is recognized as such internationally and that he has no reason to be ashamed. It is the Czech society and government that is shamed by it. I had realized that there really wasn’t anyone who would have told him such things. Given how much he had struggled, I had for a long time, simply assumed that he knew these things, but recently some of his self-loathing comments, had made me realize that he had not been told anything. He had had no Romani parents or mentors or teachers. He had been in a Czech children’s home and a segregated school run by Czechs. Then, he had been in the Romani high school for a few years, but he had been among those Romani kids who had for whatever reason avoided the special schools. He and Anezka were the first Romani kids to get into secondary school from the special schools.

Leaving the film screening, I wanted to tell him more. I wanted to tell him that I want to stay in touch with him because Shaye and our next child will need to know Romani people. It could be particularly helpful to them to know Pepino, given his experiences. I wanted to explain that he could make a difference, could strike back at the system in a very positive way by mentoring such kids. But we were out of breath and out of time. As we approached the subway, Pepino refused to buy himself a ticket because he said we were in too much of a hurry. He would just risk getting slapped with a fine for riding illegally. I protested weakly but he quickly swept me through the entrance to the station. I had my disability card, which gives me free subway rides, and that gave me an idea. I took my white cane out of my purse. I carry it mainly for times when I am walking on city streets alone and I have to use it to navigate murderous traffic situations.

“Here,” I said, sticking my cane out in front of us and grabbing his elbow. “No ticket inspector will stop you, if they think you’re guiding a blind person.”
Pepino started laughing in delight and I burst out, “What a wonderful way to defeat the gadzo system.” Gadzo is the Romani equivalent of gringo or honky, a sometimes insulting, sometimes simply factual, sometimes humorous term for white people. I thought it was funny, but Pepino’s laughter changed, sounding a bit shrill and forced.

“Hey, I can say gadzo too now, can’t I? If my family is one-third Roma now,” I said. And at that Pepino’s laughter died, as if I had turned off a switch. I had said something wrong, but I couldn’t get him to tell me what.

As far as I could tell, it might have had more to do with the issue of adoption than anything else. When we arrived at the train station, I had just missed my train and had to wait an hour for another, so Pepino waited with me and we talked more. I asked him what he thought of us adopting a Romani child and he said, “Of course, it’s great. What would be a problem with it?”

“Well, it is a bit controversial in America, white people adopting children of other cultures. Some people say it is a racist plot to wipe out the children’s cultural identity.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. And then he hurried off, looking for a place to buy cigarettes. That was the way it was every time I mentioned anything to do with adoption during that hour. He always answered blandly and then found a reason to break off the conversation. After a few more progressively milder attempts, I gave up.

The difficulty of breaking through Pepino’s shell and the general feeling of being held at arm’s length by Romani acquaintances combines miserably with the depressing lack of real understanding of the issues among my educated and self-described “anti-racist” white friends. I can quite easily understand why people say adopted children of color feel constantly trapped in the middle and rejected by both white society and their birth culture. I slept poorly that night and the next day I could barely move. I felt like all the exhaustion of the past year was piled on me all at once and a few times I suddenly burst into tears while folding laundry or doing the dishes. I struggled to remind myself that this was simply the emotional and physical toll of the stressful day before – the heaviness, the depression, the despair.

When I held Shaye after her bath that night, I noticed how our skin tones are becoming even more different. Mine is even paler in the winter and hers is becoming slightly darker as she grows out of babyhood. Thinking of how terrible the “debate” after the film had been, how these were the “progressives” and reformers of this country, the people supposedly most friendly to the Roma, I was seized with terror for her and I crushed her against my chest. How can one send a child out into a world like that? It would be like tossing them into a swimming pool that you know is ice cold… and shark infested.

I clung to one bit of solace. Maybe, just maybe, any part of this alienation, dislocation and despair that I undergo, will be some part of it that Shaye will not have to suffer as she grows up. I don’t know if that is true but I can hope.

 

The whiteness of whiteness

We recently spent another weekend on Dušan’s parent’s farm in South Bohemia. It was the time of the annual fish harvest. The region is known for raising a lot of extraordinarily good carp. In fact, carp is not a low-class fish here at all. It is the star of the traditional Christmas feast and it is delicious. I can’t get enough of the flavorful fish soup and fried fish in bread crumbs that are made at this time of year. Unfortunately, my husband and in-laws all claim to be sick of fish. Years ago, when times were tough, they could always have fish, and they apparently ate too much of it during some of the years when other meat and vegetables couldn’t be easily had. So, they have fish at the fish harvest and again at Christmas because it is traditional. They sell all the rest, while I would be happy to eat them every week of the year.

As a result, I always irrationally look forward to the fish harvest. I should know after almost a dozen years that the fish harvest is not fun for women. The men of the extended family, plus the local village fishermen and a dozen friends, harvest the fish with a giant net and while the women (i.e. my mother-in-law Marie, my sister-in-law Eva, an aunt or two and me) serve them grog and hot sausages cooked over an open fire. Then, before noon, the men are finished for the day and they return to the farm house and to the enormous feast the women have prepared, and eat and drink and revel until three a.m. the next morning. So, from noon to at least midnight we women cook, serve plates of food and drinks and wash dishes. I have been through this many times already. Always a few dozen more people show up to eat at the feast than actually helped to net the fish, so there is a lot of women’s work to do. I know almost no one at the fish harvest feasts but they all know OF me as the strange foreigner wife who somehow snared the farmer’s oldest son and so no one is introduced to me.

Last year I was able to beg off because Shaye was a small infant and wasn’t feeling well. This time, with Marie’s leg in a cast, there was no getting around it, and I wouldn’t have stayed away even if given the chance. Somehow I am drawn to the event. This time there were 70 or 80 people at the feast, which wasn’t even held at the farmhouse but in the local hunting lodge, because it was my father-in-law Josef’s 70th birthday as well as the harvest. Still, somehow I was not overburdened with work this time around because a great many women had stepped up to help, when they saw Marie’s leg. I mostly ended up doing child care for all of the dozen or so kids running around. I had brought along one big pumpkin and I showed all the kids how Americans carve Halloween pumpkins. They don’t have Halloween here, except for the Catholic All-Souls-Day, when people put wreathes on graves. But the children were delighted with the pumpkin carving and by 8:00 in the evening someone had to accompany them back to the farmhouse where most of them would sleep that night on the floor in the living room. As I am not particularly fond of copious amounts of alcohol and cigarette smoke, I volunteered to make the ultimate sacrifice and miss the rest of the feast and all the dish washing.

Back at the farm house, I got the kids organized to play a few games before bedtime and soon we were playing round after round of hide-and-go-seek in the dim interconnected rooms of the ancient farmhouse. The kids, besides Shaye (at not quite two) were between the ages of six and fifteen, so they didn’t really need much in terms of adult supervision. I carried Shaye with me and played along with them. Soon I was into the spirit of the game and transported back to my own childhood, when I had loved to hide because I was good at it and often was the last to be found. Czech children are brought up relatively strictly and they are generally quiet and polite, so there were no fights and not even much running through the rooms. But after about an hour they were starting to run out of new places to hide, particularly the younger children. I happened to be standing in my mother-in-law’s bedroom with an eight-year-old boy I didn’t know well and my six-year-old niece and I remembered that the best places to hide are always on top of wardrobes. No one here had thought of that yet, so quickly I boosted the two children up onto a large wardrobe and hurried off to hide with Shaye in one of the back rooms.

A few moments later, I dimly heard shouting through the thick stone walls of the farmhouse and I thought I heard my niece’s name in the shouting, “Evička!” Worried that she might be frightened on the high wardrobe I rushed back out of my hiding place and into the large bedroom. There stood Evička’s other grandparents, my sister-in-law’s parents, shouting and berating the two children for being so rowdy as to climb on the wardrobe. The two sheepishly climbed down and I was given a dressing down for not watching the children “closely enough” and then we were all banished to the living room for the duration of the evening. I could only think that this was indicative of the differences between Czech and American culture. It may have been a little rowdy of me to suggest hiding on top of a wardrobe in America. Here it was unheard of. I had forgotten, yet again.

On Sunday morning, after the big feast was over, we all went back up to the hunters’ lodge to wash the heavy pots and frying vats, and wipe up the puddles of spilled beer. When we returned to the farm house, we sat down to steaming cups of coffee and tea, as well as slices of the American-style coffee cake that I had brought specifically for this purpose. Marie who had directed the entire feast and washed quite a few dishes on crutches sat on the bench with her injured leg awkwardly propped up. Her sisters Aunt Jitka and Aunt Jana bustled about the kitchen and Josef sat in his traditional chair. Dušan and I sat whereever there was room.

Dušan must have had a talk with them about the fact that we have applied to adopt a second child and we should be on the waiting list by the end of the year. He generally fears family conflicts and would go far out of his way to avoid a confrontation over the issue, so he had not mentioned the talk to me. But it came up anyway. I gave a small groan as I got up from my tea to put Shaye on the potty and Marie remarked acidly that I would have a fine time with two children, given that one seems to be hard enough for me. I have heard it all before, so I didn’t take much notice. But then Josef spoke up uncommonly, “Why can’t you just be thankful that you have such a smart little girl and leave it at that?”

I didn’t want to go into some long justification of why I want a second child. The fact is that now that we have Shaye, I do not feel that I MUST have a second child or else I will die. But I do want a second child, much the way anyone who wants a second child does. I want Shaye to have a sibling, at least one to partially fill the void of the siblings she has lost. I would also love to care for a small infant once more in my life. Shaye was small so briefly, as she came to us at almost three months old. And I see no problem with wanting a second child. We have had some difficulties with recalcitrant bureaucrats this time around but otherwise I see no reason why we shouldn’t. I know there are far too many Romani children in need of families in this country. My question would be, “Why shouldn’t I have as much right and reason to have a second child as anyone?” But I don’t say it. I am trying to avoid the conflicts that Dušan so dislikes.

Aunt Jitka looked up from her tea and broke into the conversation. She spent a full day taking care of Shaye a week earlier, while Dušan and I were at a mandatory parenting class for the second adoption. Aunt Jitka and her twin sister Jana are both childless and it was the first time she had ever taken care of a child for an entire day. It was also the first time Shaye had been without at least one of us for an entire day, since she came to us. And she did not know Aunt Jitka well. It wasn’t an ideal situation but we were left no choice. The class was mandatory and there was no childcare available, even though it was specifically a class for families with at least one child. My family is on the other side of the ocean and Marie’s leg is still in a cast. So, Aunt Jitka had stepped up to the challenge and it had all worked out fine.

It seemed like she could not praise Shaye enough. Apparently, Shaye had been on her best behavior. She was cheerful and cooperative all day and Aunt Jitka had followed my written instructions and had no trouble. Now, she said, in an odd disconnect from Josef’s comments, “I just saw a program on TV about how the babies of drug addicts suffer so much. They just scream and scream after they are born and there is very little the doctors can do. It would really be best to ban all drug addicts from having children in the first place. I mean if a doctor found out that a person is on drugs and pregnant, they should immediately abort the child, regardless of what the woman says.”

Marie jumped in on the discussion to agree with Jitka. When I returned from taking care of Shaye’s potty, I added only that it would be pretty difficult to make such a law. The true moral considerations of Jitka’s proposal were much more than I wanted to get into at this table. Soon enough, I realized why Jitka had brought up the drug addict issue. She added that, “They said at least one in five children who are adopted are born to women who use drugs. You should really think about that. Those are children with serious problems and they can really damage a family.”

I agreed that the suffering of drug addicted babies is heartbreaking but pointed out that the effects of alcohol  exposure in utero are usually much worse in the long term. At that they started in again on our second adoption. “Why would you take such a risk? How can you justify endangering Shaye’s easy life with a sibling who could have serious problems?”  After a while, they actually stopped and waited for me to respond. But what do you say to this kind of thinking? Shaye herself was also just such a suspect child before she turned out to be their perfect little angel. In fact, Marie had said she would never accept a Romani child, period. And yet now, the whole issue was protecting Shaye.

Slowly, I tried to put in the few bits of information that I thought would actually make a difference. I knew I could not actually attack the main issue, not and avoid a major family conflict, which would definitely upset Dušan. I explained that, if the social workers suspected the child had been exposed to alcohol or drugs, they would tell us that and, if we were too concerned, we could wait for another child.

Then, I explained that in our area around Prague, I have read that actually most white children who are available for adoption have been exposed to drugs, whereas among Romani children it is only a small minority. This is not because Roma don’t take drugs. Being a marginalized and impoverished group, they have higher statistics of addiction, not lower. The reason instead is simply that while white families have the support of extended family and society to raise their children and only end up relinquishing them when the parents are completely incapacitated, Romani family structures have been destroyed by decades of forced migration and the practice of forcibly removing Romani children from their homes. Those children who have been forcibly removed can’t be adopted, but they often grow up to have children and relinquish them voluntarily as a matter of course, because they have no experience with family life, having lived their entire childhood in children’s homes. On top of that social services are much less inclined to help struggling Romani parents and much more inclined to advise them to relinquish their rights. The bitterly ironic result is that because of the racism in society, one is much more likely to adopt a healthy, unscarred Romani child than to adopt such a healthy white child.

Marie, Josef and the aunts basically reacted to my explanation as if I hadn’t spoken or as if I had said something bland and unimportant. They were all turned a bit away from me. No one would look right at me. When I stopped, Marie spoke up with another apparently disconnected line of thought. “I just feel that sometimes fate would be kinder, if a person died than if they have to live with so much suffering. Those drug addicted babies, maybe. Or consider that little girl who was so badly burned. She will be in pain for the rest of her live. Her skin will never grow. Wouldn’t she be better off, if she had died in the fire?” Marie’s hand made a perhaps-involuntary gesture toward me and Shaye when she said “that little girl”. It would have been obvious what she meant anyway, but the gesture spoke its own hidden meanings.

It was April 2009. We had brought Shaye home on the first day of April and that month was like a dream. I know partly that was because I was exhausted and deprived of sleep, but also I was the happiest I have ever been. Those first weeks with Shaye were wonderful, full of soft rain showers, brief glorious bursts of spring sunlight, budding leaves and, yes, even rainbows. The wonder of a small baby is overwhelming and I was completely submerged in it… so submerged in fact that I never listened to or read any news and that was just as well.

On the 19th of April, 2009 in the early hours of the morning a group of neo-Nazis walked the streets of a small Czech town. They stopped in front of a little, drab house and lit a makeshift wick attached to a glass bottle full of gasoline. Then, one of them hurled the bottle through the window of the humble little house. The homemade bomb landed in the bed of a two-year-old Romani child and exploded. The little girl’s name is Natalka. She was burned severely over 80 percent of her body. Doctors didn’t expect her to live, but after a month in an artificial coma, she awoke and survived. The rest of the family – mother, father and several other children, suffered only minor burns and smoke inhalation, but afterward they lived in fear. Even they had not believed such a thing could happen to them.

I did not hear about the attack until long after the fact and, for once, I am grateful for my ignorance. Had I known, I would have been seized by terror and grief. Clearly, a child had been horribly injured with the intent of murder, simply and only because she was Romani. She was not very different at all from the tiny, perfect baby I held in my arms in those days.

Now, a year and a half later, I was shaken by Marie’s callous use of the case to make a point. The reason it was on her mind is that the case has reentered the news. Some of the neo-Nazis are on trial for the attack and their defense is that they claim they did not believe the house was a family house. They believed it was a storage place for stolen goods. Their mention of stealing was clearly meant to garner the sympathy of Czechs, to remind them, “Roma steal.” The whole thing is so brutal and ugly I can barely stand the news even now, and this is one of the rare instances where such racist attackers are actually brought to trial.

I felt shell-shocked by the whole conversation, the way I did sometimes after too much exposure to the horrors of war in Kosovo when I was a journalist there. I said something about how we will be careful, of course, but it is our family and we have chosen to have another child. Then, I slipped out of the bench and took Shaye to get ready for her nap.

Later, while Shaye slept, Dušan and I went out to pick apples and pears for our winter stores and for Marie’s cellar from the trees behind the massive farm buildings. The sunlight was brilliant and crisp, the leaves a blaze of colors. I kept going over and over the conversation with Marie, Josef and the aunts in my head. The worst part is that I know that if Shaye or our second child ends up being even mildly troubled as a teenager, the extended family will have a tendency to jump to the conclusion that it is the bad Romani genes finally coming out or that it is because they are adopted children, perhaps even drug addicted, even if the social workers didn’t tell us. I know all the reasons that logic is faulty but in this place and time there is no argument against it. It is based on assumptions that are as good as fact here. The dangerous, branding and potentially self-fulfilling pre-judgment (prejudice) feels unstoppable.

As I hauled the last crate of apples back to our car, I reminded Dušan to look for Shaye’s missing doll. Here it is impossible to get dolls of different ethnicities. Very occasionally you can get an African doll, as a kind of exotic attraction, but we had a beautiful, lifelike doll with light brown skin, more like Romani skin, from my mother in America. Shaye loves the doll, carries it around with her, feeds it and puts it to bed, but the doll had disappeared during a chaotic weekend in which we had Dušan’s brother’s family, including my six-year-old and two-year-old nieces, as well as two families with adopted girls, visiting for two days straight. It was a wonderful time and for the first week or so, I was sure the doll would show up. I could not imagine that the families with the adopted children wouldn’t have noticed if their children took the doll and I was sure either of them would have mentioned it immediately to me. But Dušan had reminded me that our nieces had been there as well and that they had slept in a camper that Dušan’s brother had driven to our house that time. The doll could have ended up in the camper.

“Yeah, it was in the camper,” Dušan said casually, “under some dirty clothes. I found it after lunch. It’s in the car already.”

I carefully didn’t react and I went on to the next task, raking some leaves for Marie. I made two huge piles of leaves under the golden walnut tree in the yard of the farmhouse and I smiled to myself just a bit. I don’t want to feel good about something like this, but it is the simple truth. The doll incident is money in the bank. Shaye will inevitably take something that isn’t hers someday. I doubt there is a child who doesn’t, but, with a Romani child, there is swift and vicious judgment around this issue. It is assumed to be proof that it is the child’s inherently thieving nature showing itself. I have heard such stories and examples given with exactly that conclusion from friends and family alike. So, it is simply nice that our nieces took Shaye’s doll first. When I had asked Dušan’s brother if he thought the doll might be in there, he had shrugged evasively, refused to look at me and said it might be but he wasn’t sure. If that judgment is ever made against Shaye in our family, I will not hesitate to bring up this incident.

Now, back home and rested from that trying trip to the farm, I have found time to read and I am listening to, “Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness” by Jane Lazarre on tape. It is a fascinating and enlightening book, even for someone as experienced in crossing the boundaries of race and culture as I am. Still, I internally resist some of the claims Lazarre makes, such as the assertion that no white person can ever really understand what an African American person goes through in social situations. I don’t claim to know, not exactly, and yet I balk at her explanation that even though a white person may be socially excluded, have a disability or be Jewish or from some other minority culture, that these are much much lesser life experiences compared to the experience of black people in America. I don’t claim the opposite but I do feel attacked and belittled by that statement as undiscussable fact. I struggle every single day with the social judgments and misunderstandings around my visual disability.

This morning I taught English classes at the local community center and although I have seen most of the children half a dozen times, I still cannot tell them apart. Much the way some white people say they cannot tell black people apart, I cannot tell apart all even these little blond boys and little blond girls. I know there are three little blond girls, Amalka, Adelka and Beatka, but I can’t tell which is which to save my life. The boys are, if anything, worse, precluding as they do the difference in hair length. As usual, I asked the mother’s to identify themselves and their children at the beginning of class, and as usual there was uncomfortable silence.. So, as usual, I explained again that I really cannot see them. Again, there was silence until I asked in a childish voice, “What’s your name?” of another little girl. Finally, they started to respond but the style of their reluctance showed clearly that they do not believe that I really can’t see the children. They believe that I am simply a flaky teacher.

This is an experience I have not only in this country but also in the US. It is not merely the Czech coldness. I have been in countless social situations in which I have been accused of being rude and arrogant, when I have no sense of either.  On a few occasions when I have had the opportunity to question such assertions in detail, I was told that it is because I don’t make eye contact. My eyes seem to look passed people. And yet, I do not look visually impaired.

I know there is a mountain of history, judgment and fear that African Americans carry with them. I understand that this creates daily challenges, the burden of always being marked out with a heavy load of related prejudices, including prejudices by those of us who have tried hard to rid ourselves of all prejudice. And yet, these judgments that I deal with every day are no less debilitating, no less silently violent in their destruction of my identity. I too bare the burdens of history – forced institutionalization of people with disabilities, sterilization, the Holocaust, endless discrimination and fear. I also bare the scars of my own personal history, the countless times I have been called retarded, pushed back in line, told that a teacher did not want me in his or her class, told I could not do this or that job, should never have tried to have a biological child, should be meek and grateful. And so I still resist internally some messages in this book that I would just as soon like to believe unquestioningly.

I would like to believe all of it, because I know that I am under the spell of prejudices as well. They are essentially impossible to avoid. What white American can resist the extra flash of fear at the sight of a group of black youths hanging out on one’s path in a deserted evening park? Not I. Not any of us, I would guess, who have not lived long and closely with black people. Partly, it is simply statistics. Fair or not, statistics say, young black people in America have higher crime rates, than young white people. There are sociological reasons, which do not place white people in such a rosy light, and it is undeniable that the police are many more times likely to catch, search and prosecute a young black man than they are to do the same with a young white man. But still, some of it is simply social circumstance. Many black people are poor and poverty leads to the social phenomenon of crime. And even though the statistical difference is not great enough to justify such fear, fear comes anyway.

Another example, uncomfortably closer to home, also plagued me today. I have read, in books and articles by Romani authors, that historically, because the Roma felt so irrevocably outcast by white society, they made a kind of sport of shaming and tricking white people. Sometimes Romani women, who were expected to be covered in long skirts when among the Roma, would flip up their skirts to flash white people. This led to a stereotype of Romani women being lewd and sexually free, when the opposite is generally true in their own communities. Similarly, even or perhaps especially Roma who had plenty of gold stored for their long-term security would beg, in a flamboyant, wheedling way, to get a non-Romani person to give them money. They would then make fun of this gullible stranger. I have seen incidents that appeared suspiciously like this in my time in Romani neighborhoods.

I am reticent to give anyone money, regardless of their background. I am not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, and I get along as well as I do, largely through frugality. I am a stay at home mom. My husband has a low-end professional job. My vision impairment ends up costing us a lot of money. I do give to beggars in specific types of situations. Once in the past few months, I bought a train ticket for a young Romani man who asked me for help at the train station and afterwards I got the impression that he was making fun of me and that he would sell the ticket later. I didn’t blame him really. I know the realities of Romani life here, and I brushed it off, hoping he would put the money to some reasonably good use. But today was different.

A young man called me after many months without contact between us. He spent his entire childhood in a children’s home and he helped me with a documentary film about Romani children in the segregated schools ten years ago. He is really the only Romani acquaintance I have who has been open to some long-term contact with me. I have found forming friendships of depth across the divide between my whiteness and my Romani acquaintances exceedingly difficult. In any case, my young friend or acquaintance – I cannot even be entirely sure which to consider him – is now finishing up his teaching degree through a distance learning program that often helps less-fortunate students. He is living with a long-term girlfriend who has two children from a previous relationship. She has in the past refused to meet me on several occassions and this has made me somewhat suspicious of her motives towards my friend and her prejudices about me as a non-Romani person.

Today, he called me and we chatted uncomfortably for a few minutes, while I pushed Shaye’s stroller back from teaching our English class with the look-alike blonde children. I could hear voices in the background until he asked me to call him back in a few minutes. I did so and he said he had gone outside to get a better phone signal, although the signal had seemed fine before. Then, his tone changed completely. He said things were not as good as he had described them before. He had lost his previous job at a school and been unemployed for a time. Now, he had found another job, where he has been working less than a month. He and his girlfriend had had to move three times, around through different apartments, because every place they rented suddenly hiked the rent. It is a common enough story. A lot of times, Roma will rent an apartment through someone else or in some way that hides their identity and then when the owner finds out that there are Roma living in the apartment, they cannot by contract throw them out, so they simply raise the rent to ridiculous levels.

In any case, my friend said he had run out of all reserves and now he didn’t have enough to pay the rent. He said he wouldn’t get a full salary this month, because of how he had started the job but that he will have the money for the rent next month. He said he is trying to find someone to borrow the money from.

Salaries here are still much lower than in the US, while food, clothing and housing costs are, if anything, higher. This pinch includes Dušan and me. We don’t have much to spare, but many of our expenses are long term expenses – contact lenses, business supplies, tickets to see family far away, car repairs. I have a reasonable fund to cover these things, hidden away. I had the money. And I know this young man to be a good and thoughtful person. But I also know that he once lied to me and his favorite teacher in a significant way, it was understandable given his age and desperation at the time. Still he never really had the chance to live in a family and with family identity  to be tied by some sense of moral identity. I have to wonder. I don’t really know him that well. Our tenuous friendship has never been tested. And I have to wonder about his girlfriend, who is fully steeped in Romani culture, appears to have some prejudices against me  and who could theoretically be playing some sort of manipulative game with me through him.

In the end, I loaned him a good chunk of money. I did so because I desperately hope this young man can find some stability and because I know full well how hard his situation can be and because I was once young and penniless and many generous people helped me. And because I hope against hope Shaye and our next child will have Romani friends and acquaintances. And the truth is that the knowledge of a real friend, one who feels close enough to me to genuinely ask for a loan, is worth the risk. Damn the money, even if I may be sorry later.

But what stood out to me throughout the incident is that I simply do not know enough about Romani culture to know if I should be worried about this issue I read about. I have very little defense against internalizing prejudices because I have no guide to the culture, no one close enough that I could ask for explanations and advice in situations like this. And yet, our family is part Romani. When we end up with a second child, our family will be half Romani and yet we will face hard and potentially impossible struggle to come into any real contact with the Romani culture.

A rough day

When I tell people in the US that my mother-in-law was vehemently against us adopting a Romani child, they tend to assume that she is a horrid, racist witch. She isn’t. Not that she doesn’t have her difficult qualities but, as mother-in-laws go, I think I got pretty lucky. She doesn’t harp on my house cleaning (there is much to be criticized) or my cooking (which is distinctly non-traditional), or at least not within my hearing. She is scrupulously fair with her two sons and an incredibly hard worker.

The thing that I think gets lost in translation is social context. I don’t, by any means, want to be an apologist for racism. Less than a year before we brought Shaye home, my mother-in-law said she would under no circumstances accept a Romani child and I was enraged. We had a huge three-hour fight about it and she and I didn’t talk for around six months, although we did try to work it out through letters. So, I’m not saying it is excusable. But I am saying it is understandable that an all-around good person could have such prejudiced views in this society.

There are constant media and social messages about how bad and dangerous the Roma are and there are especially bad stories about adopted Romani children. A couple of years ago, a well-known Czech author wrote a memoir of her experience raising two adopted Romani boys and one biological son. The entire book was basically an argument to show that she was a saint for trying to “save” these children from their degenerate natures and that it is clearly impossible to raise adopted Romani children. She says in the book that these boys are no longer her sons, although one of them was still half-way living with her at the time and neither is incapable of reading the book to see her disown them.

She says, now famously, that a Caucasian person trying to raise a Romani child is like a cat trying to raise a panther kitten. At first it works reasonably well, but then when the kitten gets big, things completely fall apart. The story has it that the two boys she adopted ran away, joined squatters living in the ghetto, became drug addicts and robbed her at every opportunity. This after she had loved them deeply, done everything for them and only occasionally yelled racist slurs at them when they were driving her nuts as small children. It is not a scenario entirely unknown to adoptive parents of previous generations in the US, before some awareness of the psychological havoc that cultural and racial displacement can cause, if it isn’t handled openly and conscientiously and if parents don’t deal with their own internal prejudices.

And that is just one book. Negative messages are pervasive here and there is almost nothing to put up against them. My mother-in-law was very concerned about the message in this book and claimed to know two families who had also ended up in disaster after adopting Romani children. So, given that she had almost no other information to go on, her reaction wasn’t as cruel or inhuman as it might seem at first glance.

Moreover, after we got Shaye, my mother-in-law significantly calmed down. I admit that the fact that Shaye does not look stereotypically Romani and is fairly light-skinned almost certainly had something to do with the sudden resumption of good relations in the family. But anyone who spends time with Shaye and her cousins can not help but notice that she is darker than them. Especially, when we put all the little girls in the bathtub together. Then, she suddenly looks completely Romani and that hasn’t changed the family dynamics. My mother-in-law even opened a savings account for Shaye and started putting money in it to save for her to put toward education or building a home some day. I haven’t seen any signs of favoritism among the cousins that I can tell.

That said, the last time we were in Stribrec, I had one of the roughest days of my entire life and some part of it was due to my mother-in-law and her issues.

Being in a somewhat unfamiliar place, Shaye woke up bright and early on Saturday morning. I hadn’t even had time to make a cup of tea or brush my hair. I wasn’t pleased. I was already feeling emotionally fragile. I could tell that my period was starting, which meant that definitively our “absolutely final” round of fertility treatments had failed. There was no room to talk my disappointment out with Dušan though. My mother-in-law, Marie, had fallen on wet tiles and broken her leg. The break was infected and she had been on major antibiotics for weeks. She couldn’t get around or do most of her farm chores and it was driving her crazy. Dušan got up and immediately left the two Spartan rooms that we use on our visits to go help with the morning routine on the farm.

I rolled out of bed with Shaye, went into the bathroom to get another sanitary pad, returned, caught Shaye pulling the cold ashes from the night before out of the woodstove, put Shaye on the potty, got half-way into my pants, chased Shaye around to wipe her bottom, emptied the potty, chased down Shaye again to wrestle her into some clothes because the ancient tile floors of the farmhouse quickly chill bare feet to the bone, put my own by-now numb feet the rest of the way into my pants, caught Shaye as she attempted to pour the only infant formula in 15 miles on the floor, put on an undershirt, took my cell phone away from Shaye, lifted now-screaming Shaye down from the bench to the floor so that she wouldn’t be hurt in her tantrum, put on a warm shirt, discovered that I needed a much thicker sanitary pad, caught Shaye as she attempted to pull the cold-but-still-full tea pot off the counter, went to get the thicker sanitary pad, returned and put the clothes back in my backpack that Shaye had managed to completely empty in my absence, put Shaye on the potty again, poured water from Shaye’s thermos into her bottle, caught Shaye before she could dump the peepee out on the carpet, emptied the potty, wiped the little bottom, started to count dippers of infant formula into the bottle, caught Shaye as she attempted to pull the tablecloth off of the table along with the bottle, infant formula and many other items that didn’t get back into my pack, finished counting dippers, caught wildly running Shaye, sat down and fed her the bottle, discovered that I needed something a lot more than a sanitary pad to deal with the gushing blood problem, started to feel sick and dizzy, carried Shaye out to the kitchen to see if anyone could watch her for a few moments, saw Marie and my father-in-law Josef sitting outside the screen door on the veranda drinking a leisurely cup of morning coffee, put Shaye’s coat on to send her out to them, started looking for Shaye’s shoes, looked on all the shoe selves, on all the floors, under all the couches and chairs, in the toy box… and couldn’t find them.

The worst part was that I knew with certainty that the shoes were sitting somewhere in plain sight. It is only that my eyes are so bad that I easily miss stuff like that. Either they blend in with other things or my eyes simply don’t focus on them. I was desperate by this time, feeling sicker and sicker by the minute. An hour had passed since Shaye and I got up and I still hadn’t even had a chance to get a drink of water, let alone a cup of tea, which I wanted badly. I was getting the idea that this wasn’t a regular old period. This was almost certainly an early miscarriage. That, of course, meant not only that I would feel physically miserable but that I had almost made it. This time I had almost been really pregnant.

I called Dušan’s name, hoping he was outside nearby and might know where Shaye’s shoes were. In fact, I could now remember quite clearly that he had brought her in from the car the day before, so he must have taken them off. He didn’t answer. I kept looking but then called for him again, an edge of urgency creeping into my voice. I went out to look on the veranda and on the outside shelves, no doubt appearing disheveled and frazzled. Marie, who normally would have been glad to help me find the shoes, sat at the table with her leg in a cast and her crutches propped beside her. Irritably, she said, “Baby shoes are nothing to get hysterical over.”

That made me feel somewhat hysterical. The shoes may not be a reason but the need to get Shaye outside and off my hands for a few moments, so I could deal with the gushing blood and dizziness issue was. And the frustration of knowing the shoes were right in plain view and that I couldn’t see them also seemed like a good reason to get hysterical.

Dušan was apparently out back doing chores. Josef was sitting comfortably at the veranda table smoking and drinking coffee. He could in theory – at least theory according to most Americans – have helped me, but that would be unthinkable in this family culture. He is the patriarch. He doesn’t even get his own spoon when he is sitting right by the silverware drawer. There is no way he would look for baby shoes, probably not even if he knew I was bleeding profusely. I wasn’t resentful of this. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me until well after the incident that he could have helped.

In fact, I felt deeply sorry for Josef. He didn’t know that his last chance to have a grandson was draining away at that moment. I know it may seem petty of him, but there is more too this than male pride, a lot more, and Josef has always been gentle with me. After my huge fight with Marie about adopting Shaye, he came out to where I was picking cherries and offered to move my ladder for me. He stood around and helped me and watched the sky for a long time. He never said anything but his manner was comforting and reassuring. He had never said or even let on in the slightest to me or my sister-in-law that he was sad that we had not produced a son to carry the family name, but we knew.

His family had been living on the same piece of land for 600 years. I kid you not. There are ancient village chronicles to prove it. Countless disasters had threatened to ruin them or push them off the land, but they had survived – the plague, droughts, fires, famines, the occupation by Nazi forces during World War Two which forced them to give up their food without payment to feed the army, the totalitarian Communist regime that forced almost all family farmers off their land. That last challenge – the Communists – had almost finished them. Josef’s father was imprisoned five times and the Stalinist authorities sent Josef and his brother to work in a Uranium mine without protective clothing. His brother died of leukemia at the age of 21.

This is a long line of quiet fighters. This farm meant much more than just pride and land. It was the memory of all those brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents who had fought to preserve the family. And in this generation neither Dušan nor his brother had returned to the farm. Josef and Marie were trying to keep the tradition going alone in their sixties. Their effort is valliant and I knew he hoped, hoped against hope that a grandchild would take up the torch some day, if possible a boy who would also preserve the 600-year-old family name. It was his last hope, the reason he kept on struggling against impossible markets, a grinding workload and increasing health problems to keep the farm going another year and then another.

Marie has little patience for his passion for family tradition. I am a romantic though and I have a lot of respect for his dream. Once Dušan and I even tried to work out a plan for how we could move there and run the farm ourselves, but Marie showed us how we couldn’t make it work financially and talked us out of it. Dušan’s brother and sister-in-law had had two very difficult and high-risk pregnancies and had two lovely girls. They were unwilling to have any more children. There are cousins but all the cousins have had only girls as well. I was the last hope for a grandson. I myself would slightly prefer another girl, but I did hope for Josef’s sake. And for the sake of the child, I now desperately hope our next adopted Romani child will NOT be a boy. There will be enough struggles in the family without adding the stress of the only boy of the family not only being adopted but also being one of the hated and feared Roma.

That was what was going through my head when I glanced at Josef, so having him help me find Shaye’s shoes was far from my mind. After what seemed like an eternity, Dušan returned and within minutes, found the shoes in one of the bedrooms, where I had looked thoroughly, right on the floor, in plain sight for everyone but me. Whew!

Then, Dušan’s brother Martin, sister-in-law Eva and two nieces showed up, much earlier than usual. So much for a bit of peace. I dealt with the gushing blood problem as best I could and came back out to gulp breakfast, while running interference on children. Soon Martin and Dušan had finished the morning chores and the whole family was pleasantly gathered on the veranda. Even I felt better, but I was a bit concerned about Marie’s fragile spirits. I wanted to reassure her that I hadn’t been upset about the shoes, just frustrated with my own eyes.

She and I were sitting together at the far end of the table and neither of us were part of the boisterous conversation, so I leaned close to her and whispered, “Don’t worry. I wasn’t hysterical, I just…”

But before I could finish the sentence she burst out loudly, disrupting the whole table. “Stop! Just stop it! You make a big scene about the stupidest things!”

I should have stopped. I should have salvaged what grace I could and left. I know that quite well, but I am a fighter by nature. Before I could stop myself, I bleated some sort of reply and within seconds the entire family was in an uproar, angrily discussing my propensity to be hysterical and argumentative. With my hormones going berserk and my own inner sadness welling close to the surface, I was in no shape to stand up to it. I was in tears within minutes. Martin and Marie were furious. The children were crying too. Even quiet Josef shouted at me. Dušan left in disgust. I had somehow managed to disrupt the only peaceful part of the whole day.

It took me more than an hour to recover and scrape together the dregs of my emotional stability. I had to tell Dušan that I couldn’t help with the wood cutting and stacking, which would take up most of the day. I felt too dizzy and sick. So, instead Eva, who is quintessentially a city girl, had to put on work clothes and join the men with the wood. For a wonder, she did so without complaint even before I had a chance to quietly explain the reason for my indisposition. I took on childcare.

In between changing my overlarge sanitary pads, I helped Shaye and her cousins to do finger paints, draw pictures and make princess crowns out of colored paper and shiny stickers. They had a wonderful time and, for the first time, Shaye and the younger of the cousins were just barely old enough to participate. I relished the joyous thought that this was only the beginning. Shaye and I would be able to enjoy these girl cousins for many years to come.

Late in the day, something came out of me, a mass of something more solid and pale amid all the blood. I couldn’t be absolutely sure but it seemed like maybe it was what was left of the four-week-old fetus. I had had two previous miscarriages, one in the ninth week in a hospital, an experience I do not wish to remember, and one early on like this one in a friend’s bathroom. In my confusion and grief I had thrown away the small pale mass in the garbage. And that had haunted me. These tiny fetuses – or were they still technically embrios? – may be nameless and completely unviable, but somehow throwing them in the garbage seems barbaric. So this time, I wrapped the small semi-solid thing in paper. I heard Shaye starting to cry for me as she woke up from her nap, so I put the paper package in my pocket, unsure what I would do with it.

The sun had come out and shown bright and clear, like it does on some beautiful early-fall days. While I was in the bathroom and getting Shaye up from her nap, the other girls had got into trouble already, nagging the by-now exhausted adults, who were trying to finish up the wood stacking. I came out and quickly devised a plan to “go find the flower fairies in the meadow” and soon I had all three little girls traipsing after me and singing.

We walked up a small hill behind the farm, where an old cottage stands, and sat on the grass. I pretended to look for fairies under leaves and in the petals of late flowers. The six-year-old cousin, Evička gently caught grasshoppers in her cupped hands and showed them to the smaller girls, who shrieked and giggled when they bounded away. As I felt around below the hedge on the crest of the hill I felt my hand sink into soft earth hiden under the leaves. I dug a little and took out the little bundle of paper in my pocket, placed it in the hole and covered it. I tried to do all of this without the girls noticing but Evička ran up an piped, “What’s that?”

“It’s a message for the flower fairies,” I told her, “a special message, so we had better let it be.” She looked at me with credulous wonder and we went skipping and spinning off across the meadow. It was a message of sorts for the fairies or the spirits of the old Blažek farm. None of us chose this path, not me, not Josef, not Marie, not Dušan and not Shaye or the child to come. It is my plea to the spirits of this place to be kind to my adopted children, to accept them as their own, as part of that unbroken 600-year-old line.

Evička picked up Shaye and whirled around with her, both laughing, hands intertwined, one pale pink and one a healthy tan color. That gives me as much hope as anything. There is a chance Shaye’s cousins will grow up without so many prejudices, at least a chance. This is what I mean, when I say Marie’s racist prejudices don’t make her evil, just misguided and mentally blind. She never really had a chance to escape those prejudices the way she grew up. I learned later that Marie was in constant pain, despite her medications, and that perhaps gave her a shorter fuse that morning. As far as I know, we were all doing the best we could that day.

I was miserable but not as emotionally devastated as I had been by previous miscarriages. I have come to a kind of peace about my infertility. It is not anything like what I have read about in advice books on the subject. I have not come to “accept it” gladly. I doubt I will ever be entirely free of the little whisper of longing that I could have experienced pregnancy and birth and the early weeks of my children’s lives. I will always wish my children didn’t have to go through the pain of separation from their birthparents in order to become my adopted children. And I vehemently disagree that being “child free” is the great alternative it is made out to be by those who don’t want to acknowledge the lifelong grief of truly involuntarily infertile people. But my grief has become peaceful, quiet and no longer all-consuming. Just as I doubt Shaye’s birth mother will ever entirely forget her. I will carry this sadness in some corner of my heart, but I will also live a joyful life and be ever grateful for my children.

Adoption 101

The other day, the phone rang and, when I answered, a woman asked for me in heavily accented English. As it turned out, she is Dutch and living here in the Czech Republic more or less permanently. She got my number from our local social worker who suggested she call me to consult about adoption. The law says that foreigners with legal residency must be treated like citizens in most things, including adoption. That is the law, though not actually how it works a lot of the time. Still, technically, we can put in an adoption application here.

I agreed to tell her all I know and invited her to come and sit on our veranda and drink something cool in the evening. I looked forward to meeting someone else in a similar situation and yet part of me shrank from the idea of going through all that stuff again, even just mentally. The adoption process was sheer hell for me, as hard a time as I have had since I was consumed by social isolation in high school.

She walked up our rough, gravely driveway in neat business attire and made all the expected pleasant remarks about our house and about Shaye. As soon as we had sat down, she started in with the words, “I have always thought it would be nice to adopt, so that is why I’m doing this.” There was a tone to her voice that closed the subject. That might have been all there was too it, but maybe not. Perhaps she didn’t like dwelling on what came before anymore than I do.

For me, the thought of what brought us to adoption is one of the most painful. I, like my visitor, had long thought that adopting a child would be a worthy adventure. I thought about it back in high school, when I was naive enough to think having a child would be like always having a friend around. And even later, as I travelled in more than 30 countries, I often considered what it might be like to adopt a child from one of those places. I even met homeless and abandoned children and wished I had some way to take care of them, some home of my own to take them into.

But by the time I had that home of my own, I also had a husband and somehow adoption simply didn’t occur to me anymore. I just assumed we would have children, like everyone else.

But we didn’t.

That’s where it gets to be miserable. I have found that people who have never been touched directly by infertility cannot seem to grasp the horror of it. It is like the opposite of how sympathetic people feel about blindness. You can imagine the terror of being blind. But it is impossible to really understand the despair that a person who very much wants a child faces when they cannot produce one. It isn’t about wanting comfort or companionship. It isn’t about some emptiness or loneliness that a child might fill. That is the stereotype. Infertile people are supposed to be selfish and just want a kid to entertain them or fill some gap in their lives. Oh, I know you wouldn’t put it that harshly but a lot of people think it on some level. I have heard a few people voice various versions of this, and I can’t claim that there are absolutely no psychologically unhealthy people out there who do want a child for selfish reasons.

So, what is the suffering of infertility about? How can you want a child so much, and yet be neither selfish nor naively out to rescue the poor orphans of the world?

When I was in college, I thought maybe I would never have children. I liked kids and kids have always liked me. It just wasn’t a big deal to me. And then, when I was about 26 something shifted inside me. It was like the shift between being healthy and having the flu. You aren’t sure what is happening and then, in a moment, you know you have really come down with something. All of the sudden, I knew I had to have children. I was happy enough with my life. I had a good family, a loving husband, exciting work, a few good friends and lots of personal interests in reading, gardening, crafts and writing. The last thing I needed was a baby to “fill up my life” and yet I desperately needed children around, in my life, touching me, needing me. I was suddenly bursting with children’s songs and longing to read toddler books. I felt all this good energy for a baby swelling up inside of me and leaking out, like a breast full of milk. And like an unsuckled breast, it hurt unbearably to have all that pent up with no release. I would have jumped at the chance to be a volunteer holding babies at an orphanage (though that sadly wasn’t an option in my area), and I was happy to look after other people’s babies, but even that was only a temporary remedy that soothed only the surface of the pain and very few of my friends still had small children by then.

The thing I am trying to say is that it was a biological need. I can’t see it any other way now. One year it wasn’t there and the next it was, like puberty. Something in my body changed. At first, it was just a nagging feeling of need. Then, after three years, it was all consuming. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. It was like living with chronic pain. And I lived with that for another four years, before Shaye came.

Infertility is a disease like any other. It impairs a major part of your life, like any significant disability and it is hard to bear from day to day. But what made it that much worse was that no one understood. Mama was sympathetic, caring and kind. She listened for hours to my grief over it. But I had no friends who were interested or understood. It was like I was an old aunt come to complain to them about my aches and pains. They said something soothing and tried to move on to some other topic reasonably quickly. And then there were the people who said, “Well, if you were really concerned for your child’s sake, you’d just adopt. There are plenty of children in need.”

This came mostly from people in America, where this last generally is not true. Oh, there are some children in need because adoptive families want mostly healthy, white infants. But the need is not nearly as simple as these righteous ones make it sound. If you adopt an older child, you miss out on a large part of what it is to parent and it is always a different kind of relationship with an older child. If you adopt a child with a disability, dealing with that will consume everything else in your life. It isn’t for everyone. As a person who was born with a significant disability, I should know. If you adopt a non-white child, you will be judged as exploiting minority children for your selfish, infertile-person needs. I’m not kidding in the slightest.

It is still very controversial for white people to adopt black or other non-white children in the US, and I’m not primarily talking about the gripes of white racists. The black professionals in the adoption field have some reasonable objections about the cultural identity and alienation of transracially adopted children. But I have seen plenty of websites by people – black, white, Asian and all sorts of others – putting down white adoptive parents and claiming they are inherently selfish exploiters, genetically incapable of addressing all the needs of a child of another race.

The bottom line is that “Just adopt!” is not the best advice for a person ravaged by infertility. You don’t have to be overly attached to your own genes to hesitate about adoption, you just have to be really seriously thinking over the issues.

I am pretty sure that the “Just adopt!” comments I got actually delayed my decision to file the application. As it is, we went through three full rounds of IVF before we took any real steps toward adoption. At this point, I can see that I personally would have been better off if we had started earlier. I would have suffered less and my child would have had more of the best of me and less of the frazzled out, wrung out part. However, my outcome is NOT that of all infertile people, so don’t take this as license to harass suffering people.  The “Just adopt!” comments felt like the stab of a knife while we were still trying to get pregnant. The bottom line is that those comments were not rooted in empathy and understanding for our struggle and they even implied a negative judgment about us.

The IVF treatments were as bad, or much worse, than you’ve heard. They require you to inflict physical pain on yourself on a daily basis (giving yourself injections in the gut). And they are a perfect form of psychological torture, particularly when you have doctors, as we do here, who are extremely uncommunicative and who won’t even tell you what the next step will be in advance, let alone whether or not your chances are reasonable. Our first doctor was named in English translation “Dr. Cutter” and her waiting room had one sole decoration, an enormous cactus that appeared to be dying. It was propped up by some sort of hospital equipment from the orthopedics ward.

We spent three years focused on treatments of one kind or another, many of them physically painful, all of them emotionally wrenching and some of them downright humiliating. Hope and enthusiasm gave way first to anxiety and then to despair. We were good patients at first with good attitudes and a fair amount of patience. But we had virtually no time or energy for other interests during those three years.

In any case, you can see why I’m not surprised at anyone who just doesn’t want to talk about it. I got the point that my Dutch visitor either really didn’t have these issues or didn’t want to discuss them, and so we skipped right to the point.

She already knew where to file the adoption application – at our local social work office. There are no private adoption agencies. It is highly illegal for anyone except the state bureaucracy to arrange an adoption in the Czech Republic. So, her first real question was “How long does it usually take?” That is the first, second and third thing prospective adoptive parents generally want to know.

“That depends,” I said cautiously. She was Dutch after all and that should generally mean she would be more open minded than most Czechs but still diplomacy pays. “Some wait five years. Some wait only a few weeks. There are lots of factors, like how old you want the child to be or what health problems you can accept. But, of course, the main factor is that there is one ethnic group here, that very few adoptive families will accept.”

“Oh, yes. I’ve heard about that,” she said, her words slightly explosive as if in relief.

She explained that she had already been to see the head of our local social work office. I will call her Mrs. S for safety’s sake, since neither my family nor my visitor is out of the woods yet. Mrs. S was the same person who did our initial interview, so I knew how it would have gone. “Did she give you the lecture about Romani children?” I asked, and my guest laughed in embarrassed agreement.

When Dušan and I went to pick up the forms for our application. Mrs. S had asked us generally about “how we imagined the child” we would adopt. After some confusion, we figured out that by this she meant she wanted to know our “criteria” – age, health issues, ethnicity. She was shocked to hear our criteria, although I considered them very conservative indeed. We said we wanted an infant, as young as possible, without major health problems, excepting perhaps a vision impairment because I am well equipped to handle that. And, oh yeah, we don’t care about ethnicity.

“You mean, you would accept a child of a different ethnicity, even a different color from you?” Mrs. S had clarified.

“Yes.”

“You would even consider a mixed race child, where one of the parents is… er… Romani,” she sounded unused to using the terminology. We nodded before she even got to the end, “even a fully Romani child?”

“Yes, no problem.”

“You know that those children almost always have problems as they grow up?” Mrs. S persisted.

Dušan tensed up beside me and I took a deep breath. I had not really expected the social workers to resist this part of it. They must want to get rid of the “hard to place” Romani children, mustn’t they? I thought they might object because of my vision impairment or because I am a foreigner. But I figured they would be thrilled with our openness to Romani children.  I thought quickly for a moment and then answered, “Yes,  we have read that children in transracial adoptions often have problems. In fact, that’s why we decided to do it this way. I can’t drive and that would make it difficult for us to go to all sorts of medical appointments. That’s why we don’t want to get into a situation where a lot of medical problems are already known. But, on the other hand, I speak English. Our child will be bilingual. We have friends from all over the world, people of different colors, some of my relatives are Vietnamese. This is where we are strong. This is what we can offer that other families might have more trouble with.”

She seemed impatient, brushing my words away as soon as I stopped for breath. “Yes, yes, I know. But this is different. These children have more difficulties than other children of different ethnic backgrounds. For instance, in school.”

“Yes, we understand that as well,” I said, feeling a bit breathless. “I grew up as a visually impaired child in school, in a place where that was not well accepted. We know that not everyone will accept a Romani child and that can be a major problem at school, of course.”

“No,” she snapped at me, now finally provoked into speaking more directly. “That is not what I mean. Everyone accepts them. Everyone does everything to help them. That is not a problem. The problem is with THEM. They do not behave well. They do not study. The are deficient in moral values. I really don’t recommend this sort of adoption.”

Both Dušan and I were stunned. We knew there was prejudice in society, of course. We had seen and heard plenty of it, but we had thought that officials were being forced to be more politically correct. In any event, we could not show our shock or our disgust to Mrs. S. That social worker was our only avenue into the adoption system and her notes about us would accompany our file for years to come. We had to keep our tempers and placate her. Finally, after a tense moment, we both started talking at once. Dušan was trying to head me off, afraid that I would explode in anger at the woman or give her a lecture, as he had seen me do before with people who made blatantly racist comments. But I patted his shoulder reassuringly. “We have been told the same thing by many people. We know there could be many problems but we have thought about it a lot and this is what we have decided.” My tone was quiet but also firm, and it worked. The social worker let it be.

I related that story to the Dutch woman sitting on my veranda and we shared a chagrined chuckle. Her conversation with Mrs. S had been very similar. Then, she had more questions. I told her about the various pitfalls I knew of on the application forms, the many petty things Czech bureaucrats want to have officially confirmed. “After you file the application, they’ll tell you repeatedly and sternly not to call them. They’ll call you, they say. But the trick is that they never do call apparently. That’s what I’ve been told by other professionals. I waited three months before I called. And when I called they were glad to hear from me and immediately scheduled the next step in the process. From what I have heard it is some sort of test. They say you must not call them, but then they wait until you do. That is not to say they want you to be disobedient. In most things, you are expected to follow their rules to the letter. Perhaps it is a test of your desperation. From what I’ve heard, you should wait at least two months before you call, but then call.”

I didn’t tell my visitor how much that had hurt. After the misery of infertility treatments, I had felt emotionally raw. The bureaucrats – with their manipulative tests and arbitrary waiting periods – made me feel battered.

I did tell the Dutch woman that the psychological tests are no big deal, just a couple of computer programs that ask transparent moral questions where the correct answers are obvious. The homestudy is with Mrs. S and despite her issues about Romani children she is a piece of cake otherwise. She barely looked around my house and spent most of the time drinking tea and chatting in the kitchen.

The Dutch woman was concerned about the mandatory parenting classes. How would she understand them in Czech? As far as I know, you are allowed to bring an interpreter, and otherwise the classes are really the best part of the process. Certainly it feels a little demeaning that we have to go to classes to become parents, whereas most people don’t. But really the content of the classes is pretty sophisticated and interactive and interesting. Well, there was a lecture on legal issues, which was boring and impossible to hear. But other than that, the classes were a relief and we met a lot of friendly, courageous people in circumstances similar to our own. The only exception to that similarity was that we were the only couple open to Romani children.

Interestingly enough, here in the Czech Republic adoptive parents are not all upper middle class or wealthy. Our “classmates” were almost all working class – a lot of truck drivers and builders in our year. That is largely because money really plays no role in the system here. There are plenty of problems with the Czech system, but at least we don’t have to pay $10,000 to $25,000 for someone to arrange the adoption. And thus, no matter how much inequity there is in the system, Romani children are not cheaper, the way black kids are in America.

“OK, psychological tests, homestudy, parenting classes… What then?” the Dutch woman asked.

“Then, you wait for another three or four months. Supposedly they are “considering” your application all that time but, basically, there are rules that say they have three months to do thus and such, and they always take the maximum amount of time, regardless of the complexity of the case,” I explained the bureaucratic system as all Czechs know it. It doesn’t matter whether you are applying for adoption or for a building permit. The rules are essentially the same. The bureaucrats are given generous time limits by law, which are supposed to be the outside limits, but instead they end up being the minimum time period. There are always ways for the officials to extend the limits, if there is a more complex case.

“So, in the end it takes a year to a year and half for the application to be approved. Then, you are in the registry and you wait. If you are applying for a Romani child, you won’t wait long,” I said. “We are applying again too, but we’ll probably be the only competition you’ll have within our region.”

“Oh, dear!” my visitor cried in mild dismay. “I don’t want to end up with the child you should have!”

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “There are plenty of Romani babies, even very young infants, in need of families. Neither of us will have to wait long, probably only a couple of months, and they always prioritize first time applicants. Of course, you can’t get a newborn because the bureaucrats have a few months to process the paperwork to make each child open for adoption. Two months old is probably the absolute youngest possible. But most of the children are made legally open for adoption at around nine to ten months. If the birthparents don’t come to the government offices personally to sign papers in a strict regimen, then the social workers have to take the child’s case to court to have the child declared abandoned. The court treats these cases as low priority, so it takes months and months.”

Then, she wanted to know about the orphanages, where the babies are kept during those months, and what happens when you are finally matched with a child. Again I was thrown back into memory.

We got the call on a Wednesday afternoon in March 2009. I was just about to teach my after-school English class for kindergarten and first grade kids. The kids were walking in my front door, yelling and running in the hall. My teenage niece Ember was here from Oregon and was helping me with my classes, so when I saw the social worker’s number on the caller ID, I waved at her to take the kids into my makeshift classroom.  I wouldn’t have normally picked up. But they don’t call, unless…

“The commission has just matched you with a baby girl,” the social worker said.

“How old is she?” I was trembling. The call had come once before, but it was about an older child and we had agreed to hold out. Older children can be adopted abroad or go into foster care. Romani babies have very few chances to get out of the orphanages while they are still very small. And besides, there was my inexplicable longing for an infant.

“Less than three months.” She added that we would have to come into the office to look at the child’s file first. “Take a few weeks to consider it and come when you’re ready.”

“A few weeks?” Was she nuts? You might have a baby and you’ll leave that child lying in a crib in an orphanage where no one has the time to hold her for a few weeks, while you think about it??? “We’ll come tomorrow.”

I had to call her back after my class to firm up the arrangements. I could barely concentrate on the lesson plan and Ember ended up teaching most of the class herself, while I sat by the window, shaking my head and jiggling my feet. When I finally could get back to the phone, Dušan walked in the door. He was so excited that he took the phone out of my hands and talked to the social worker himself. At first, she tried to say she didn‘t have any time to meet with us until the next week, but he persisted and she agreed that if we could come in right at eight O’clock in the morning, we could see her the next day.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. I tried. I knew I would need all my strength over the next few days, but I couldn’t get my thoughts to quit their wild reeling.

We were at the regional government office 15 minutes early and we sat on the bench outside the door, trying desperately to keep the bored, bland expressions on our faces that are manditory in public here. Finally, we were let into the office and shown a photograph of an oddly serious baby with her little hands clasped primly on her chest. She had blue eyes of all things. “She’s very light-skinned for a Romani child,” was one of the social worker’s first comments and she kept repeating it throughout the interview.

Other than that she listed the medical history, almost none. The baby had had a respiratory infection a month earlier. Otherwise no problems. Her birthmother didn’t drink or do drugs that they knew of. The local social worker, who personally knew the birthmother, would later tell us she didn’t smoke cigarettes either. She was 22 and had three older children. She took good care of them and all were healthy. She wasn’t married but she had a long-term partner. He had had a job at a big car factory, but he lost it in the onset of the economic troubles in 2008. They were desperate and didn’t think they could give a fourth child a good life. The birth mother had cried a lot over it but she had come to sign the adoption papers on the first day she was allowed to after the six week post-partum waiting period. The baby had been taken away from her immediately at birth, because she had said she wanted the child to be adopted. She wanted the adoption to go quickly and she had lobbied the officials to find her child a family as quickly as possible.

Supposedly, most adoptive parents want a true orphan, a newborn whose parents somehow died immediately after the birth. That was never my fantasy. If I had thought up a perfect story, this would probably have been it. Except for one thing. It was a great story for us. A child coming from such a good environment is an uncommon blessing in adoption. But I knew in my gut that, if this woman had been white, instead of Romani, she would not have had to give up her child. She would have had other options. Her extended family would not have been decimated by the forced assimilation policies and systemic discrimination that have torn so many Romani families apart over the past 50 years. She and her partner would have had many more chances to find a new job. She would have certainly had a better chance at an education.  From all accounts, the birthmother showed good intelligence in her ability to work with the officials to ensure a future for her child, but she had not been to school beyond the ninth grade.

“This is what she wants,” I told myself. But I still heard the voices of African American social workers condemning transracial adoption as “cultural genocide.” This was what they were talking about, wasn’t it? It wasn’t fair. And yet, what was done was done. The Czech authorities would never return a Romani child to a mother who relinquished her. That baby now needed us.

We were given the name of the orphanage and we drove straight there, even though we had been urged again to “think about it for a couple of weeks.” When we got there, we were given another lecture, containing mostly the same information we had heard at the regional government office. We had been there for an hour and a half and we still hadn’t seen our baby. We could hear the babies crying just next door but we weren’t allowed to see her.

When they finally did bring her in to the office where we were seated, she was sleeping. She was tiny, only the size of a large newborn. She was dressed in a winter snowsuit and placed in an old-fashioned baby carriage. The orphanage, like most Czech families, put infants on a covered balcony in the cold air to sleep. It is supposed to be healthy, if the child is dressed warmly enough.

It wasn’t a bad place, not really. The staff was hard-working. Everything was clean. There were toys. But there were also 18 babies under the age of crawling for just two nurses to care for. All they had time for was a hurried feeding and diapering of each infant before they had to start from the beginning again. The babies gulped their milk frantically, because they knew that any slacking would mean the bottle would be taken away for another three hours. They were often left to cry in their cribs for an hour or more because there was simply no one to handle their needs. And, of course, the nurses were different every day. The babies had no chance to develop a relationship with anyone.  I have read the reports on the most recent brain research that say that infants who spend more than a few months in a place like this, with no stable primary caregiver, show structural changes in their brains and develop deficiencies in social and emotional abilities later on.

We waited on pins and needles until she woke up. When she opened her eyes, they looked startlingly blue in the sunlight that had just peeked out from behind a cloud. She stared at us with quiet, watchful curiosity. We took turns holding her, laughing hysterically and talking giddily. Dušan went to call the regional government, to set the ball of paperwork officially rolling. They wouldn’t let us make the official decision before seeing the baby in person. I went to give her a bottle. A nurse had to correct me, to show me the right amount of nipple to stick into her mouth, but after that she praised me for my attentive and careful handling of the baby.

It was another five days before we were allowed to bring her home. I spent as much time with the baby as they would let me. All I was allowed to do at the orphanage was to sit and hold her on the freezing balcony. So, I sat there for two whole days, despite the fact that my legs went numb from the cold. The nurses expressed bewilderment about why I wouldn’t just leave the baby in their care for those few days. But, if your child was in a hospital or some other institution, you wouldn’t just leave her there, would you? You would be there every minute they would let you, particularly if you had read the ominous scientific reports on the effects of such places on babies.

There was still a lot of paperwork to do and we also had to drive all over the region to various bureaucratic offices – where the baby was born, in our local district and back to the regional government – to get various papers signed. As usual, each place wanted to send the papers on to the orphanage through the mail, which would take up to a week longer. We had to cajole and subtly bully each official in turn to let us play letter carrier. We knew from reports by parents that we had read on the internet, that you could get through the red tape in a few days if you really tried. And so, I passed this knowledge on to the Dutch woman in my turn.

We had finally taken Shaye home on Tuesday morning, almost a week after that initial call. I had slept a total of seven hours in all that time and I felt physically and psychologically exhausted. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t have been more tired, if I had given birth, and I began life as a new mother already sleep-deprived and frazzled.

I have improved a lot in the year and a half since then. Though, like most mothers of toddlers, I am always a little tired and dazed.

After the Dutch woman left, I took Shaye up to take a bath. She splashed around in the tub and poured water from one plastic container to another. She likes to drink the bath water and I try to convince her that it is “yucky.” But she looks at me like I’m really a bit odd. Water is water after all. Then, she slithered around on her belly and giggled and splashed. But when I laid her back to wash her hair, she cried piteously. She always does that. She doesn’t scream in terror or cry in pain. She just gives a little moaning whimper that goes on and on, until the washing is done. She’s done that, since the day we brought her home. My mother, the child therapist, says this isn’t normal. Mama says if I supported her head right, she wouldn’t cry. I’ve tried a lot of different strategies but nothing works. Shaye isn’t afraid of water normally. I have to wonder if this isn’t some strange reaction left over from those 11 weeks she spent in the sterile orphanage environment. You always watch for the signs and never know for sure.

When she’d had enough, she crawled out of the water onto the towel that I spread on the changing platform next to the tub. We played peek-a-boo with another towel, while I dried her. Then, I squirted some massage oil onto my hand and then onto hers. She always wants to do it with me, so we both smered the oil on her hands and feet and cheeks. I put a diaper on her, only her second of the day. She pretty much potty trained herself at 17 months, but night and naps are still an issue. I noticed that night that her pajamas were getting a bit small. Time to pull out the stockpiles of good second-hand clothes I brought back from the US on our last visit.

We ran into Dušan in the hallway, on the way to bed, and she gave him a kiss, said “Papa! Papa! Night, night!” and waved bye bye at him.

Then, we went into our darkened bedroom and she cuddled into her special blankets with her special kitty from Grandma in America. I always hold her for a few minutes in her blankets and tell her some story out of my head. She likes to read books too but we do that downstairs before the bath, so that we don’t have to turn on a light in the bedroom and attract mosquitoes. That night I told her the story of her birth, what I know of it.

“Once upon a time, a tiny little baby was born. She was the sweetest, prettiest baby ever with blue-gray eyes and caramel-colored skin and lots of curly brown hair. That baby was little Shaylinka, little Shaye. First, she was growing inside her mother’s belly. That was her first mother. Her name is Pavlina. Then, the little baby came out of the dark, warm place and looked all around. There were lots of strange things and lots of people and noise in the world. There was also bright light and sunshine and snow outside the windows because Shaylinka was born in the middle of the winter. At first, Shaylinka was a little scared of all the new things but then she just looked around quietly like she always does. Then, after awhile, she started to get hungry and so she started crying for her Mama to come and feed her. But her Mama wasn’t there. There were only some ladies in white dresses and they gave the little baby some milk in a bottle. That was good, so she went to sleep. The little baby’s first mother, Pavlina, didn’t see her anymore, because she was very young and she didn’t have any money to buy the little baby warm clothes and good food. She loved the little baby and she was worried about what would happen to her, if she didn’t have all the things she needed. Pavlina thought about it really hard, and she decided that the little baby would find her real Mama and Papa somewhere. So, she asked the ladies in white dresses to help and she worked hard for the next couple of weeks, so that little baby Shaylinka could find her real Mama and Papa soon. Little baby Shaylinka was waiting for her Mama and Papa in a little bed with yellow bars. She waited and waited and sometimes she cried, but sometimes she played with some toys too. Then, one day, she woke up from her nap and her Mama and Papa were there, smiling at her.”

It was the first time, I had found the words to tell the story from that perspective, rather than from the perspective of us searching for our baby. I felt a wave of relief, when I told the story in a way that would make sense to a toddler. It is a start.

Shaye was almost asleep already and when I put her down in her crib, she just turned over and hugged her kitty and slept.

Summer friends, sort of

Summer is the season for reuniting with friends, for sandboxes and little plastic swimming pools, for fruit picking and canning. Last summer, Shaye was just a baby and I was very new at this. We mostly lounged on a mattress in the shade of our grape vines, while I endlessly tried to keep her from falling off the edge or being stung by a wasp. This summer she is a year and a half – lean, wirery, already running with ease up and down hills, through grass and on rough terrain. Her verbal skills have yet to catch up with her legs and I am always running after her calling, “Stop! No, no! Stop. You’ll go boom. That’s ow ow!”

The thing that makes this all the more hilarious is that I’m legally blind. I can see just enough to get into trouble, as the saying goes, but not enough to get out again. I am mostly just extremely nearsighted, so sometimes I “lose” Shaye because she is just a few yards away in a place where I don’t expect her. So far, she hasn’t learned to capitalize on this method of escape, but it seems like it is only a matter of time.

Naked she looks like she has an exceptionally good tan, as if I’ve kept her on the beach for months. But she doesn’t really.  I’m careful with the sunscreen and hats. Brown people get skin cancer too, you know. Her hair is growing out, wildly. It’s a bush of brown curls that defy all but the most draconian hair-ties. Her favorite things are pouring water out of things, pouring sand on things, pulling all sorts of things apart and playing with the potty. She goes in it too, quite often, but she really wants to use it as a hat or a drinking bowl. Her vocabulary is a bit confused. Her Papa speaks Czech to her and I speak English. So, she says “up”, “no”, “more”, “done”, “Night, night” and “bye bye” in English. But she says “Hi”, “by myself”, “mine”, “let’s go” and “eat” in Czech.

I don’t know if she is a genius, but she is certainly smart. I wonder if the fact that I had no part in making her that way genetically is one of those adoption things that would bother some people. I can’t really imagine. Either way, it seems to be a matter mostly of luck. I might have given birth to a fine child, if I could have carried one to term. But my genes are nothing special and I have no particular desire to saddle someone else with them. My vision impairment isn’t supposed to be genetic but that isn’t totally certain. And then there are the crooked legs that run in my family, the tendency toward manic depressive mood swings and a propensity to become mildly overweight unless you really watch it. Shaye certainly seems to have managed to get at least as good genes as ours.

We live in a country – the Czech Republic – where that kind of thinking is not at all standard. The general population assumes adopted children must be substandard and the professionals in the field are always emphasizing what bad genes they must come from – otherwise their families would have been able to take care of them. And that is even before you get into the issue of ethnicity. Back in the 1990s, when that sort of statistics were kept, a government report found that at least 70 percent of Romani children had been declared mentally retarded and sent to segregated remedial schools. Outside organizations claimed the true figure may have been as high as 90 percent. Not much has changed since then, except the names of the schools and the fact that the government outlawed keeping statistics on ethnicity. The European Court has found that this is actually racial segregation and the tests were rigged. Still the system of segregation continues and even professionals in the adoption field will still talk about bad Romani genes.

One of my first visits with friends of the summer season was with a woman who was adopted as an infant herself.  She is white and lives with her solid family in a comfortable house on the edge of a village in the East Bohemian highlands. She works for a government environmental agency and is pleasant and usually quite fun to be around. When Shaye and I took the train out to visit her, we spent the first few hours cooking and talking adoption issues with fervor. We agree on most things – from which environmental problems are the most serious to the relative merits of open adoptions. But then, I don’t even know how, the subject turned to the Roma. Her tone didn’t change. It was as if there is nothing different about this topic at all, and without the slightest malice she commented that, “Of course, one would have to put up with the genetic problems, like thieving. But I suppose you can keep that under control.”

I should not have been shocked. I’ve been in this country far too long for that. But this friend is a complete liberal and attends a nice moderate church as well. Here people with a little religion tend to be more open minded than the atheists, oddly enough. And she was adopted herself. I guess that doesn’t give her any kinship with the Roma, but still I had hoped, even assumed she would be free of such gross stereotypes. I protested mildly at first, hoping that I had misunderstood, but she continued, “I took genetics at university and the link between long patterns of behavior and their genetic imprint is strong. A culture that hunts for generations will be genetically predisposed to hunt. A culture that lives by stealing will be genetically predisposed to steal.”

The fallacies were too many to get out in one coherent sentence. I spluttered and tumbled my words around. “What? All cultures hunted at some point. And it is a complete stereotype that all Roma have been stealing for generations anyway. And besides, you went to university 20 years ago. Genetics has progressed just a tad in 20 years!”

The visiting season didn’t get much better after that. A week later, I was drinking iced juice on my veranda with Zuzka, one of the adoptive parents from our mandatory parenting class. The kids were finally sleeping, her little half-Vietnamese baby girl and Shaye too. We could relax and talk about fixing dinner. I was going to teach her how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, which I am reasonably good at because of an uncle who married into a Vietnamese family.

“I didn’t think I’d need to worry about the cultural identity stuff, given that she’s only half-Vietnamese,” Zuzka protested. “The other half of her is Czech.”

I took a few breaths and tried not to sound like I thought I knew it all. I don’t, by a long shot. I just feel like my Czech friends are the ones who are blind. They can’t see things that are so obvious to me. “Well, the problem is that society doesn’t care that she is half-Vietnamese. She looks all Vietnamese to any Czech.” This is true. Unlike a lot of biracial kids who really do look half-white, the white side is pretty well hidden in this little girl. “That is what will matter, when you get right down to it. She will internalize the stereotypes about Vietnamese people…”

“We don’t have stereotypes about Vietnamese people,” Zuzka interrupted. “They aren’t like the Roma.”

“Well, how many Vietnamese people have you ever seen in a profession other than selling cheap clothes and vegetables? How many do you think have a university education?”

She thought for a moment and then said wonderingly, “Well, I did know of one Vietnamese man who went to university but he still just has a shop with vegetables.”

“And yet, everyone says what good students the Vietnamese kids are in school,” I said.

“Yes, no one is against them,” she put in quickly.

“No, not against them. But would a lot of Czechs hire a Vietnamese person to do something other than sell things? Do you want your daughter to be able to choose other fields besides just that? And what if she isn’t a meek, quiet, studious, typical Vietnamese child? If she believes in the stereotype but doesn’t fit it naturally, how will she feel?”

Zuzka was silent but I could almost hear her thoughts, “So, what good will spring rolls do her?”

“The point is about cultural identity is that our kids need to know something more about their backgrounds than just the stereotypes. They need to have a whole picture and to feel some pride in where they come from,” I said, pouring more juice and ice into our glasses. Then, almost as an afterthought, I remembered the other part, “And it will also be important when she is a teenager and she wants to make friends with some Vietnamese kids. If she doesn’t know how to make and eat a spring roll politely, she will be at a big disadvantage. It’s pretty basic in that culture.”

So, Zuzka agreed to try and we went inside and put all the fixings for spring rolls out on the table – rice noodles, rice paper, fried chicken bits, boiled eggs, a big bowl of assorted aromatic herbs, chopped green onions, the stinky fish sauce with lemon juice, sugar and chili sauce. But the conversation continued from where we had left off on the veranda.

“I don’t really think we have stereotypes about other races,” Zuzka said, once she had got the hang of working with the sticky rice paper. “I mean, we know, each race is different. But that doesn’t mean we have stereotypes. Like you say, most Vietnamese sell things in shops. That’s not untrue.”

I was quiet for a minute, trying to come up with a non-arrogant way to differentiate between a stereotype and an enforced social condition. But Zuzka beat me to it with something that sent me reeling, because while I could accept that Zuzka might not be up on the latest reading in English on the psychology of identity in children, I was sure she was not a bigot. “I mean, is it really a stereotype to say that Africans are lazy, when they just are?” she asked, adding before I could recover enough to make a sound. “I wonder if it is just because it is so hot in Africa and they get used to not working much.”

How do you respond to that without coming across as a know-it-all? Now, tell me that. I tried to order my spinning thoughts and decided to go at it indirectly. “Have you seen African people who live here who are lazy?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said, thoughtful and considered as usual. “African immigrants here are usually the hardworking ones.”

“Then, why do you think Africans are lazy?” I asked, feeling a bit more confident with my indirect, questioning approach.

“Well, everyone says it and you read about it all over the place,” she said, searching inside of her reasons and then she had it. “And if they weren’t lazy, Africa wouldn’t be so poor and they wouldn’t have been made to be slaves.”

Putting aside for the moment the immense task of trying to explain about the exploitation of the third world and all the history of colonization without sounding like a lecturer, I asked, truly puzzled this time, “You think they were slaves because they were lazy?”

“Of course,” Zuzka said, as if this should be obvious. “They didn’t hardly struggle against slavery. I mean if someone tried to enslave Europeans we would put up a fight!”

“Where did you read that Africans didn’t struggle against slavery?” I asked, my voice slipping into a higher octave involuntarily.

She paused a moment. “I don’t think I read it. I think it was in a movie I saw.”

This country simply never ceases to amaze me.

I tried, with what success I am not sure, to tell her about how Africans had struggled – and how! – against slavery and about how various European peoples had been enslaved. And I pointed out that taking your view of an entire continent of people from a movie is exactly what stereotyping is about. I don’t know how much of it got through or how much of an egghead I sounded like. But she did stay friends with me. And, yes, I will stay friends with her because she is thoughtful and trying and actually listens and discusses these things, unlike so many people I have encountered in this country.

On the weekend, Zuzka and I went with our husbands and children to visit another adoptive family at their summer cottage in the mountains. It was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time. The kids ran through the sprinkler and we barbequed Czech carp and talked and felt good and quite safe. Getting together with other adoptive families reminds me a bit of conventions of the American Council of the Blind. We laugh uproariously about things that other people would be appalled at. Here instead of blind jokes, Zuzka’s husband bellows loud enough for three sets of neighbors to hear, when his daughter is throwing the third temper tantrum in an hour, “Don’t call the social workers! We really aren’t torturing the children!” And we all collapse in gales of laughter, releasing all the fearful tension that has accrued as autocratic social workers dictated the paths of our lives.

I am feeling relaxed, almost believing that we have finally found a group of friends that will be a refuge from the storms that are sure to come, when around the fire that evening, the father of the family hosting the gathering is telling a story about why he drove into the city to pick up his wife from an evening meeting, when she could have taken the subway, and off-hand he inserts, “better than her taking the train and having some dirty, drunk Gypos jump her.”

My first thought is, “Thank God the children are in bed already.” Not that Shaye would understand at this age. There was no overt hatred in what he said. It was the kind of thing that is said here a dozen times a day. No one else, except Dušan and I, likely even noticed. But will Shaye understand these types of comments next year? Or the year after?

Let’s be clear on this point from the outset. The word Gypsy is not terrible in English. I use it to clarify what I’m talking about when I mention Roma to Americans. It is standard practice in English speaking countries where most people don’t know the term Romani. And even so, the connotations of the English word Gypsy are simply not so bad. “Gypsies” are free, fun and romantic, if a bit untrustworthy, the stereotype goes. But in Czech it is a different story. Saying “Gypsy” or any of the man slang equivalents to “Gypo” in Czech is no different than saying the “N” word is in America. Similarly, in fact, Czech Romani teenagers use the Czech word “Gypsy” with each other in a joking, tough-kid way, but are deeply hurt when an outsider uses it. It has all the negative connotations you can imagine. It is nothing more than an abhorrent, loaded insult.

So, to hear that word coming out of the mouths of these people, in whom I placed such hope for our future as a biracial family, is hard enough, even without the added insults of his casual assumption that a Romani gang would attack his wife on the subway. I have lived in this country for 12 years. I have travelled extensively to bad neighborhoods as a journalist. I have ridden the subway at night probably hundreds of times. I have constantly heard about the danger of Romani gangs. I have seen a gang of tough looking Roma only once, that I could imagine trying to mug someone. But I have never been attacked or seen such an attack. I know one woman who credibly claims to have been attacked by Romani youths and she is one of the least racist people I know, having grown up with Romani friends. And I have been pickpocketted twice, both times unsuccessfully because I caught the hand in my purse. And both times the hands in my purse were as pale as mine.

I don’t say there are no Romani criminals. The Romani population is extremely poor and extremely socially ostracized. They have been systematically denied education and had their families split up by state policies for generations. Even those few with education cannot find employment. In such circumstances, I would never believe anyone who claimed there was no crime. There is a lot of crime wherever people feel hopeless. It happens in every country in the world. It is only here that it is considered a uniquely racial rather than social problem.

Just as I thought this summer was not turning out to be very much fun, it was time to visit the one family that I knew were racists. My good friends Kamila and Michal live way out in the country with their two pre-teen boys. The meadows around their sleepy little village of a half a dozen houses are full of yellow, highly medicinal St. John’s Wart flowers. I like to collect them to make cold and flu medicine for the winter. Kamila called to say that the flowers were in full bloom and I had better come within the next week or I would miss their peek potency period. She’s an herb enthusiast as well, which is part of our bond.

But more than that, these are friends who go back to the very beginning of my life in this country. They are probably the people I feel closest with here, aside from my husband. Part of that closeness comes from the screaming, fingernail scratching, cursing fights we’ve had and healed from. That would mostly be me and Michal fought, while Kamila looked the other way. I was a young and opinionated journalist, unable to keep my views to myself and unable to hear racial slurs and filthy jokes without protest.

Michal and I were born on the same day, a few years apart. We are both solid Aries. Our birthday is April 7. I suppose our fights are some proof that there may be at least some truth to astrological signs. Michal didn’t back down either. It always started with nothing more than everyday remarks, maybe a Czech folk song with racially injurious lyrics. Like all my other Czech friends, Michal would make the occasional disparaging remark about “Gypos.” He and one other guy in our group of friends were the worst, trading jokes and upping one another on their crudeness. I was baffled. Until I ran into Roma in writing for newspapers, I never saw any. How could this be such a constant topic of conversation, when the Roma are only three percent of the population here? Part of it is that I am visually impaired and the Roma aren’t all that distinctive by American standards. They are just a little brown, a lot like Hispanics. Some even have blue or green eyes and brown, rather than black hair. I think green-eyes on a “Gypsy” is even a certain stereotype in some parts of the world. So, I may have overlooked some Roma in public places. But still, many Czechs have confirmed to me that they rarely encounter Roma and yet the “Gypsies” are still a major topic of conversation, as if when people get bored they turn to Gypsy-bashing instead of drinking games.

In any event, I wouldn’t have it and even though I was the outsider in the group, I was very vocal about my views and Michal always took up my challenge. As our arguments spiraled out of control, he would say things he probably regretted – “Hell, yes, they are all mentally retarded. They are Neanderthals.” Or “You don’t get it. You didn’t grow up here and have to put up with them. They don’t belong here. We Czechs are a small nation. We don’t take over other people’s countries. We just want this little green patch just for us. That’s all.” Finally, one day I told him that he made me physically ill. It was true too. I don’t throw up easily but I felt my gorge rising. I have fought about politics many times and this has never happened to me before or since. This isn’t politics. There are no different opinions, as far as I am concerned. There is racist and there is not-racist. Not racist may be still be ignorant or even insensitive, but racist is racist. People are people. All people are of the same value. If you don’t believe that, how can we even function on the same plain of existence?

Well, we can and we have. Kamila finally proposed that we really and truly drop it. Michal would refrain from making any mention of the Romani issue in my presence, even at parties in his own home. And I would not bring it up either or continue the argument. I would not have taken that deal with many people. I would not have remained on speaking terms with most people with those views but Kamila and Michal were good friends and I was pretty lonely and far from my home and family at the time, so I agreed. That was more than ten years ago and he kept his word. Most of the gatherings of our circle of friends are at his house and he never once in ten years of social events and visits mentioned his views on the Roma in my hearing. On the very few occasions when someone else in the group did, the cold silence from me and Michal made it awkward enough that even the others stopped. For that self restraint, he gained back my respect.

In effect, only I ever broke the bargain, although with good reason. Before we adopted Shaye, I had to know the score. I went out to their house for a visit and caught Michal sitting alone watching the sunset and told him what we were going to do. He knew, everyone knew, we’d been desperately wanting a baby for over six years. I wanted two things out of the conversation. I wanted to tell him, to reassure him, that I wasn’t doing this as a jibe, to make a political point, to reopen our old conflict. I explained that I am a foreigner and legally blind. We didn’t have the finances for international adoption. We were out of options on fertility treatments, and no Czech social worker in their right mind was going to give me – not the ideal candidate at all by their measure – one of the few Czech babies available for adoption. I wanted him to know that I wanted a baby first and foremost, that I had clearly said we don’t care about the ethnicity. We had not said we specifically wanted a Romani child. But we knew we would get one anyway. Almost no one says they don’t care about ethnicity here, really no one, according to the social workers.

I had also wanted some reassurance of my own. I wanted to gauge his reaction, even if he said nothing directly. I wanted to know if I should ever come back, if my family and I would be banished from the gatherings of our friends. I didn’t ask for that though. I just stopped explaining and waited. Michal stared off into the sunset, not looking right at me. He was uncomfortable, which was new. He had always seemed so sure of himself and of his views before. I’d never found him reticent to speak. Finally, he said, “I hope you finally get your baby. You deserve it. You’ll be a good mother.”

That was it. No discussion of the issues. I discussed them with Kamila, while picking herbs that year before we were approved for adoption. She turned out to have amazingly liberal views and we discussed even some of the more advanced issues of trans-racial adoption. I almost had someone I could confide in.

But then when we did adopt Shaye, we came for one brief visit and were then not invited back for over a year.

I was hurt and deeply saddened. There were always reasons why we couldn’t come at this or that time. Kamila was sick or the boys were sick or they were overwhelmed with work. True, there were only two gatherings of friends at their house of that year and both were specifically for people with older children, so that they could go on longer hikes together. It was explained to me that the place would be too crowded for a baby to sleep and many other people weren’t invited as well. Still I had to wonder. They were some of my closest friends after all.

So, when Kamila mentioned on the phone, that I should come and pick the St. John’s Wart in the fields, even if I had to come during the week, while she was working, because Dušan and I didn’t have a weekend free for the next month, I was cautious but also relieved.

We arrived on Monday around noon. I put Shaye to bed in an old crib they had borrowed from a neighbor for this purpose and sat down to write until they came home from work. We had little time to talk in the evening. There was dinner to make, the garden to water, Shaye to feed and keep out of mischief, even hay to cut and a repair job Michal was working on outside the house.

After dinner, I was inside cleaning up and getting Shaye dressed in longer sleeves to go out in the evening air with the mosquitoes. Michal wandered in to get some tools and muttered to me that a craftsman he had hired to fix his ancient window frames had finally arrived to finish up his job. “It will only take an hour but he brought his whole family,” Michal grumbled as he hurried back outside.

I didn’t think much of his words, only that it was an awfully cozy village environment here for a craftsman to come after dinner and bring his family. But I forgot about it in the flurry to get the dinner dishes cleaned up and Shaye caught, pottied and dressed.

It was nearly an hour later when we were finally able to get outside, and I was a bit surprised to see a ten-year-old girl with possibly an amazing tan coming out of Michal’s rabbit hutch with one of the boy’s hamsters in her arms. She smiled at me and I noted her mildly different features. She had dark hair and there was something about her face. Again, I can’t see so well, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought she might not be entirely European in background.

She addressed the craftsman, who was washing up outside the house as “Daddy”, so I was sure this was his kid. And he looked white enough for all he worked outdoors and did have a reddish tan. So, I was about to put the thought out of my head when I saw the mother.

She was Romani. I’m sure of it. Her skin fairly glowed with health. Since adding Shaye to our family, I can’t help it. I feel white people, especially here in gray, cloudy Czech, look sickly. This woman was not only dark to begin with. She looked like she had spent a lot of time in the sun. Her rich cinnamon color was everywhere and had the fine sheen of lots of sunscreen. Her hair was lustrous black, and she had a faint trace of the Romani accent of the slums, only faint though, and her clothes were solidly middle class casual wear.

A little boy ran up, holding one of the rabbits and shouting with excitement over its antics and this time he was more clearly biracial. He had the odd coppery blond hair I have seen on biracial kids sometimes and his skin was too dark to be just a tan.

Of course, I was full of questions and worries. Had Michal given the kids permission to get the animals out? Was he going to be upset? Was everything OK? Was he angry that the man had brought his family? Now, at least understand that comment. It is a particularly Romani thing, part of the culture, to bring your family with you everywhere, to jobs, to meetings, to offices. It is not nearly as common in Czech culture.

But everything seemed OK. Kamila and Michal came from the garden laughing and talking heartily with the craftsman. They even sat down to talk on the grass with the woman and the children, longer than they had rested since I had arrived, certainly. Michal encouraged the children to take out the different rabbits in turn to play with them. If I had been totally blind, I never could have guessed there was anything different about this pleasant evening on the fresh-mowed grass.

I did not want to embarrass the visiting woman, so I didn’t ask her anything direct. But I did glean that she had grown up in a village not far away, so she wasn’t simply a dark-skinned foreigner – unlikely but no more unlikely than an American, who speaks nearly perfect Czech, there in the rural highlands. I didn’t ask Michal or Kamila either. It was still too sensitive. I hoped that maybe she would note Shaye’s Romani features, but Shaye is moderate in her coloring. Her face is also the lightest part of her and has blue-gray eyes, which are not too common among the Roma. She could just barely be a white child by appearance. This woman would not ask either, probably not even if Shaye had looked more Romani. It is simply too sensitive in this country at this point in history, no matter which way you turn it.

And so, with my reunions with friends winding down for the moment, I think how ironic it is that in the company I thought we would be safest in, we got clobbered and then at the house where I had reason to fear the most, we sat in the evening and talked casually with another biracial family, as if we lived in some country where this is common.

– Arie Farnam

Disclaimer: Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

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