Counting herself among the lucky Book: With babe in arms, author Isabel Fonseca looks back fondly on her eye-opening travels with the Gypsies of Europe.

February 03, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Isabel Fonseca sweeps into the Bread and Chocolate cafe on Capitol Hill with her publicist dithering, her mother in tow and her daughter in a carrier.

She's in town to talk about her book about Gypsies, "Bury Me Standing." She'll lecture to a full crowd later at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium in the Natural History Museum. But right now she's running late, and needs to nurse the 11-week-old Fernanda. Which she will do at a sunny end table. Discreetly, of course.

Mother is a new role for Fonseca. For four years, while doing the research and gathering Gypsy lore for her book, which has been uniformly praised as vivid, thoughtful, scholarly and well-written, she mostly traveled alone. Often in remote, unlikely and non-touristy corners of Eastern Europe, including Albania, Bulgaria, the former Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Romania and the former Yugoslavia.

"I find it's better to travel on your own," she says. "More happens to you on your own. Traveling as a single woman is great. ... It's restrictive, of course, because people don't leave you alone. Either they'll want to protect you or they'll want to flirt with you."

Or, in the case of the Gypsy family she was living with when she turned 30, mourn for you.

Gypsies, she tells the audience at the Baird auditorium, adore babies. "A babe in arms would have been the ultimate entree."

Instead, her 30th birthday in Albania was seen as a seriously sad, even a grave matter. Gypsy women marry virtually when menstruation begins and bear their first child soon after. By 30 they could easily have 10. Fonseca wasn't married. She had no children. She was clearly barren.

"This explained why I had no husband," she says. "And worst of all why I was condemned to wander the world, to travel to Albania ... and live with complete strangers far from family and friends."

National image

Fonseca was essentially a literary journalist in London when she began her journey into Gypsy culture. She grew up in New York City, where she was educated at Columbia. She went on to Oxford in 1984 and has lived in London basically ever since. She became an assistant editor at the Times Literary Supplement and "one of the great femme fatales of the London literary scene," a particularly excitable British tabloid once gurgled.

Baby Fernanda's father is Martin Amis, "bad boy Brit novelist and critic," in the words of one literary notice, though perhaps not such a boy anymore at 47. Fonseca is 35.

They are "very much together," she says. But Amis seems to be still undivorced from his current wife, a former New Englander named Antonia Phillips, whom he also met at the Times.

At Bread and Chocolate, she talks about "Bury Me Standing" earnestly and seriously, with what seems to be a faint overlay of a lower Thames accent. She's tall and soberly dressed in square-shouldered, long-jacketed, long-skirted suit in somber blacks and gray and browns. Fernanda shares her mother's great, luminous, dark eyes.

"I became aware of the extreme stereotyping that was part of everybody's mythology of the Gypsies," she says. "But nobody seemed to know anything about them, including me."

Around the time of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Fonseca was spending a lot of time in Spain, which was busy promoting its national image.

"Everywhere were these posters of the quintessential Spanish beauty, who was this nostril-flaring Carmen in a pink polka-dot dress. Carmen, the Gypsy murderer of the Bizet opera, she observes.

"On the one hand the Gypsy was the image of Spain. But the word for Gypsy in Spanish is gitano, a kind of synonym for swindler, lowlife, dumb, prostitute.

"So you could either be this kind of a glamorous, romantic, sexy type, or a vaguely parasitic and threatening creature. This seemed to be universally the case. I was interested to know what the real story was, why we had these powerful images."

She became particularly interested in Eastern Europe, where most Gypsies live today and where the split between image and reality seemed even more extreme, "a place that had been so closed that modern life had frozen."

The title for her book, in fact, comes from the farewell of a Gypsy in Bulgaria: "Bury me standing. I've been on my knees all my life."

The Gypsy Holocaust

She set out not quite knowing what she would do, except for the vague idea she'd write something.

"Like everyone else in the world I was curious to see what was there after 1989. Part of my family came from Eastern Europe. My grandmother's family were Hungarian Jews.

"That probably had something to do with it," Fonseca says.

"I had the idea that the Gypsies would be the new Jews of Eastern Europe, since there are not so many Jews left. I think to a certain extent that has been the case, in the sense they have been easy scapegoats."

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