MARIËT  MEESTER


2013, August 22

Florin Cioaba has died, the King of the Roma. Or no, sorry, the 'self-proclaimed King of the Roma'. In literally every news-item or Facebookcomment this formulation is used. It's derogatory and unnessecary. To my knowledge nearly all kings initially are self-appointed, but that is forgotten after a number of generations. Moreover, it's such a mouthful to say all the time: 'The self-proclaimed King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands'. In the case of Florin Cioaba his father Ion Cioaba did let himself be crowned king in 1992. Not so many years later he died, and his son was his natural successor.

        I have known Florin Cioaba. It was difficult to dislike him. He seemed even a little shy. He lived in Sibiu, a picturesque town in Transylvania. I have visited the house of the family several times. The first time, in the nineties, when Romania was still very gray, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a red sports car in the yard. Colour! The whole family was pleasantly colored, because the Cioaba's are among the most traditional Roma, whose women have the habit to wear braids and long skirts to the ankles. One of Florin's sisters was Luminita, not only a princess but also a poet. She lived alone in a humble apartment across the street.

      When I visited the Cioaba family again in 2004 or 2005 there were all kind of surprises. First, their house was much less luxurious than I remembered. Some Roma meanwhile had built  houses that looked like palaces. Compared with those this was quite an ordinary house. A short distance away stood a small but beautiful white church, with next to it a lot of scrap metal. Nearly the whole family had converted to the Pentecostal faith. Florin had become a pastor. For him that was the real purpose of his life. Of course I'm not naive, the kingship gave him advantages, but he also used those benefits to lobby for the position of the Roma. Education is the most important thing, he told incessantly.

          By coicidence I arrived on a sunday, so I attended a church service, led by Florin. I noticed that the traditional dress of the women had changed as well, modern fabrics were used for the long skirts. Florin's wife was wearing one made of denim. After the service we went to the house of the Cioaba's and ate the leftovers from a party. The photo is made by a family member. Florin - I'm at his left - told me that he regretted to have married off his daughter at a too young age. Many European newspapers wrote about it. He had learned from all the fuss.

         Luminita, his sister, the poet, had developed into a filmmaker. She showed me video recordings she wanted to use for a documentary about early marriages. In the small bathroom of her apartment laundry soaked in a bucket. Her princesses behavior was over, although that probably will never completely happen. In 2011 I met her again, during a film festival in the city of Cluj, where she showed her film about the deportation of Romanian Roma during the Second World War. We had lunch together in a restaurant. She then asked the waitress to seat her hat, while she also could have grabbed a chair for the hat herself.

     I'm sad about the death of Florin Cioaba. Earlier this month already another distinguished leader of the Roma passed away, the sociologist Nicolae Gheorghe, who stood up for his people in a different way, but with the same persuasion. And yes, it's true that not all Roma recognize the 'King of the Roma', and yes, the vast majority of Roma lives below the poverty line and this man didn't. I have seen how people constantly came to the door of the Cioaba's to ask for money. I don't know if Florin gave them something. He listened to them, that's for sure.

          I hope his son, also in the picture, will make a good king.

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2013, May 13

In early 1994 I delivered the manuscript of my novel Bokkezang (Buck Song) at Meulenhoff, the Dutch publishing house. After a week I was called by Tilly Hermans, my editor. I still remember what she exclaimed: "This is better than most that I get on my desk!"

      At home we started making plans for a video about the book According to another editor at Meulenhoff, an author in North America already had done such a thing, Douglas Coupland, who had been trained as a visual artist like us. For inspiration we could borrow a videotape with his clips.

      We made a scenario, asked a friend to act as a camera assistant, hired a professional camera and reserved an editing room. The publishing house didn't pay anything, it took our last money, but that did not matter to us. Writing the novel had been an enormous effort, I had explored the limits of my abilities Then this could be done as well.

     That same year I was invited to the Crossing Border Festival in The Hague. The director wanted to show our literary video, the first that was made in the Netherlands, as a projection on the facade of the festival building. But just before the festival he got some kind of conflict about this subject, and it meant that the clip on Bokkezang was only shown inside, at my reading. Not more than fifty people have seen it there.

      Although the layeredness was recognized, especially in Flanders, most journalists found the book but weird. "It reflects a strange mentality". Since then I always laugh when some Dutchman again, as recently Marcel Möring, argues for the experiment in the literature, for an innovative style combined with a radical content. In the land of 'just do normal, then you are crazy enough' there is no place for this and there will never be a place.

     After Bokkezang I published the novel The first sin (1997), which was so light-footed that it's usually mistaken for my debut. That book was reprinted five times and is still for sale. Bokkezang on the other hand was commercially a total failure.

     Yet this story has a happy ending. The Russian translator Irina Michajlova discovered Bokkezang in 2000 and contacted a publishing house, Amphora in St. Petersburg. During the process of translating she wrote me about the heart problems she experienced. "This book is for eighty percent about me. About us."

      In 2003 I went with a delegation of Dutch authors to St. Petersburg. A critic happened to have analyzed my book. In bookstores I saw it lying on big piles. Also other Russians than Irina identified with the content. Via Google Translate I have discovered that there are still people talking about the novel of Мариет Мейстер. Personally I consider the Russian translation of Bokkezang one of the highlights of my authorship.

     The video was never shown anywhere. Because it was recorded professionally we could not play it at home either. Now it's finally digitized and has a new soundtrack. All credits go to Jaap de Ruig and those who have assisted him in making the clip.

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2013, March 30

Amsterdam, café Luxembourg. Two friends are having a drink. Health, family, and of course they're also talking about their daily occupations. One of them is preparing a book of essays that will be presented in New York. The other is struggling with a novel that is situated in a Dutch village. They talk about money as well, a favourite subject among writers who don't have a regular income. 'But you've received at least loads of prizes!' one of them exclaims. The other has to admit it's true. 'I've not received any,' the first one continues.

        Amazement. But then the writer who has received loads of prizes says: 'Come on, we are leaving, you are going to win a first prize. And that's just the beginning!' Fifty metres away from café Luxembourg she enters a shop. And that's how I received the Golden Cookie 2013. The chairwoman of the jury is called Dubravka Ugresic. Tonight we are going to celebrate her birthday.

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2011, September 25

Since two weeks David is staying with us. Every day he tells new stories about the people he knows. All are Roma who are living in Italy, Greece, Spain, France or their native country Romania. They seem to have only one thing in mind: how to get the money from other people's purse into their own. The Roma David tells us about are cheating or stealing, his female friends are 'on the street' or 'in a club'. I think I will never again be able to write about Roma the way cultivated people expect me to write. I feel poisoned.

         In the mean time David himself has other occupations. Half a year ago my partner Jaap de Ruig, visual artist, has procured him a small digital photo camera. Guided from a distance by Jaap, which is a delicate and complicated process, David takes pictures of his daily life among the Romanian Roma. He receives a monthly fee, which is paid by a group of art lovers. The photo camera already has become David's companion and good friend, his 'jewel' as he calls it.

        At the moment the first results of Jaap's project 'What David sees' are exhibited in Amsterdam. If everything continues to go well, a solo exhibition will take place next year and a photo book will be published. More about all this (in Dutch): http://www.jaapderuig.nl/whatdavidsees.html

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2011, September 1

Dubravka would come and stay. I bought pink potatoes from the Garden of Charity. But Dubravka did not come. Longing for company I cycled to a shed with used books. I chose Tolstoi, The Kreutzer Sonata. Then I saw Life is a Fairytale, a Rainbow pocket written by my absent visitor. One of the stories was called The Kreutzer Sonata. With Dubravka and Tolstoi in my purse I cycled home. Along the way, I saw a rainbow. I ate pink potatoes.

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2011, July 24

A mass murder. People dying of hunger. Personal fears. Misunderstandings causing misunderstandings. And then the doorbell rings. A parcel is delivered. Did I order something? The parcel is from abroad, from Bulgaria. The name of the sender is familiar. We know each other since 2000. Back then we both participated in the Literaturexpress. During six weeks more than hundred European poets and writers travelled by train, staying in cities like Lisbon, Paris, Moscow and Minsk. We were united by fatigue and exitement. Eleven years later Georgi Pashov was walking in a neighbourhood of Sofia when he saw a Refan shop. He remembered me liking Refan soaps. Without hesitating he bought seven of them, went to the post office and a few days later they were in Veenhuizen, Drenthe. The house smells of friendship now.

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2011, June 16

The word Roma means "human beings". The city council of Cluj, a town in Transylvanian Romania, apparently does not know. When I visited Cluj for the first time in 1991, I stayed with a Roma family in an apartment. One day my host took me to the Strada Coastei, at walking distance on a hill. A few hundred Roma were living there in simple houses. It was a nice and lively neighborhood.

     Last week I went back to the same place. The Roma neighborhood on the Strada Coastei now consists of an empty plain. In December 2010, the municipality sent bulldozers to the residents and had their homes crushed. I saw weeds, remains of foundations, a sewer system without lids. Nearby offices were under construction, the logo of Nokia was already installed.

       As I dragged around and became more and more angry, I wondered whether the Roma may have had to leave a dead person? Part of the plain was covered with asphalt, a cross was put up there. I walked to it and read what it said: Theological Campus "Nicolae Ivan". At the foot of the cross was a memorial stone. The Romanian inscription explained that since May 23, so only two weeks ago, this cross was placed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The names of Orthodox clerics were also included, and there was something about Christ, God and Theological Education. Later I heard that the municipality had offered the land for free to the Orthodox Church. This has a hidden meaning in Transylvania, because on the main square of Cluj a Hungarian cathedral stands beside a huge statue of a former Hungarian ruler. The present mayor has a Romanian family name. He tries to give the Romanian-Orthodox church more influence.

       And where were the two hundred fifty inhabitants of the Strada Coastei? On a slope above Pata Rât, the garbage dump of Cluj, a long way out of town. I went to it. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all families were packed in municipal shelters. A short distance downward were living the veterans of Pata Rât. I've seen them there in 1991 already, they still have ramshackle huts. The dozens of huts of the Roma along the railroad, however, were new to me.

         Human beings.


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2011, May 27

It was my birthday. Usually I don't tell anybody about it. But when you live in a village and your family is around, there's no escape. So a birthday cake was bought en visitors showed up. The weather was great, we had tea in the open air. Our gardeners, a group of five or six prisoners who have their base camp in two wooden cabins, were able to see us. Next day half of the birthday cake was left over, so we went to the supervisor and gave it to him. 'Wow,' he said. 'And congratulations.' The prisoners, who were just having coffee, remained silent. As if they were children, the supervisor asked: 'What do you say now?' They mumbled 'thank you'.

     In the evening a bird was sitting on our cistern and looked as if he was missing something. Indeed a bowl was missing. We had put it on top of the cistern with some water in it. Now it happened to be deep down in the shaft. By using two brooms we managed to collect it and fill it with water again, for the birds to drink. Except for the prisoners, nobody else had been in our garden. Had one of them opened the heavy lid of the cistern and thrown the bowl downwards?

      By offering the remains of a cake, we had broken an unwritten law. In a village like Veenhuizen, you accept each others presence. But villagers and inmates don't start a relation. When you give prisoners cake, you are stressing that they are in another position. Because we see them every day and say hello to each other, in our mind they have become just like us. But they are different. Something is the matter with them, otherwise they would not have been here. According to our standards of conduct, they might act unpredictable.


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2011, April 16

I had dinner. In prison. The village in which I'm staying counts three prisons for grown-ups and one for youngsters. The prison for youngsters is part of an organisation called 'Het Poortje'. This organisation exists since 50 years. All kind of jubilee activities are taking place. A book has been published, I was one of the authors. Since then I'm in contact with someone who works there, and this was the reason I was invited to come and eat the results of 'multicultural cooking', another activity celebrating the jubilee. I went to the institution by bicycle. Delicious smells were crossing the fence. Inside the building happened to be some fuss: the preparations had been too stressful for some inmates, agressive acts had taken place and ketchup had been thrown around. So two groups were not allowed to eat with us. The other boys entered one after another. Cool guys, white guys, pretty young guys, well tempered guys, silent guys. I was sitting next to a boy who turned out to be fourteen. He had entered the institution one week ago. But it was his second time. Each boy had decorated his own 'multicultural plate', but most of them refused to eat from it. They preferred a plastic plate and kept the special plate carefully clean. For obvious reasons our cutlery was made of plastic as well. I was moved by the prisonworkers, who were doing their utmost to make this event succesful. I knew one of the boys - I didn't know who - had killed his mother.


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2011, March 21

A friend who is a pianist announced his visit. The organ in my parent's church is pretty good, so I thought: let's take him to the service. The pianist didn't show up, but I went to church anyway. Several prisoners were attending. I saw a pony-tail, a piercing, some tattoos. One prisoner was sitting alone. He was looking rather old, over sixty. When the minister was asking for forgiveness of sins, I asked myself what those words meaned for this man. Afterwards, while we were all gathering around the coffee table, I saw my father approaching him. 'I see you are using crutches. Are you hurt?' The man said he had had a stroke while being in prison. My mother also went to one of the men. 'You were not attending last week, what happened?' He had been on leave.


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2011, February 26

I wanted to check something, so I started off for the local cemetery. It's quite far away, near the woods. I knew that in the near future I would cover the same distance in a total different mood, because my parents will be buried there. I didn't want to think about it, so I tried to avoid the images which haunted my mind. But by doin...g that, I even saw more images. Luckily some familiar people happened to be at the cemetery. The same inmates who take care of the garden of my temporary house, were cleaning the paths and the lawns. 'Hi,' I said. 'Pretty well kept here.' They smiled and said 'you're welcome'. Later their boss came to me and started a conversation. No, his job was not stressful. When an inmate was irritating him, he just hid behind a tree and after a while he could stand the guy again. Some inmates refused to enter the gate of the cemetery, they said it was forbidden by their religion. 'Something like Hinduism, or whatever they call it. Winti, is that the word? One of them just refused in fact. I gave him something else to do outside the gate.' After I left the cemetery, I saw an inmate on his knees near a wooden bench. He was scrubbing it with a dish brush.


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2011, February 14

Early in the morning I decided to leave my desk. Went by bicycle to the Fochteloërveen, 26 square kilometres of childhood smell. Nobody around. Silence, a few birds. Far away in the distance I saw a cyclist, riding to me. His legs were moving fast. He was wearing a jacket that seemed familiar, but many people wear whitish colours. When he came closer I saw his striped knitted cap. Still didn't believe it was him. The movement of his legs were the movements of a sportsman. Another fifty metres to go and no doubt was left. This was my 82 years old father.


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2011, February 7

Visitors from Amsterdam! Together with our friends Alfred and Sophie we climbed the steps of this elaborate wooden tower, which oversees the Fochteloërveen, one of the most beautiful stretches of nature I know. Luckily I always forget what I wrote in my own books. I was told that in my novel De volmaakte man (The Perfect Man), a sex scene takes place in this tower. Really? I prefer to stay innocent. The view was fantastic.


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2011, January 27

Certain people throw away certain things, not knowing that certain other people would like to have them. This lamp was waiting for us on a saturday morning in January in our street in Amsterdam, at the spot where we throw away our garbage. Now it acts as the showpiece in our temporary house in Veenhuizen. We are going to use five of the ten rooms. Until now the total cost of the furniture is 23,50 euro.


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2011, January 21

First night in the parsonage. The smell of dust heated up by an old radiator. I look around, slightly depressed. 'I have experienced this before.' Yes, I've experienced this before. In all those cheap hotelrooms we have been staying in over the years. Paris, Belgrade, Sevilla, Bucharest, Tallinn, Prague, Chisinau, Madrid. I feel ageless.


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2011, January 17

This week I'm going to clean the parsonage where I will stay for three months, in the prison village where I spent my childhood. The priest who used to live there, was allergic to authorities. When he was talking with an important person and he saw prisoners mowing his lawn, he interrupted the talks and went outside to say hello. He gave money to inmates from Latin America to help them start a new life. From time to time he took the plane to see the results. The priest was a friend of my parents, who still live in Veenhuizen. A few years ago I took his picture. I will frame it and try to work according to his mentality.


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2011, January 17

De sleutel gekregen van de pastorie in het gevangenisdorp Veenhuizen, waar ik drie maanden mag wonen om onderzoek te doen voor een roman. Stof, schimmelgeur, water in de kelder. Tien kamers, allemaal leeg. Sporen van lekkage in de keuken. Ik begon me net af te vragen waar ik nu weer aan begonnen was, toen ik aan de andere kant van het raam een jonge man een bamboestruik zag afzagen. Een ploeg gedetineerden was mijn toekomstige tuin aan het onderhouden. Ze bivakkeren in een bouwkeet naast het huis. Heerlijk! Weer thuis.


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2011, January 5

Yes!!! I'm going to live for three months in this parsonage, in the village Veenhuizen where I spent my childhood. In those days Veenhuizen was a closed society, because of the five prisons. The inmates worked in our garden, we went to church with them. The parsonage was next to our house. The priest used to live together with his housekeeper. The last priest lived alone, an intellectual and laconic Franciscan who also worked in the prisons - there are still prisons in Veenhuizen. I hope to do research for a new novel.


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2009, August 1

To write about Roma                                                      
To write about Roma means to walk on eggs. One reader will find you too romantic, the other too negative. I remember two reviews of The calm before the fire, my first book on the Roma in Romania. On the same day reviewer number 1 found me 'too harsh', while number 2 said I was 'too friendly'. I understood that in a sense each reader makes his own book. Both reviewers colored my words with opinions they already had.

      Since then I decided to record simply what I've experienced while writing about Roma, but from a sympathetic basic view. You could call this attitude 'loving honesty'. Another point is that I choose for austerity in language. The more exotic a subject, the more cautious an author should be. Terms such as 'rustling skirts', 'crackling camp fire' and 'passionate violin music' are not possible, that seems clear to me. And now I'm only talking about non-fiction, not even about fiction. Writing a novel with Roma as the main characters almost always goes wrong. A literary author tries to describe a topic in a new language, as original as possible. But in case that topic has to do with Roma, he almost always gets entangled in or the crackling camp fire (he knows some readers hope for that), or the negative prejudices (for which other readers hope).

      I won't try anymore. We have to wait for someone from the Roma or Sinti community who dares and can, who is able to write a novel in such a way we'll all be surprised.


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2009, July 18

On Crete                                                                       

He is on Crete. Without money of course. He thought he would be able to find work. Family gives him shelter, but his life is 'hard' (from an e-mail five weeks ago), 'hard' (from an e-mail four weeks ago), 'hard' (from an e-mail three weeks ago), etc.

       Being fake parents, we are getting more and more indifferent to his problems. Three years we paid for his school en solved his problems from a distance, it's time for him to become a man. When his number appears on the display of our phone, we often don't even answer it. His life will be 'hard' again. And that means he needs money.

      Recently he celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday. It seemed a good occasion to give him a little help again. Through Western Union we sent him an amount of money that would make myself very happy. He was pleased indeed and wrote that he had purchased a Romanian – Greek dictionary. Instead of the crates of beer which I thought he would be toting with, he had treated his family on two bottles of soft drink.

      A Romanian – Greek dictionary and two bottles of soft drink. I was moved, I was proud.

        A week later an sms came. He stil possesed seventy euros from his birthday money and wanted to return home, although he immediately would find Gigi behind him, a huge, powerful gypsy whom he borrowed money from. The ticket, he wrote, would cost one hundred and fifty euro. Maybe we could...

       Meanwhile he has sent us his apologies. Thus, some moderate positive feelings have been generated in me. About his future I am not hopeful.


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De eerste zonde


2009, February 7

Tulip II                                                                       

He is in trouble. He is always in trouble. Financial troubles. Or health troubles, medieval diseases are ruling around him. Itchy spots all over people's body, teeth rotting out of people's mouth, tuberculosis. But according to his latest e-mail it is worse than ever this time. He has been cheated by his own father and brother. It's about money again. His father and brother have borrowed two thousand five hundred lei from a neighbour and left home without the intention to return soon. They have told him, the youngest, goodhearted son, that the sum was seven hundred lei. Could he be so kind to return the money?

       Seven hundred lei is a big lot when you have to earn it selling tin funnels, and two thousand five hundred is not far from impossible. Why he doesn't send the neighbour away to the persons responsible he can't explain us by e-mail. Your dad and your brother are nearly the same as you are, it must have to do with something like that. As a Romanian Rom you're part of a collective, there is no escape. The other way around, surprisingly, it doesn't seem to work like this. I can't remember having the honour to hear that his father and brother paid hís debts.

       In the mean time he has to cope with the neighbour. Who is furious, threatens him. Out of fear he already sold two pairs of jeans. He sold his mobile phone. A golden ring. But the neighbour returns. 'They devastated me,' he writes us in his message. 'I'm done, it's over with me. Soon they'll take my life as well. I promise you, if I manage to pay off that debt I will – panicking I read the next Romanian word – mor myself.'

        I grab the dictionary, can't find anything. Mor? He is capable of anything. We will have to go there. I investigate the costs of an airplane ticket, check my agenda. Which suitcase will I take, which clothes, are we going together or is one of us going?

     While having dinner I unfold my plans. The reaction is more plain than I had expected. 'Tulip is rising from her ashes.'

       Tulip is rising from her ashes? Tulip, the female protagonist of my novel De eerste zonde (The first Sin), is a twelve year old girl who secretly reads letters written by prisoners. When she understands from such a letter that one prisoner is planning to commit suicide, she immediately goes into action. In the end everybody around her will suffer the consequences, including herself and the man she has tried to save.

       I grab the dictionary again and dissect the phrase after that weird word mor. His use of language is not without mistakes, possibly he could mean 'to move'. Hey, yes, after mor he says something about renting a room.

        Tulip II doesn't go into action.


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2009, January 3

Photo                                                                     

The Albert Cuyp market, nearly 5 o'clock in the afternoon. I see a young woman who shuffles forward by clawing the street with her hands. Her legs are dragging behind backwards, as if the lower part of a stranger's body has been pushed in her trunk.  

      Romania, I think immediately. In earlier days you could find in that country certain villains, often Roma, who mutilated their baby in order to make money. Just break the little legs and ready, there you go out begging. This woman looks as if she's around twenty; she must have been abused by her family during all those years.

      There is a photo camera in my handbag, but the idea to get it doesn't come to me. Stupefied I walk along. Only when I've reached my bicycle I think of taking pictures, and walk back to the market. Where are the people, if you still can call them like that, who are accompanying the mutilated woman? In general one or two are hiding in the distance. Has the police already been warned?

      While I'm hunting between the market stalls, I hear two shopping women say to each other: 'In my opinion that was fake.'

       'Seems impossible to me, it wasn't fake at all.'

      No, it was not fake. I'm furious. Even in Romania you don't see something like this anymore. I would not be surprised if it's utterly profitable, the woman carried a tray with coins. What does she think about the fact that her family has done this to her and is still doing? Or are those pimps no family members at all, are they those notorious child thieves you could find here and there during Ceauşescu's dictatorship? What a disaster for other Roma, the majority being people of goodwill. They have to endure mistaken ideas about them because of some skunks. Why is Amsterdam not throwing those folks in jail? Why are Dutchmen so naive to give money to this kind of scoundrels?

      She is without a trace and she stays without a trace.

       No photo.   


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Mariet Meester - blog 20-12-2008


2008, December 20

The red guitar                                                     

We met him in Romania, but he lived in Paris, he said. In my imagination he was working there in a factory. He dragged iron beams, smear on his face. At the end of the day he was exhausted.

       When we were in Paris a year later, we called him. 'Welcome at my place, stay for a bite,' he generously said. 'I live in Saint-Denis and will meet you at the railway station. Just look for a guitare rouge.'   

      The station of Saint-Denis, the notorious suburb, was new and clean. In front was a large square. We looked around for a cafetaria called 'The Red Guitar'. Or had he said kitara, could that be a kind of car and did he own a red specimen? A Toyota Kitara, did such a car exist?

     We sat down on a bench. In the square young fellows with Pakistani looks were playing cricket, half the world seems to have settled down in Paris during the last couple of years. Further on I saw one real Frenchman walking towards us, a typical one, with a moustache and an artistic little beard, only the beret was missing. On his back he carried – okay, of course – a red guitar.

     Enthusiastically we jumped on our feet. He had changed a lot! While we were walking next to him he explained in elegant French that he lived since eight months in Saint-Denis. Look, here it was, a new flat building. His family occupied two studio's in it.

      Inside the building, in the studio which served as a living room, I didn't see a single object which reminded of a former life in Romania. We exchanged novelties in a mixture of French, Romanian and even English, because he could cope with that language as well nowadays. His wife was home and had learnt French like him. She didn't wear a head scarf anymore, but  was still dressed in a long frilled skirt. After she had served coffee, two beautiful girls of around fifteen years old entered the studio hand in hand. I got on my feet and wanted to introduce myself to the nearest girl, but she didn't react. 'Your right hand,' her sister whispered in her ear. Only then I noticed the violet, swerving eyes.

       Two quick-witted little boys were also part of the family. All children went to school and did very well there. The blind girl had never learnt anything in Romania, but in her Parisian institution for the blind a lot of abilities had been discovered. She just had participated in the first casting for blind models.     

     Three years ago the family had left for Paris without a penny, the father told us. Immediately after arriving he had adressed a passer-by who helped him to call a man from Moldova. The Moldovan had arranged that they could enter the next day a refugee centre. The rent of the studio's in which they lived now was also paid by such an organisation. To earn some money (he looked a little bit guilty when he said this) he started to beg. Only later he discovered his talent for making music.

       He took his red guitar and started to play. Meanwhile he sang with a blissful face. Caruso, I thought. In case he would follow some lessons, he could be able to sing in the opera. Such a person, with a friendly, open face, just like a real Frenchman; I understood very well why metro passengers were prepared to give him money. Sometimes he collected around hundred euros a day, he explained after the last song. But he also received a lot of fines. He always paid them, because he hoped to obtain official papers in two years. 'I'm talking a lot with thieves,' he said without special emphasis, as if 'thief' was a normal profession and it was very logical that such people were in his circle of acquaintances. 'They tell me all the time: "Come along with us, than you can have twelve hundred euro a night." But I don't do that, because then I can forget legalization." His main goal was to buy a few minibuses and to start a shuttle service between Romania and Paris.

      We were served a meal. More visitors arrived, other Roma from Romania, there were always several fellow countrymen who spent the night in the two studio's. After the meal we left in confusion. In my opinion Romanians should not be considered refugees, especially not if they don't have a serious reason to run away from their own country. To go and get even more Romanians neither seems a good idea to me. But in case the man with the red guitar will be allowed to stay in France, which is uncertain now that Sarkozy is in power, then his children will make it, that's for sure.         


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Alexander Pechtold en Mariët Meester - Veenhuizen 2007


2008, December 13

The category                                                                 

Recently I was walking around with another writer. 'I'm a failure,' he stated. 'Well, in fact I'm not a failure at all. But nobody knows that.'

      Writers can be classified into two categories, the conformists and the adventurers. To be successful in Holland, you have to fit in the first category. Do readings, be within reach, establish relationships, follow your publisher's wishes. And, most important, always write more or less the same book. Please, no experiments, like those weird colleagues are doing, those adventurers, seekers, doubters and clumsy clowns. In case you might suddenly go crazy and be in danger of entering the second category, be clever enough to cultivate your craziness. Then you can be compartmentalized and belong again to the conformists.

      I always thought I was a mixture of the two kinds. All day long I'm doing my best not to be seen as too strange. I try to understand how others think. One way or the other I have to earn myself a living; without readers I can't buy food. Last year, just before the parliamentary elections, when I received an invitation to present my last novel to Alexander Pechtold, the well-known leader of Democrats 66, I thought: it's not right. I don't want to be connected to a political party. But the conformists among my fellow writers are doing this kind of thing all the time, and see how they fare. When the organizers of the Democrats 66 meeting also let me know that they were expecting a lot of media coverage, I decided for this occasion to go over totally to the first category.

       I took myself from Amsterdam to the Prison Museum in the remote village where I grew up, Veenhuizen. The meeting would take place there, Mr. Pechtold was doing a northern election tour. Before leaving home I had been wise enough to ask for a reimbursement of travelling expenses, I complimented myself on it, although I had to admit that something still was wrong: I bought and paid for the book myself.

      When the moment of presentation came, I made a joke about the title of the novel, The Perfect Man. It seemed to me something Category One would have done as well. The politician reacted with a speech about his ancestor Bechtold, who had been an inmate of the correctional institutions which were the precursors of the present-day prisons in Veenhuizen. Not a single one of the promised journalists was present, so the revelation stayed among us, and 'us' meant in this case: some people of the regional Democrats 66, a singer song-writer who had been lured like me, the pr-officer and the director of the Prison Museum.

       As fast as I could I forgot the disaster. Until a year later, while I was abroad. It was even my birthday. Several people from Holland tipped me off: the Dutch 8 o'clock news had done an item about Veenhuizen! It was about Alexander Pechtold, and pretty amazing it was! Did I know that one of his ancestors had been an inmate of the former correctional institutions? The Prison Museum discovered that, and had thought up the idea that Pechtold could open a database with information about the former inhabitants of the institutions. The immediate cause was the book of that other female writer about Veenhuizen, that female writer who published the book common people could identify themselves with so well. She also appeared in the 8 o'clock news.

       I'm afraid nothing can be done. I'm also afraid that I don't even want something to be done. Category Two.


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2008, December 6

The suit                                                            

Of beige tricot he had made a suit which well-fitted his body. I had to help him to put it on. While he was lying on the floor, I set right his pointed cap, binded together his feet. Via eyeholes he was able to breathe. The video camera was hanging from the ceiling. Following his instructions I touched the on-button of the remote control. I also started techno music, so that he could move on the rhytm. In this way his goal was reached: he strongly resembled a worm.

    The shooting took several minutes. Everytime it had to be done again, I became bored. Why wouldn't I watch tv in the other room in the mean time? An emission happened to be broadcasted about a guy called Balkenende, daily pursuits: prime minister. He was talking live. I followed a plea about values and conventions, until I realised that the individual who was wriggling and sweating in the other room had exactly the same age.

    The recordings were declared unfit. The idea was too thin, the result didn't have enough power of expression. What sense does it have to be a worm if it's not based on a substantial theme?

      But I loved the man in this suit, not the one in the other.


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2008, November 29

Unconcerned beauty                                                  

Rumbling footsteps on the staircase. 'Help! Come down immediately!'

      Husband. Occupied with his work as a visual artist. I knew he had just been to the Angling Shop. His newest installation consisted of a tray of which the bottom was covered with maggots. On top a paper boat in which a partly naked girl was sitting. Because the maggots were moving, it seamed as if the girl was floating on a wavy sea. Art connoisseurs who, attracted by her unconcerned beauty, bent their backs and watched her with their nose just above the tray, discovered only then that the girl was transported by representatives of deterioration.

       'Help, help! Please come!'

      I ran downstairs, to the living room. Hordes of maggots were crawling on the dinner table, fell down, were rambling the wooden floor.

     'I had rinsed them off with water because I wanted to take a beautiful photo of the installation. Suddenly they were so slippery, that they were able to leave the bucket straightforwardly!'

      Visual art? OK. To give assistance? Also very well. But this matter he should figure out himself. I rushed back to my study and locked myself up.

      Apparently he managed to find a solution. We didn't have a lot of flies that year.


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2008, November 22

The knife                                                                

My manuscript still needed one scene, in which the main character slaughters a muskrat. Husband knew how to cope with it. He approached a ratcatcher. Suddenly there were two shapes, wrapped in newspapers, in the freezing compartment of our fridge. Only after three weeks I dared to take one of the packages out and put it on a chopping board. On my request husband filmed my hands, which had something better to do than to make notes.

       I slaughtered, roasted and consumed. Meanwhile I screamed and cried, this made deep inroads. The images helped me to find words. But husband decided to use them himself as well; he edited a short. Later he projected the short during video showings in a wide range of European countries. In the former Eastern bloc this led everytime to the same tableau: during each showing a minimum of four persons left the room. Among them sturdy fellows, who had battled out conflict after conflict in their country. But the knife in the hands of a female writer was too much for them.

       I have my suspicion now that the wars on the Balkans had more to do with fear, than with male power.  


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2008, November 15

Living intensified                                               

You have just plodded all over a rubbish dump where groups of Roma poked in the waste of a big city, and suddenly you find yourself in the meticulously styled office of a publishing house along an Amsterdam canal. After having returned from Romania, I always find it difficult to give attention to subjects which are important for my existence in Holland. Together the two million Romanian Roma more or less form a developing country inside a memberstate of the European Union. A hole in the ground as a toilet, children going never or irregular to school, illnesses which can't be tackled because of a lack of resources; you could call it an intensified variety of life to stay there for a while.

      'I've been slapped on the head,' I told friends and family after our last trip. A surprised 'oh?' was the common reaction. 'Our trips to Romania always have been rather dangerous, especially in the beginning,' I continued. In general the conversation ended here. When I published in 2006 in Trouw my opinion about the situation of the Roma in different Eastern-European countries, I hardly received reactions. A few months later I gave in the same newspaper my view on the position of female writers in Dutch literature. Lots of e-mails arrived; this díd interest people here.

       June 1990, Bucharest. Jaap feels a hand in his pocket. Someone tries to take his wallet. We don't appreciate such actions. Result: a bleeding man on the pavement and an other who – without wallet – runs away. He has the skin colour and the face of the Roma, the people for whom we happened to come to Romania. At this moment, eighteen years later, Jaap's front teeth are still sensible when he taps on them. The slightly crooked nose appeared to be remaining as well.

       Nevertheless we returned time after time. Still interested, that's for sure. Concerned. But it also has to do with something else, I think. Living intensified is addictive.       


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2008, November 8

The meteorite                                                     

Again and again babies were brought to me. Often only a time span of fifteen years separates generations among Romanian Roma. Soon I was standing bent over the display of my camera together with around six very young mothers. 'Ah, that one has come out well!' 'Look at this, so cute!' We all roared with laughter, knowing that in the near future colourful pictures would hang on the walls in the huts of the remote settlement. I came here since seventeen years, the degree of poverty was still unacceptable.

      And then everything got black. Vaguely I realized that something big had touched my cheek and ear. A bird of prey, I managed to think, there was a bird of prey passing by and it hit me. Or was it a boulder, had a meteorite fallen on me by accident?

    Groggy I opened my eyes. Quite a stir around me. The young mothers were screaming with indignation. It took at least ten seconds before I understood that I had been beaten, that someone had approached me from behind and had given me a bang on my head. In the distance I saw the 'someone' running and creep away under a fence. He was a boy of eighteen whom I had held in my arms when he was a baby himself, of whom I had made photos in those days. Now he had three children and was jobless like everybody in the settlement.

      The inside of my ear hurt. It didn't feel as if something had been damaged forever. Don't cry, don't cry, I thought while I walked surrounded by the young women to the small house of our friends Sandu and Maria. Jaap, who had been on a visit somewhere else, came running along as well. Other people also rushed forward. A drunken fellow grabbed my hand and put his lips on it.

     In the safe family-courtyard I told Maria what had happened. She looked upset. Don't cry, don't cry, I said again to myself, until I saw her lower lip trembling. My eyes filled with tears. A while later Jaap and I were sitting inside the house on a bed, the family didn't have another kind of furniture. On the facing bed was a row of disheartened Roma, dressed in rags, elbows on their upper legs. 'I'm sure you'll never come back,' someone uttered. Silence. Maria and I sniveled. 'We're not all like that,' could be heard now, 'please, come back to us soon.'

      While Jaap en I were leaving the settlement the same evening, we decided that there was no point in going on with bloody Romania. We had devoted ourselves to the foundation we set up in 1992, with the purpose to help Roma who did their best to get other Roma back on their feet. Surely there had been results, but the energy it had taken from us had not been used for our personal occupations, not to speak about the flee-allergy I was suffering from since my first visits to Romania. Again my arms and legs were full with groups of lumps. 'We are going to a campsite now to have a day of rest,' we said to each other. 'After that we'll go full speed back home.'

      On the campsite I could hardly sleep. My flee bites were itching like hell. I was not able to rest on the right side of my face, apparently inside my ear something had swollen.

     The next day, while we were sprawled in our folding chairs, slowly but steady a modest white camper bumped closer. Oh no, Dutch people! Again something to handle. The first fellow countrymen we saw during this trip. They got off, made themself at home, and then the female half of the couple came to us to have a chat. After three minutes it had become clear that she was the sister of one of my aunts, a dear aunt from the city of Coevorden, married to my mother's brother.

      We were served a drink. We told our story. The next morning, while we were still busy waking up, a hand appeared with a present in it. 'Bye bye folks, we're leaving.'

     Jaap and I stayed in Romania and finished our trip according to our plans. Sometimes not only meteorites, but also rescue workers appear from heaven.     


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2008, November 1

Vote for a real friend                                            

It was election time. Everywhere in the country I saw banners and billboards advertising local candidates running for mayor. There was a lot at stake indeed – according to many Romanians more than at national elections. A man of action was the slogan I saw most, but I also noticed: He doesn't remain silent or Vote for a real friend.

      The last slogan clearly showed why the elections were so important. In Romania, if I may believe the people I stayed with, you still need to push a small present forward on the table while visiting a doctor. Teachers also seem to be bribable, especially during examinations. If you are 'friend' of the mayor in such a country, that can yield certain advantages. On the other hand being a mayor is also interesting. This caused the candidates to angle for the favours of even the poorest, the Roma. House after house, hut after hut, they handed out bread, meat and cooking oil. When I visited the village of Vâlcele just before election day, municipal workmen were busy covering the mud paths of the Roma area with a neat layer of little stones.

     The sitting mayors had another trump card. From the estimated two million Romanian Roma a part never has been registered after birth. Lobby groups have been trying to tackle this problem for a long time. It takes a complicated and expensive juridical procedure to give someone an official identity. It's very necessary, because without official papers a person is not able to marry, nor to have a job or to receive public assistance.

       And that person is not able to vote. Just before the elections some mayors arranged for large groups of Roma without ID cards to be transported by bus to the town hall. A situation which had seemed desperate for a very long time suddenly could be settled in less than an hour.        


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2008, October 25

Râie Suedeza                                                          

He had problems with his hands, he wrote. They had bumps which were rather itchy. His doctor was not able to make a diagnosis. What did we think about it, could there be a relation to his nervous disposition?

      It didn't seem a strange assumption to us. We often had stayed at his place, in the gypsy neighbourhood of a South Romanian provincial town. Being the founder of the first school for Roma children in Romania he had been in conflict with everything and everybody. Finally the school had become an annex to an official primary school, and already eight hundred children had taken advantage of it. But when the primary school got a new director, he was the first to be kicked out. No teachers diploma, beat it! Go away and stay at home.

      The bump problem got bigger and bigger. Even after a year nothing had cured it. By way of his nephew, who lived in the same courtyard and was able to send e-mails, he asked if there existed medication for him in Holland? We went to a chemist's and bought an ointment, a homeopathic remedy for irritation of the skin. Because we were just planning to leave for Romania, we didn't send it, but put it in our luggage. In case of success, we could send him a bigger tube later.  

      We arrived at his place. I wanted to hug him. Quickly he warded me off and took my hand. After he had put his lips on it, he showed his own hands and his forehead. Everywhere I saw blisters, part of them he had scratched open. The problem was also occurring behind his ears, where the scratching had caused crusts. He always had been a noble man whose features reminded me of Krishnamurti, but now he looked nearly mutilated, with white spots of skin on places where blisters had been. Even his well-formed nose was white speckled with brown.

      Our ointment had no effect. All the time we saw him scratching. In Romania people are used to quite a lot of things, he still was functioning normally, but this couldn't continue. After we had spent four days intensely with him, we drove on, rather concerned. Back in Holland we received a message from the nephew who lived with him. His uncle had been to another doctor, who gave the problem a name: râie Suedeza.

      Suedeza means Swedish, I didn't have to look in my dictionary. And râie? That happened to be Romanian for 'scabies'. On a website I read how scabies starts: because of mites digging passages under the skin. In those passages they copulate, then the male mite dies. It helps to take a shower, a lot of larva will die.

       Our friend had no shower. He only had a tap with cold water in the courtyard. And his doctor had made a mistake of one country. Again the website: if someone has Norwegian scabies (after an epidemic in Norway in 1848) the amount of mites is many times larger. The flakes of skin are then full of mites and younger stages of mites. These flakes are very contagious. Spreading can take place via brief contact and even by flapping clothing or bedclothes. Everybody who touches the skin of such a patient is at high risk, like anybody who is in the neighbourhood of those 'contact persons'.

       It's several months later now. Every time we ask the nephew about his uncle, we send him information in Romanian about hygienic measures to combat scabies. And has your uncle already used medication for râie Suedeza? No, he still hasn't, he then replies. His uncle's face, hands and also other parts of his body are full of wounds now.

      With kind regards of a contact person.         


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2008, October 18

The fence                                                            

On our way to Romania we slept near the Austrian city of Linz. The next day, when we were heading for the highway, I noticed a sign: Mauthausen 12 kilometres. At the same time I also saw a large terrain, fenced-off with the kind of posts about which I just had read an article in the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland. Concrete posts, curved inward on top, which enclosed concentration camps during World War II. The inmates were forced to make them themselves. Was this already camp Mauthausen?   

    There was a small road near the characteristic posts. We turned into it. In the middle of the enclosed terrain I saw barrack-like buildings and a pile of oil drums. I thought I also distinguished an air raid shelter. On the fence sat a notice: Tyrolux. Energy & Recycling GmbH.

    I left the car and started to take photos. Near former concentration camp Mauthausen people had started a recycling company and to fence it off they used posts which reminded of the crimes of their ancestors. How far could you go in your desire to recycle?

   While I was walking with my camera on the road a silvergrey car arrived. The driver, an elderly Austrian who looked as if his name could be Josef Fritzl or as if he had played with someone of that name in the sandbox anyway, opened his window. 'Grüss Gott.' I also said 'Grüss Gott' and continued to walk. With an expression of rage on his face the man put his car into reverse and drove next to me. 'I'm from Justice. What are you up to?'

    He got the right person in front of him. I grew up in a secluded village owned by the Dutch Ministry of Justice. 'Can you prove that you are from Justice?' I asked coldly. 'You don't have a special car, you don't wear special clothing, you don't even have a nameplate on.'

    The man was speechless. A woman dared to doubt his authority. Finally he managed to exclaim in a furious way: 'I'm going to call the police right NOW.'

   'Okay, just go and call the police,' I replied and took another photo of the concrete concentration camp posts.

    Fritzl raced full speed to our car. I followed on foot and saw him talking in a walkie-talkie. While he left his vehicle, he screamed totally out of control: 'I passed on your number plate! This terrain is owned by Justice!'

   'Sir, those posts have been used during the war to fence concentration camps,' I said in my iciest German.

    'You're not allowed to take pictures.'

    'If so, it should be announced on the fence. I don't see any announcement.'

    I took a last photo and entered our car. We drove away. A few minutes later we were on the highway to Vienna. The first exit came. It led to Amstetten, Fritzl's place of residence.             


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