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Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of Franceby Fernanda Eberstadt
Synopses & Reviews
From the author of four novels comes this remarkable book, both impassioned and humorous, about the Gypsies of southwestern France — their habits, their haunts, and their haunting music.
In 1998, Fernanda Eberstadt, her husband, and their two small children moved from New York to an area outside Perpignan, a city set on a series of bluffs overlooking the river Tet, with one of the largest Gypsy populations in Western Europe. Always fascinated with Gypsy music, Eberstadt became obsessed with the local ?Gypsy rumba,? and with a Perpignan band called Tekameli, perhaps the greatest Gypsy band between Barcelona and Budapest. After eighteen futile months of trying to make contact, she was at last invited into the home of Tekameli?s lead singer, Moïse Espinas, and into the closed world of the Gypsies.
Here she found a jealously guarded culture — a society made, in part, of lawlessness and defiance of non-Gypsy norms — that nonetheless made room for her, ?a privileged American in a Mediterranean underworld.? As her relationship with the Espinas family changed over the years from mutual bafflement to a deep-rooted friendship, Eberstadt found herself a part of Gypsy life, moving about in a large group whose core included Moïse, his wife, her sister, and their children — at cockfights, in storefront churches, at malls, in their homes, and at their rehearsals, discovering lives lived ?between biblical laws and strip-mall consumerism? — and always accompanied by the intense and infectious beat of their heart-stopping music.
Little Money Street is a spellbinding story of the Gypsies and the little-known landscape in France they have called home for centuries, and of one woman?s extraordinary journey among them.
"Fernanda Eberstadt takes her title from Perpignan, in the province of Roussillon, 'the last city in France before you cross into Spanish Catalonia (and) a major stop in one particular Gypsy homeland that reaches along the coast from the French Camargue down to Barcelona.' It is a part of France that few of us elsewhere know anything about, a city of more than 100,000, about 5,000 of whom are Gypsies.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Eberstadt writes: 'Perpignan, built on a series of bluffs overlooking the River Tet, is a maze of rough-paved streets that straggle up and down hills and ravines, alongside canals and filled-in streams. Street names are sometimes earthy, sometimes ethereal, sometimes terrifying, impregnated in a past that still seems nervously alive: Street of False Witnesses, Street of 15 Degrees, Street of the Great Fire, Dragon Street, Moon Street, Lantern Street, Street of the Three Days, Iron Hand Street, Soap-Factory Street, Eel Street, Big Money Street, and the street whose name best describes the condition of most people I know in Perpignan, Little Money Street.' Eberstadt, the author of four well-regarded novels (and the granddaughter, not that it really matters, of the immortal Ogden Nash), lived in Perpignan with her husband and two young children for several years during the late 1990s and early 2000s. She was then in her 30s and had developed an inclination toward out-of-the-way places — a reaction, perhaps, against her upbringing in fashionable Manhattan. She had also developed a particular interest in Gypsies, envying them 'their seeming freedom' and dreaming 'of following the open road, roasting a plucked hedgehog over a campfire, sleeping under the stars, learning to ride bareback: no school, no bedtime, no baths.' We Americans haven't much experience with Gypsies (or Roma, as they prefer to be called). A few have made their way to the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe, but their numbers are small and their impact on the larger society is to all intents and purposes nonexistent. In Europe, though, they remain a significant if small presence, and their music has had a disproportionately large influence: 'For 40 years, the Catalan Gypsy clans of (Roussillon) have been producing great bands, several of whom have gone on to achieve international fame. In the '70s, it was Manitas de Plata, in the '80s, the Gipsy Kings.' Eberstadt is a fan (to put it mildly) of Gypsy music. She became infatuated with a band called Tekameli and its principal singer, Moose Espinas, after moving to Perpignan in 1998. 'This book,' she writes, 'is an homage to Tekameli — to all that Tekameli could be, and all that they will never become. Because they are Perpignan Gypsies, and would rather play gin rummy all day in a fairground bar than rehearse, would rather stay home with their families than pursue fame in the foreign capitals of world music.' Though this suggests that 'Little Money Street' is a book about music, in fact it is a book about Gypsies, and a very good one at that. Over the time she lived in Perpignan, Eberstadt gradually became close to the Espinas family, in particular to Moose's wife, Diane, and she gained an intimate perspective on Gypsy life granted to few outsiders, whom many Gypsies instinctively distrust. She writes about them with a mixture of affection, admiration, envy and exasperation. When she is with them, she has a 'sense of what it might be like to be an Undesirable in the developed Western world — the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong income bracket,' and though this may suggest an element of slumming, there's none of that to be found here. Eberstadt likes the Roma she meets, admires their talents and independence, wishes that their lives were less limited and pinched, that they were more inclined to test themselves against the larger world than to shrink away from it in their own bubble. Unfortunately, Eberstadt glosses over the reality that the Gypsies' situation is far from entirely of their own making. They have been subjected to severe discrimination throughout Europe for centuries, with isolation and poverty the inevitable results. Perhaps this helps explain why family is so important to the Perpignan Gypsies. Eberstadt writes, 'This familialness, this cupboard love, is intrinsic to a larger Mediterranean culture, in which sons go into the family business and bring their wives to live in their parents' house, in which loyalty, duty, respect for elders, and the collective good take precedence over modern notions of self-fulfillment. Behind these customs lies the understanding that the world is a vicious place in which loners get devoured by wolves, that it's only by sticking together and looking after one's own that there's any hope of getting by.' Family nourishes and defends, but too much family constricts and enervates. The Gypsies about whom Eberstadt writes have the best and the worst of a family-centered culture. They are in effect an extended family with a wide network of support, love and encouragement, but they are also afraid of the outside world and its challenges, not least because of the discrimination they face there. The music that Moose Espinas makes is lovely, but Moose declines to work particularly hard at it, to see how far it might take him, to take risks with it. Music has made him prosperous, at least by the standards of Perpignan Gypsies, yet he and Diane live in a culture of poverty 'because they don't have the ambition or the patience or the know-how that can solidify your gains, translate wealth into less transient goods such as education or health care or political influence.' Eberstadt writes this with regret and a measure of exasperation, but not with anger or condescension. She accepts the Roma for what they are and values the ways in which they are so different from the rest of us. When she writes, more broadly, about the people of Roussillon, she makes the point precisely and perceptively: 'Among the people I meet in Roussillon, there is an inherited Mediterranean culture, a conception of `the good life,' which is in many ways antithetical to the reigning free-market ethic. Instead of ingenuity and enterprise, what people value is neighborliness, respect, stability, leisure. ... Here it's considered proper for men as well as women to put family life before career: a man who leaves for the office at dawn and comes home just in time to give his children a goodnight kiss isn't thought to be making a sacrifice, but a selfish mistake.' All of which is appealing and true, but Eberstadt declines to sentimentalize the Perpignan Gypsies. They hold education — and thus the benefits to which it can lead — in contempt. In the Gypsy quarter of St. Jacques, women lead narrow lives: 'Women may not leave the house without their husbands' permission. They are not supposed to drive cars, smoke cigarettes, or drink alcohol. They may not wear trousers or skirts above the ankle .... All they are allowed to do, in fact, is stay at home, covered in head-to-toe black, scrubbing floors, cooking, waiting on the men, and making sure their daughters are never seen talking to a boy.' Gypsy women are routinely beaten by their husbands, Eberstadt writes, and before they marry — usually at a very young age — they are subjected to a humiliating ritual calculated to prove their virginity. They are interesting and appealing and in some respects exotic, but like all the rest of us, they fall considerably short of perfection. 'Little Money Street' is unlikely to make many readers want to rush off and join them, and in any case it's probably too late. The outside world they so resent and fear is closing in on them, with its various seductions and entrapments, and the boundaries within which the Gypsies have kept themselves are beginning to wither away. This may or may not be a good thing, but it is good to have this book as evidence of the life that once they led. Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Personally introduced to the elusive Gypsy culture, [Eberstadt] does readers a tremendous service by providing them with an intimate glimpse into the vibrant social life, customs, and music of one of the world's most reviled, misunderstood, and richly textured societies." Margaret Flanagan, Booklist
From the author of "The Furies" comes a beautifully reported story of Gypsies, the spellbinding, little-known France they have called home for centuries, and of her remarkable journey among them.
About the Author
Fernanda Eberstadt is the author of four novels: The Furies, When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth, Low Tide, and Isaac and His Devils. She graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford. She lives in France with her family.
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