A story about a little gypsy girl in Bulgaria, and an unlikely friendship.

Recorded in a park in Canterbury.


Okay so, I come from Bulgaria, that’s where I’ve lived my whole life. And the story which I am about to tell is one of the things that made me want to study what I am studying now, which is Cultural Studies. And it’s one of the things that made me actually want to leave my country in order to get as much as I can out of good higher education, in order to then come back in Bulgaria and maybe try to fix some of the problems which make this story what it is.

We’re lying on the grass in a small garden in Canterbury, right next to the river. And the sun is just about to set. We’re watching the sky go pink, or actually kind of purple now and, can hear the birds sing in the trees.

Right, so before coming to the UK to study, in 2015, I was working in a cafe in my hometown Sofia, in Bulgaria. Which was in the city centre, like a small kind of – it was quite ugly actually – Greek style cafe that actually just opened that year. So I was there when we were opening it. And it was kind of like a fancy place, to get only uni students and nicely dressed people. And there was this little gypsy girl that used to come sometimes. She was called Petya. She was, I think, eight. Yeah, she was eight she was in the second grade. So she used to come, sometimes with her mum, sometimes on her own, sometimes with her sisters. There were like, four of them I think. And she had really dirty clothes, they were obviously really poor.

[Carys]: So did they come to beg?

Yes well not for money but for like, some of the cakes. Because it was more of a patisserie kind of place, just coffee. So they would be like “Oh, can we have a bottle of coke? Can we have a piece of this cake or like the pudding or something”. And whenever my boss was there, she would be really nice to them and, fill a whole bag of like sweets and cakes for them. And then of course they would come back the next day. But my boss made it really explicit that we shouldn’t give them anything if we were just on our own, just the waitresses. So whenever she would come, and all of my bosses weren’t there, all my colleagues would be like “No no no we really shouldn’t”, because we were told not to. And I felt really bad and I think most of them did as well.

But she didn’t stop coming. She actually started chatting to me quite a lot, and I saw that she was like a really curious and knowledgeable girl. I mean it’s rare to see children that age act like that, and I’m not speaking about gypsies here. I wasn’t surprised she was the way she was because she was a gypsy. Like, any kid that age is usually not that interested in school and life and learning things, she was so curious. I think she sometimes actually missed school to come to beg, which made me really sad because I knew she was getting a lot out of it, like she needed to be there. But at the same time I kind of understand her mum’s motives in sending her on the streets because if they have nothing to eat, like, of course.

So most of the gypsies in Bulgaria are, quite poor. There’s some… but most of them – especially the ones who live in the big cities like Sofia – just live in small ghettos around town, and on the outskirts as well. And they live in very big – they’re like, I don’t know how to describe it, like small towns in the city. Yeah, they’re not accepted as a community. Bulgarians wouldn’t hire gypsies for anything else rather than collecting the bins or cleaning. And almost always just in places that are not, again, like fancy. So in the shopping mall, you would rarely get Gypsy cleaners because it looks bad.

And the other thing is that they’re just not encouraged to get into education in terms of, most of them just finish the seventh grade, which is like before going to high school. And in Bulgaria, in order to get a proper job you need to have finished the eighth grade. So that’s just one year but, from what I know most of them don’t finish that. And of course, employers wouldn’t go for someone who doesn’t have, you know secondary education. Or at least that’s the general narrative whereas it’s actually, you know, it is I think discrimination more than anything else. But there’s also things like they have their own slang, most of them speak Bulgarian but, in a way which is Gypsy-like.

There’s just so much stigma around who they are and how they live their life. So there’s this general view that every Gypsy… their purpose in life is to steal and to just be harmful to the community. And that’s like, very reflected in the media. And you don’t get to see anything else covered in the news or in newspapers.

So yeah Petya was, in the second grade and, because of all these things I was really pleased to see how well she was doing in school and like how much she’s learning. She would tell me all about the things she was studying and like, explain maths and Bulgarian and how she’s learned to write and all this kind of stuff. And she was – one of the things that struck me the most is that – she was already like, ahead of other students and she couldn’t wait for third grade and learning history, geography… all this sort of stuff which wasn’t present in the second grade. She was already smarter than that. So at some point she started just coming to chat, like she stopped asking for food or drinks. Just really liked me and saw that I liked her as well. You know, her clothes were quite dirty but always really colourful. Like I could see that she was trying to look nice. We had like, well, darker skin obviously and dark hair and dark eyes, big eyes.

And then there is these two drivers that we have, who do deliveries with the cakes. And this one time one of them had come to take a cake. And he was just sitting on the tables outside. And that’s when Petya came to see me again. And she just walked in the shop, saw me and waved. And then I was like “Oh, do you want to, like sit outside on the tables?” And she was like “Yeah sure let’s go”. So she started walking in front of me, so I was still behind the till. And she started walking out. And then I heard that guy, the driver, shouting. So I looked around and was like “what’s going on?” and I saw that he was shouting at her. And he was just being like “Oh you fucking Gypsy. Leave now. This is not your place. You need to go.”

[Carys]: And shouting this to a small kid?

Yeah, she was like 7-8 years old. And even before her turning around to look at me, I could just see her whole body going stiff. And then he wouldn’t stop. Like she was really, really scared because she just like, stopped in one place and was staring at him. And he wouldn’t stop shouting, you know in a really loud voice. I mean, he was the one attracting customers attention by being really fucking rude… to a kid. And then she just turned around, that’s when she looked at me. And she had the most confused look on her face. And then I just rushed to the door. And I just told him to shut up I was like “This is just a kid like really just stop doing that”. And then he started talking to me about how it’s not her place here. She needs to leave. He kind of knew that she had been coming for a while and was like “This shouldn’t be happening at all, like why are you giving her food?”. And I just took her right hand and dragged her to the side – like I didn’t drag her but I brought her to the side. And well she was just like “Why is this man saying these things to me?”

Because she’s so curious, and she was so open to everything; she was hurt in such a powerful way that she couldn’t even understand what was going on. And she was just asking “Well, why is he saying that? I don’t get it.” And then I went really quiet because I didn’t know what to say. And in front of me was a five year old girl, who was also really way too fucking intelligent for a five year old. And I knew that if I told her what I think is the truth, she would understand. And then that made me feel like I have a massive amount of responsibility with what I was about to say. So I really didn’t know what to do, because I could have been just like “Oh, you know, like, there’s some people like that. He’s just like, rude. He’s crazy.” or something like that but, I didn’t want to lie because I knew that that was what she was going to be facing for the rest of her life. And I kind of felt that maybe, okay if I explain why he’s doing that, maybe it’s better for her to be hurt now. But maybe try and, you know create some sort of shield, like a mental shield towards this sort of thing if she can, while she’s still young and passionate about life. Instead of losing all of that because she’s been offended so many times.

So just like: “Look, this is not rational. This is not logical. But it’s going to happen throughout your life. And he’s not going to be the only one. And I’m not saying that to be mean to you, but it is the truth. And I think you’re really, really, really smart and you need to somehow learn to ignore all of that and keep that curiosity within yourself and just keep trying because, you’re going to be faced with unfairness for the whole of your life. And it will never be because of who you are, it’s always going to be because of the colour of your skin or how you speak. No one is going to see who you are behind all of this. And they’re just going to insult you for what you look like. And you need to try and not be hurt by all of this, because it is going to bring you down if you don’t.” And it was so hard not to cry because I was like okay, so she’s the hurt one, I can’t you know start crying in front of her now. And she’s always going to be so fucking isolated, just because of what our society structure’s like.

And then that same night her mother came. And I’d always really respected that woman, like I obviously didn’t know her well, but I just always respected her for trying so hard with her kids,

and for encouraging her to study because I know it’s not a common thing. But she was really being like “Okay Petya this is great, you need to learn more, you need to study. You can have a future.” Always in that very, you know, sanitised kind of way where she was kind of trying to protect her from the reality of things. But still I was really admiring her for encouraging her child to do that.

So she came that night, and right next to the cafe there’s a small passage towards the houses on the side. So it’s always very dark there and that’s where you go if you want to speak to someone in person. So I’ve had a lot of strange conversations there like, intimate moments of kissing someone… It’s just a very symbolic place but that just made it change its meaning completely. So I just took her mother there and I was like: “Listen, something happened today. And what worries me about it is that it’s not something unusual. It’s something that’s just going to keep happening to your daughter if you keep letting her go on streets to beg. And I understand that this is what you have to do in order to keep living.”

And by that point, she was already starting to cry. Like seeing her guilt was just… I mean, it just makes you see… it’s like you just see all the unfairness. Like I can’t describe it in words and you don’t need words once you see something, when you see someone’s life situation and how it’s just full of contradictions that you can’t resolve. And you’re doing what you can and it’s all the wrong things, but it’s because there’s no right choices. And then I just asked her not to, I was like “This is going to ruin her. She’s eight and she’s so vulnerable because she’s so open to the world and she’s so loving and such a brilliant child. So please don’t…” And then her mom was just like, she took me by the hand and was like: “I really love her, and I can see she’s exceptional. And I really want to support her in everything she does. And I want to see a future for her. But I have to do that as well. This has to be a part of her life because, we need food. We need to survive.” So, it comes to existence in the end, just managing bare life and…

Yeah I guess, that’s my story. And then I guess a bit of an epilogue would be that, I did not see her after that. Basically, one of the reasons was that I left the cafe a couple weeks later. And I came back to speak to my colleagues, and they told me that she sometimes came to like, much more rarely. It would usually be her mum, or they would just come after the cafe is closed to get the bread that was left after the day. And then, it’s one of those things that like, wherever I go throughout the years, I would occasionally just remember it. Like every couple of months I would just think “Oh I wonder how she’s doing…” and there’s this massive like gap inside of me where just like want to have some sort of contact with her. I just want to find her, I want to meet up, I want to talk and just see how she’s doing. It’s one of those things where I know that whatever I’m aspiring to, as a person, with what I’m doing. This is one of the things that are leading, like this is what I want to do. This is what I know I can maybe make an impact on, maybe I can do something to change this because it just has to happen. So yeah…

[Carys]: And what’s the moral of the story?

I don’t necessarily think that’s one of those stories that has a moral to it, because I could go like okay “Don’t be mean to people without knowing them.” But that’s such a cliché, and it just doesn’t work in real life. And that’s why I think the moral of the story is that some stories shouldn’t have morals to them.

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