Welcome Home… to the Roma

Alex and Rada in front of their hotel

Alex and Rada in front of their hotel

By Pascal Percq (France)

Alex and Rada live in Montreuil, outside Paris.  They have two children, a girl and a boy.  Alex, 24 years old, arrived in France when he was 16.  He’s a dynamic young man, courageous, with a hundred ideas a day and a thousand questions to answer.  For instance, at the moment he is building a school in the local garden.  Next to him, Rada is smiling and never surprised, always reassuring.

I should specify – Alex and Rada don’t live alone, but surrounded by their family (eight households) and friends: around 80 people.  For six years they have been occupying land in the region around Paris in the No Man’s Land between two branches of a highway – in the middle of nowhere.  It is their home, and they work with scrap metal, their garden, and raising animals in the middle of the city.  But for two years, they’ve had another, unexpected activity: they’ve opened an inn in the middle of the Roma camp.

One day they met Mathias, a young Swiss man passing through the area.  They immediately got along well. Mathias didn’t just share the family meal, but they made a place for him to sleep the night – in fact things went so well that they were talking and discussing and laughing for most of the night.  The Roma way.

An incredible idea came out of that night.  In the morning, it was transformed into a project.  And two months later, between the caravans, Alex and Rada built a small house out of recovered wood that they opened with the proud title, “Hotel Gelem.”

Mathias and his Swiss organization have opened five “Hotel Gelem” in Switzerland, Germany, Macedonia, and Kosovo.  Gelem means travel, the place we pass by.  It’s also the title of a beautiful song in Roma, full of the nostalgia of exile.

The small wooden house is very comfortable, well heated in winter, entirely built with up-cycled material and built by Alex and Rada with their neighbors.  They were supported in their project by a local organization called Ecodrom, and the local government was encouraging.

It is a unique address just outside Paris that can’t be missed.  It’s a space for something that is prices: the art of meeting people.  This space is above all a space for breaking down cliches.

During our stay with Alex and Rada, we talked all night long – about family, children, Romania, school, the difficulties of being Roma in France.  Everything and nothing, their lives.  And of course of their hope for the policies giving authorization for Romanians to look for work within the heart of the European Union starting on January 1st 2014.  So many new encounters and new friends.  Not only did we sleep well, but we ate with the family – Rada is a remarkable cook who uses vegetables from the neighboring kitchen garden.  Foreign visitors passing through also find in Alex and Rada two excellent guides for discovering the nearby capital.  But the real discovery is of course that of the daily life of Roma families in France.  We can’t help but ask ourselves – could we live like they do?  This question is itself though a sign of the rough welcoming which the Roma receive here.

The presence of “tourists” in the camp also means protection for the families who live there, their lives precarious and at the mercy of the local administration.  “Having you here, I am glad and I’m reassured,” Alex told us.

Their two children go to school. Alex would like to build a school on their land so that all the children in the camp can go to school – and also so that three times a week adults too could take classes in French.

And so, the Roma who we see here and there around town gave us, just steps from the Eiffel Tower, a real lesson in hospitality.  Over 2 years, Hotel Gelem has welcomed over a hundred guests, and the initiative was awarded a prize by the Council of Europe.

You can pay what you want, the goal being not to “make money” but to encourage encounters.

And when the time of parting comes, each guest leaves a small note in the guest book: a small notebook full of testimonies of happy hours passed together.

If you pass by there, stop at the Hotel Gelem, it’s a rare place in France, a real lesson in life that we will never forget afterwards.

(This post was originally published in French on the blog Un Monde Autrement Vu)

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