EDITED: CBC Human Library Project

The following is a re-post of my original report on the Human Library Project, with some corrections.  Thanks to Lela for her feedback and contribution!

As I wrote earlier this week, I went to the Atwater Library in Westmount this morning to participate in the Human Library project.  I had signed up to speak with Lela Savic, a Romani journalist and documentary maker.  She was interning at the Human Library project, and considering her background they invited her to be one of the human libraries this year.

If you watch her introductory video, you will learn that Lela was born in Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and when the war broke out when she was five, her family emigrated to Canada.  I briefly described to her how I am from Switzerland and in Geneva there is a very negative perception of Romani as beggars, pickpockets and thieves.  I asked her to describe her background to me so that I could see a different perspective of Romani.

Lela described how she grew up in Canada as any “normal” kid would.  She studied at Concordia University, she has travelled, worked, and maintained her connection with her family roots back in Serbia (in fact, throughout our conversation, she referred to “her village” in Serbia as home, rather than Montreal).  She told me she feels that the fundamental difference between Romani culture and others is that it is a very old, traditional culture.  It is not that different from many southern European cultures, but it is very insular.  For that reason many Romani (especially women) have little interest in education, development or what is going on outside of their group.  This often results in issues in healthcare and a lack of empowerment of women (though in her family, she and her siblings were all encouraged to study, regardless of gender).  Since so few people know anything about Romani culture, Lela feels that many do not understand her cultural perspective.

It was fascinating discussing Gadjo (or non-Romani) perceptions of her people, but also how Romani groups view each other.  She said that here in Canada Romani are viewed in romantic light: when she tells people she is Romani it often inspires images of an exotic “Esmerelda” who dances and sings.  Or, she is asked if her family is nomadic and travels around all the time.  However, in Europe, she hesitates to disclose that she is Romani.  She often gets very negative reactions which range from distrust to outright hostility.  Though she said she has one cousin who is a successful businesswoman in Belgrade, she has other cousins who have been shut out of the business world in Europe because they are Romani.

Lela comes from a community that is sedentary and lives in a group of six neighboring villages in Serbia.  They have intermarried, grown and established themselves as mostly farmers.  There are other groups of Romani who travel, and engage in what are negatively viewed as the stereotypical activities of the Romani, such as pickpocketing, begging, etc.  She said that among Romani there is a specific word for these groups, and they are often looked down upon for “giving Romani a bad name.”  However, because many Romani share the experience of being marginalized and discriminated against, there is an understanding that these groups often have no other choice. It is a vicious cycle: because they are rejected by society as thieves and beggars, they must become just that in order to survive, thus further reinforcing the negative stereotypes.  When one thinks about it, it is heartbreaking to think that a whole group of people is stuck in this wheel.

Lela’s goal is to continue working to educate the outside world about her culture.  She would also like to work as an activist among Romani, as she believes Romani people will more readily accept social reform initiated by one of their own, rather than from perceived outsiders.  Our conversation was fascinating, though brief, and it accomplished the goal the Human Library project set out to do: it opened my eyes to a different perspective and reminded me to always challenge stereotypes and be open to changing preconceived ideas.

After my conversation with Lela, I had a little time to spare, so I asked who would be available for a conversation starting at 11:30.  I had a fascinating conversation with Gabrielle Bouchard, a trans woman who spent most of her life as man, and transitioned to life as a woman in her late thirties.  I will tell you more about our chat in another post, though, as this one is getting on the long side.

Happy Saturday everyone, and have a good weekend!

If you are interested in hearing some of Lela’s interviews with members of the Roma community, you can listen to her interview with Kristin Molnar, her discussion on stereotypes, and her conversation about discrimination against Romani people in Croatia.  Please note that some of these interviews are conducted in French, so if you were looking for a good reason to learn French, here you have it!  I highly recommend you give these a listen.

Just Discovered: Human Library Project

Saturday, 26 January 2013 is Canada’s National Human Library Day.  The Human Library is an initiative “designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding,” (Human Library, 2012).  I just heard about the national initiative on the radio, and it sparked my curiosity, so I looked it up.

For those who won’t click through to the links, the idea is that several people of varied backgrounds, histories and occupations make themselves available for a few hours in a public space to have 20-minute conversations with anyone who signs up to attend.  On Saturday, fourteen local Montreal people will be at the Atwater Library (1200, Avenue Atwater, Westmount) from 11:00 until 16:00.  These folks are a mix of journalists, religious leaders, sports figures and gay rights activists.

I have signed up for a conversation at 11:00am with Lela Savic, a journalist of Romani origins.  She is from the former Yugoslavia and makes documentary films here in Montreal (you can follow her on Twitter here).

When perusing the list of participants, I was particularly interested in meeting and speaking with Ms Savic.  Coming from Geneva, Switzerland, where there are, shall we say, “issues” with the Romani population, I am curious to hear her perspective and to try to understand a bit more about this group which seems to inspire so many different reactions: fear, mistrust, fascination (think of flamenco music!), romanticism, etc.

If you like the sound of this initiative, see if the Human Library is doing anything in your area.  You can also tune in to cbcnews.ca on Saturday between 11:00 and 16:00 Eastern Standard Time to participate in the live event online.  You can also follow CBC on Twitter and get updates about the event at the hashtag #CBCHumanLibrary.

It promises to be an interesting (though brief) conversation!  If any of you have questions you would want me to ask Ms Savic, feel free to post them in the comments.

It’s Incredibly Cold

A girlfriend who lived in Montreal for a couple of years warned me: “Les hivers sont extrêmement rudes.”  She wasn’t kidding.  Check it out:

Cold

For those of you who speak fahrenheit, that’s -9.4°F (and Mike Finnerty on CBC’s Daybreak just said the wind chill will make it -38°C!!).  Now, I don’t want to complain, but even CBC radio tells me that this kind of long, extremely cold stretch is unusual.  Normally it’s only about -16°C (3°F) during the day (pffff, tropical!).

In times like this, my instinct is to put the heat up as high as possible and stay bundled up inside.  But this is not the native Canadian approach, oh no!  There are people out there still biking to work (admittedly, even the locals think they’re nuts).  My short period of residence in Canada has taught me a few of the locals’ tricks:

  1. Window
    You can’t let sights like this get you down.

    Carry a big bag with an extra pair of shoes.  Wear your boots outside and change into your fancy-schmancy shoes indoors.  (And make sure your boots are easy to slip on and off – high lace-ups are NOT recommended.)

  2. Don’t let the cold intimidate you: go ice skating!  It sounds counter-intuitive, seeing as you’re surrounded by ice and cold, but the movement and constant fear of falling on your backside keep you warm.
  3. If you have a car, get a remote starter.  They are a gift from God.
  4. Memorize and make extensive use of the Montreal underground passages.  If you’re visiting or new in town and you want to learn about them, give this guy a call.
  5. Café hop!  My neighborhood, the Plateau Mont-Royal, is full of adorable cafés.  So if you’re not in a hurry to get from Sherbrooke to Mont-Royal on St. Denis street, you can hop back and forth across the road, going from La Petite Cuillère, to Café Universel, to Simplement D’Liche Cupcakes, up to Aux Deux Maries.  (Note: this technique might cause inordinate weight gain.)
  6. Wear lots of layers.  Because it’s so cold outside, indoor public spaces like the metro, supermarkets and others are overheated.  You need to be able to peel off layers so as not to suffocate yourself once inside.

On my own, I have come up with a couple of solutions: Fingerless gloves are wonderful for keeping warm while also being able to type.  Baking is wonderful for heating up the kitchen with the oven, and having a warmth-inducing hobby like crocheting helps tremendously.  How can you be cold when you have a blanket made of pure (and stinky) New Zealand sheep’s wool thrown over your knees?

Afghan
This took me over a year to finish.

Despite the cold outside, it is true that the chilliest days of the year are also the sunniest.  So while we’re all freezing our tootsies off, we can at least enjoy beautifully sunny days in this lovely (though harsh) city.