As we drive up the steep, uninviting hill through the community, collecting kids to join our workshop - action games and making various objects out of common rubbish – we attract the curious glances of the whole village. We are like the pied piper, drawing a string of laughing, waving little faces with big brown eyes running after our vehicle. Tired, stooped mothers supporting dirty babies on their hips gaze at our foreign car, disapproving men lean out of houses which look more akin to garden sheds than places of dwelling, male youths pause for a moment on their motorbikes to take in the sight of the plump white strangers entering their home. A completely different way of life inside this tiny area.
We have one contact inside the community, a kindly yet authoritarian woman in her sixties named Lusi, who speaks Macedonian and broken German, meaning that only Coen, Silvia and I are able to communicate with her on any level above vague gesticulating. Quite how we found her, I cannot remember, but she has been invaluable in organising the kids and scaring off the 'banditos' lurking in the shade. Pulling up outside her pristine, whitewashed shack, what seems like the entire population of Bitola's Roma community gather round our van, shouting, smiling, waving, laughing, oggling, almost preventing us from getting out, with all their excitement!
We are giving our workshop on a beautiful hill, with panoramic views of the pinkbrown city, the chequerboard plain and the misty green mountains behind it. Not an ideal place ergonomically, as all and sundry from the community can join in, distract the children and bring the very fragile order we have constructed with the kids into disarray. And under the oppressive heat, the children can lose concentration and patience, and everything can explode with just the tiniest trigger.
Our first day of workshops on the hill takes place spontaneously, when Sigi and Silvia bring four young but immensely talented Roma boys back from the samba workshop in the centre of town. Roma people have a reputation for being extremely musically gifted, and these boys are no exception. No older than ten, they hammer out complex syncopated rhythms on their beautiful drums, obviously family heirlooms, while chattering away to each other, or singing haunting melodies over the top.
Other kids are running down the street, after the music and the commotion. Word travels fast in this place. Soon we have about 35 kids, and at least 15 youths standing around us. Lusi starts barking at the youths, who are showering us with offers of kisses, sex, heroin, cocaine, stolen mobile phones and marriage. How generous! Lusi seems to have a strange kind of control over these bare-chested men, dressed as hip-hop kings, and laden with cheap jewelry. They retreat several paces, and watch predatorially from the shade of a few lonely trees.
Now its just us, Lusi and the kids. Sigi and Silvia take half the group and attempt to commence another samba workshop on one side of the hill. From the racket, it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun, but not a lot like samba! The rest of the kids look to Coen and I for amusement.
Right! Lets start a few action games. After a lot of explanation in german from me and organising in macedonian from Lusi, we have the kids passing claps, playing mirrors, cat and mouse and all sort of other games I have used in the past at either clown or youth workshops. None of them are amazingly successful, but the kids are loving it.
The age of the children must be anywhere between 4 and 14. And today, at our first workshop we have every kind of child. Some are dressed in clothes fancy enough to be at a wedding, others are wearing ragged hand-me-downs, dirty and faded. Some kids are obviously spoilt, and fold their arms petulently when they can't stand next to me. Others have the wistful faraway stare of an underloved child. Some are plump and heathly, others look skinny and hungry. The one thing, however, that unites them, is their surprisingly bad teeth. Even those, whose adult teeth have just arrived, have gaping holes where teeth have rotted away, or painful looking cavities, bleeding gums and giant black holes, even in their front teeth. I cannot quite understand why they are not all rolling around in agony, but I guess that basic hygiene here is a very different concept to that in western Europe.
When the kids begin to get tired and hungry, we arrange through Lusi to meet them again the following day, at 11. As the kids are leaving, Lusi begins telling us that the children need to be paid for taking part in the workshop! I am dumbstruck and have no idea how to respond. She also says that we cannot take them out of the community for a whole day without giving them lunch, and recommends a hamburger each. 35 hamburgers?! Then she asks to be paid herself for the work she has done today. Fortunately Coen barters her down to lunch every day for her and the kids, during our workshops and a packet of cigarettes for her. I found this a very difficult situation, as we are of course the 'rich westerners', in our clean clothes and modern van, but on the other hand, if we fulfulled every request for money we have received thusfar on the tour, we would probably be stranded in Bitola.
The following morning Lusi has made a list of kids she thinks are 'suitable' for our workshops – 20 names of kids from the most respectable families in the community, all written in a perfect line in her spidery cyrillic script, and handed to us with great importance. We try convincing her that anyone can come to our workshops, it really doesnt matter about their background or financial situation, only to recieve a barrage of indecipherable ramblings about 'banditos', 'nicht gut' and 'zu viel Kinder.' Hmm... hard to argue with this woman. True, yesterdays shambles was a little hard to manage perhaps, but somehow we don't trust this woman's selectivity. Lets just see how it goes for now....
Today Elsa comes along, armed with empty tetra-paks for making wallets and mountains of drawing materials. We lay rolls of paper on the ground, and give each child a crayon, saying 'draw a picture of your house in Bitola, so we can show it to children in England.' Working with fewer children is infinately easier, but it is evident that the kids here are the Roma community's elite. They have certainly been to school, can mostly read and write, are all clean and well presented and are used to working in a group with other children. Other tatty kids watch us suspiciously from a distance. When we try to beckon them over, Lusi brandishes a big stick at them and shouts ferociously in macedonian. 'Nicht gut diese Kinder...' she explains to us. Why not?
Meanwhile, some of the chosen ones are staring blankly at the paper, holding the crayon as if they had never seen such a thing before. Others don't even have the crayons anymore, and when I try and hand them back out, the kids who are already drawing snatch them away, explaining something urgently to me in macedonian. Some children even hand back the crayons to Elsa and I, shaking their heads. Whats wrong? ALL kids love drawing! With the help of Lusi, we discover that most of these children can't draw. For me this is a very strange concept. We are not asking them for a Van Gogh on the paper. Even a scribble would be good. It seems that the creativity that is encouraged in schools in Westen Europe is about as alien here as the idea of brushing one's teeth.
Next up is making wallets out of tetra-paks and little musical instruments out of empty camera film cases, straws and balloons. This is averagely successful, although its very difficult to keep an eye on all the equipment Elsa has brought with her. While Elsa explains how to make each item, I run around like a bluebottle, attempting to retrieve forgotten crayons, prise kid's scissors out of stubborn, grubby little hands, make sure pockets are empty from felt tips, slyly taken from Elsa's bag while she was busy. At the end of the workshop we are 5 scissors and probably a whole box of crayons down, but have gained 20 new, smiling, wide-eyed, little friends. 'Caaaaaaat, Caaaaaaat,' the little girls cry simperingly, urging me to look at them, and greet my glance with enormous smiles. Tiny brown arms reach out to me, wanting to touch my clothes, my skin, my hair. Elsa's pierced tongue causes great excitement, as does the tattoo on my upper arm. We spend a lot of time just playing with the children, while Lusi watches on, a gruff smile on her face. These kids have so much love inside of them.
The next day, Elsa and I have a Master Plan. We are going to make pairs of little wings with the kids – either butterfly or dracula depending on their persuasion – then tomorrow, have a face painting session followed by a parade through the town with some of the Roma drummers. Ambitious? We'll see.
We collect a couple of empty cardboard boxes from smelly skips beforehand, but don't manage to get enough for each child. But we are optomistic, imagining that in this land where recycling is unheard of and fly-tipping is commonplace, there must be a thousand and one empty cardboard boxes floating around the Roma community.
Up at the hill, the kids are waiting excitedly with Lusi, stoic and watchful as ever. When we pull up in the van, they helter-skelter down the hillside at a rate of knots and jump into our arms. Its like we had been away for lightyears! I explain to Lusi about the cardboard boxes, and ask whether a couple of the older kids could go looking for the rest. Apparently this is not the right think to ask. 'Why didn't you tell me yesterday? There are no carboard boxes here,' is the angry retort, but nonetheless she sends a couple of young boys off on the mission.
In the meantime we play some action games, attempting to extract some of the kid's boundless energy before spending a day drawing and cutting out. A good while later the boys arrive with a total of 5 boxes. We need one for each child, so the wings are going to have to wait until tomorrow. Elsa gets some more games going, while Lusi and I head down into the village for some lunch for everyone.
Bread, cheese, sausage, tomatoes, multivitamin juice, crisps, chocolate bought from a wide-eyed, subservient woman, astonished at seeing someone from outside the community in her shop.
On our way back up the hill, something seems to have gone wrong. Some of the kids are running down towards us in a panic, shouting something that makes Lusi furrow her brows and triple her pace up the hill. 'Katastrophe! Katastrophe,' she is mumbling. . Is Elsa OK? Truth be told, I had been somewhat nervous at leaving her alone on the hill with the kids, but as she hadn't expressed any qualms about it, I had just assumed I was being paranoid. One of the little girls trips down the hill cradling her arm, which is bruised and swollen. Others are also presenting war-wounds. Suddenly it clicks. There has been a fight. And Elsa is no longer to be seen! Shit! Why were we so naive? More and more children gather round us, all talking at once. Where is Elsa? Where is Elsa? We are walking past our workshop spot, now devoid of people and further up the hill into the shade of a few spindly trees. And I am praising a non-existant Lord at the sight of Elsa sitting underneath one of them, with the rest of the kids.
Over a much-deserved picnic lunch, I learn that in our absence and in the over-whelming midday heat, the kids became petulent, over-excited and restless. Elsa thought, she would de-camp to the uneven but shady part of the hill and continue the workshops there. However, on her way up to the top of the hills, some of the young gansta-men, the 'banditos' as Lusi calls them, began taunting her and the kids. Elsa was showered with lewd comments and heated arguments were exchanging between the kids and the youths. Elsa thought the best thing would be just to continue to the hilltop and settle the kids down with some drawing and so blanked out the lascivious advances of the 'banditos'. Suddenly the arguments augmented in pitch and broke out into screams, and on turning around she saw the young men beating some of the children with sticks. No idea why.
Now Lusi is shaking her head, repeating 'Katastrophe, Katastrophe,' and informs us that the children probably won't come any more to our workshops. We should arrive tomorrow in the van at her house and she will see who is there. This is why someone like Lusi should be there at all times. People evidently respect the older generations here.
The next day, and our final day in the community, alas, we arrive bedecked with a myriad of make-up for face painting and a cornucopia of cardboard-boxes for wings. We are Desperate to finish something off with the kids; it would be so great for them to have something tangible to take home.
Lusi, grave and austere, is standing with folded arms infront of her home. 'Kinder nicht kommen. Gestern Katastrophe,' she says almost smugly, while clusters of children gather round us, talking to us in macedonian as if we ought to understand. The girl with the beaten arm is also here, rubbing her bruise pointedly. Hmmm... But! But! Elsa and I are more than diappointed. We just want to drive to the hill and hope that the kids that want to come will follow us. Although I am thinking that perhaps we underestimate the work and organisation that Lusi does for us, and that if she says no, then we should respect her decision. We wait, and we wait. And finally as Lusi sees the fornlorn faces of both us and the kids, with almost comic resignation, she ushers the kids into the car and off we go to the hill! Oh, the last time! I don't want to leave these beautiful people, who have welcomed us to their community, invited us into their homes, shared their lives with us. Pretty much all the kids come, who were there yesterday. Perhaps it was Lusi that didn't want to come this time? Our last day is hard work and we demand a lot of attention from the kids. We really want to get these wings done with them and spend some time doing the cutting out ourselves. Many children want us to make the wings for them, but that, of course is cheating! Then face painting... everyone is are extatic, piling all over us to be next in line for the treatment. A wedding is going on in the village, Lusi's husband's brother in fact! So this is the reason for her reluctance! Why did she not say? A complex drum rhythm and what sounds like a snake charmer's pipe are playing hypnotic music in the community's winding roads and everyone is looking over with longing eyes. We hurry to finish everything as kids start running off to join the the party. Elsa and I are invited, but we are wearing 'forbidden clothing!' Oh no! I am wearing a skirt above the knee, and Elsa is showing midriff. A nice blouse, apparently, is not forbidden. I do not possess any nice blouses. However if I had known that I would gain entry to a gypsy wedding through the purchase and wearing of such a garment, then I would own 20 by now!!
We wave off the kids, who scamper down the hill, faces bright and wings trailing behind them. Do they know that we will never come again? Do they care? We drop Lusi off in the car, outside her home, and she once again asks us for money to buy a wedding present. She has been invaluable, generous, protective and kind, so we oblige her request. Who knows if this is the 'right' thing to do, but she is happy and so are we. She asks us once again if we can get changed and come back, she even offers us her clothes for the wedding, but we must be somewhere else this evening. Alas, alas. Looking lovingly at Elsa and I, she says 'Meine Tochter, Meine Tochter....' It is so sad to leave. We have her address and we promise to write and send photos of the workshops to our dear roma mother. Then there is nothing else for us to do here, but to drive off down that dusty track back into Macedonia.