The Story of Gizi, Queen of the Nomads

March 24, 2015

Equal opportunity is extremely important in Romania. From gender to social inclusion, from access to education to improved employment opportunities – ensuring equal opportunity for all is a cornerstone that continually informs the work of the World Bank Group.

In line with this understanding, the World Bank country office in Romania, together with a Delegation of the European Commission and the Public Information Office of the European Parliament, recently hosted a public event on equal opportunities, in Bucharest. This event was designed to raise awareness on gender, ethnic conscience, activism, and on the relationship between theory, ideology and social change.

Behind all of these actions, of course, are the real people these initiatives are targeting – people like Gizi, a nomadic Roma woman trying to make an honest living for her and her family.

Gizi is in her 70s. She has a physical and spiritual freshness that comes across to any who interacts with her. She is known far and wide in the city of Cluj – from artists to journalists. Doors around the city are open to her – doctors, lawyer, and almost anyone who is local knows Gizi and welcomes her.

This is her story, from the World Bank consultant Marius Cosmeanu:

I was introduced to Gizi by a mutual friend, a university professor who told me her unique story. I later met her in her house, a few minutes away from the razzle-dazzle of the bus terminal in Cluj. She lives with her son’s family. All in all, around five people live there. The rooms are almost empty, the walls are painted white, and the furniture is minimalistic: a few beds and a cabinet. Outside is a well-cared for garden - charming and full of flowers.

The place seems very lively: in the backyard of the house all kinds of people come and go. Some come on foot, others are driving the latest SUVs.

Our discussion is slow to start. Gizi wants to make sure this material is not for a tabloid. I reassure her, and I ask her what language we should proceed in. She reassures me, in turn, that she is a polyglot: “I speak Romanian, Hungarian, and Romany.” 

Photo: Mircea Reștea

" We had a beautiful life... Me and my husband were hard workers. "


72 year old Roma woman from Cluj, Romania

Photo: Mircea Reștea

During the interview she switches between Romanian and Hungarian, depending on how she feels. “I learned Romanian in Cluj. Hungarian and Romany in Sărățeni, a village in the heart of the Secuime region, next to Sovata, where I spent my childhood in the last months of the Second World War.”

Until the age of 14, there was a sort of yearly cycle in her life. She would spend the winters in the village, with her folks, and once the weather got warmer, her father - a gifted tinsmith - put them in a carriage and took them all with him to Cluj. They rented a room by night in villages around Cluj, where they would find work. If the offers were tempting enough, they sometimes dared to go even farther.

This is how Gizi started her adventure as a nomad.

“And then, when I reached the age of 14, my father married me off in Cluj. My husband was from the same village, in Secuime.”

Her husband, also a gifted tinsmith, made good money and after six years of marriage they bought a house in a village near Sovata, paying 20,000 lei for it at that time.

Gizi and her husband later met an older Hungarian gentleman in Huedin, who advised them to start an antiques business. Thus her husband decided to stop being a tinsmith. They collected old things from villages - such as ceramics, glass products, national costumes, embroideries, beads, silverware - and they took them to a gentleman in Huedin who “would buy and sell them, for good money, to other people from abroad.”

“And it was good for us.”

The two started learning, little by little, the difference between a valuable item and a regular one. They went around villages and traded for antiquities. When the gentleman in Huedin died, Gizi and her husband continued the business on their own - this time without a middleman.

They went all around the country, by bus, from Bistrița to Arad.

“We had a beautiful life. We used to sleep in peoples’ houses, while the children were at home, taken care of by my mother. I had very good kids,” she says.

Gizi had four children: one daughter and three sons. One of the boys died when he was young, leaving behind a nine-year-old son, who was raised by Gizi. Her second son left the country and the third one, who is now sick, still lives with her. Her daughter left for Hungary almost seven years ago.

Before, Gizi used to travel to Cluj with her husband, where they would sell their wares at flea markets or fairs.

Little by little, the money starting coming in. After 19 years they managed to gather enough money to sell their house in Secuime and buy a new house in Cluj.

“Me and my husband were hard workers.” Brave is an adjective that could also be added.

She was loved by everyone everywhere she went and she would enjoy the friendship of those that saw her again.

“If you are suspected of stealing or of being unfair, nobody in the village will respect you” – this is what the peasants told her everywhere she went.

Three years later after they moved into the new house, disaster struck. Gizi was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was 30 or 32 years old (she does not remember exactly). Her connections allowed her to go to the most renowned neurosurgeon in Cluj, who performed her surgery for free.

“The doctor did not want to take any money from me. Maybe he felt pity for me because I was young.”

Gizi’s surgery was a success, and Gizi recovered fully.

“A miracle! God loved me.”

In 1991, her husband died and Gizi gave up travelling the villages searching for antiquities. An ever tougher life and a lack of money made her sell her house and move into the one where she is living today. She lives her life day by day, without any social benefits and with minimum means.

Sometimes she travels through villages looking for antiquities, but she does not find much anymore.

“I am 70 years old right now, I cannot walk around as I did when I was young.”

The appetite for these wares is different, but clients still buy from her to help her out.

“In the past, people were kinder, they did not have so much hatred. Who allows me to sleep in their house, like in the past?”

Four years ago, helped by some people she knew, Gizi submitted the proper paperwork and to begin collecting social welfare. In turn, she received 200 lei ($50) on a monthly basis.

But this only lasted for two years.

“They said that we have a house, some other people live a harder life. From time to time I buy three packages of cigarettes - the money is not even enough for bread. The gas, electricity and the remaining expenses amount to around 600-700 lei ($149-174) per month in the last months of winter.”

She receives some monthly aid in the form of sugar, oil, rice and flour from City Hall.

I invite her to go town, so she can introduce me to her old clients. We travel the route that she took in years past. On our way she tells me that in the recent years she has started going to church more often.

“The Pentecostal church came to me because they saw I was living in difficult times. They help me, but not so much, because I don’t go to church on a regular basis.”

She does not know anyone like her who lives in the same area.

She has not been to Sovata in 20 years.