July 17, 1997

Article at Washington Post

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THE GYPSY IN ME From Germany to Romania in Search of Youth, Truth, and Dad By Ted Simon Random House. 318 pp. $25.95

Lurking beneath the obvious reasons we travel abroad -- to experience new sights, new cultures, new sensual input -- there is often another, less obvious reason: Whether we acknowledge it or not, we travel also to encounter ourselves. We are seldom more aware of our own identities than when we are sitting in a cafe that fronts a busy square, watching as daily life washes around us, transacted on terms completely different from our own. Ted Simon begins "The Gypsy in Me" by stating this often-unstated goal quite explicitly. As his book opens, his German mother's death in the early years of this decade has driven him to consider his origins -- origins made murky by her early divorce from his Jewish father, and by the fact that his father came originally from Romania, putting Simon's paternal bloodlines beyond investigation behind the Iron Curtain for most of his life. With the domino fall of Eastern Europe's communist regimes, what has been closed is opened, and Simon resolves to go.

To force himself into the sort of slow, thorough appraisal of self, Land und Leute that his purpose requires, he decides to travel on foot. He aims to explore both sides of his ethnicity by beginning in Hamburg -- his mother's birthplace -- then making a 1,500-mile arc through the former East Germany and the historically German parts of Poland and the former Soviet Union before descending finally into Romania for an encounter with the most hidden part of his past.

It is an intriguing plan, and Simon, author of four other books -- including "Jupiter's Travels," an account of a trip around the world via motorcycle -- is clearly equal to it. While "The Gypsy in Me" opens clumsily (a flashback to Simon's encounter with a mad dairy bull in a Ukrainian field -- an anecdote whose rationale escaped me), Simon's powers of description and ingratiating style quickly help the book right itself, and after he is well and truly on his road, the book's momentum seldom flags.

Simon travels as an innocent abroad, depending on good will, dumb show and a command of German and French to see him safely through the small towns and provincial capitals he visits. As a result, as he tells his own story he also tells the story of those stranded in the wrack of desperate living that remains after communism. He meets an African student struggling through six years of law school in Polish Prussia, the commander of a Russian tank regiment living gallantly amid squalor in Kornevo, a group of artists squatting in abandoned buildings in Lvov. The ghosts of the struggles that have convulsed (and, with Bosnia, continue to convulse) the region -- antisemitic pogroms, Stalin's forced collectivizations and purges, World War II and the Holocaust -- float over every experience everywhere he goes.

It is interesting that the very poverty that Simon paints so vividly in "The Gypsy in Me" emerges early as a preserving as well as a wasting force. Throughout his trip he encounters rotting architectural reminders of empires and prosperities past, saved by lack of cash and private-sector initiative from the bulldozing juggernauts that have rendered charmless and bland so many post-World War II cities in the West.

The region's Jewish history is the exception to this preservation-by-neglect rule, however. Throughout his travels Simon can find little or nothing to help him make his way to the heart of his father's origins. The Warsaw ghetto is reduced to a few gardens and monuments; synagogues are invariably padlocked where they exist, and the remaining Jews melt into the background, either out of indifference to their own heritage or to avoid lingering racism. It is not until the end of his trip that his persistence engineers a meeting with an elderly man in Braila, Romania, who knew his grandfather and could tell him something of the local history that drove his father to emigrate to Britain during the early 1930s.

Simon's receipt of this information -- ostensibly what has drawn him through all these miles of difficult travel -- is oddly anticlimactic. He ends at last feeling more identified with the region's Gypsies -- who pop up vividly along his path through Romania -- than he does with the Jewish community he came searching for. The Gypsies are loud, combatively happy and alive in the moment-to-moment way of children. Given the personality that Ted Simon presents as he makes his way with indefatigable cheer over every obstacle in a long and difficult path, his preference is no surprise. The reviewer is a writer living in Iowa. CAPTION: Ted Simon journeyed through central Europe to explore his ancestral roots.