A few years ago the residents of Oslo, like their counterparts in many other Western European cities, began to notice the growing presence among them of people, apparently gypsies, who were not only begging on their streets – in the summer months, anyway – but were often extremely aggressive about it.
Before long it was reported that these people had come from Romania – and, one sometimes read, Bulgaria. Many of them were, it was further reported, being shipped to Oslo by the busload for no other purpose than to beg. Well, that's not precisely true: the more able-bodied and fleet-footed among them were also doing quite a bit of stealing. Eventually there were also reports about the flats these people were living in. Dozens of them, apparently, were crowding into a few small rooms, where they left the remnants of their meals on the floor and, in addition, used the floor as a toilet.
While some Norwegians expressed concerned about this unpleasant new state of affairs, others mounted the barricades on behalf of this new wave of potential welfare clients. “'Gypsies treated as garbage,'” thundered an October 2011 headline in Aftenposten, quoting the head of the Anti-Racist Center (a curious claim, given that the new arrivals seemed to specialize in turning every place they inhabited for any length of time into a rubbish tip).
This summer, according to Aftenposten, about two thousand gypsies have made their way to Oslo, a city of about half a million. “Even though many have rap sheets,” the same newspaper informs us, “the police cannot send them out of the country unless they are arrested for criminal offenses in Norway.” Many of them, to be sure, have been interviewed by the police in connection with various transgressions – and have been quick to accuse the cops of harassment.
In response to this “harassment,” the gypsy community sought “refuge” earlier this month at Sofienberg Church, which is set in a mid-sized park in a middle-class neighborhood near downtown Oslo. At this time of year, the park is generally the setting for family barbecues, frisbee-playing, and the like. As of July 9, however, it was a huge tent camp inhabited by a couple of hundred gypsies. One of them, Opra Costica, defiantly spelled things out to reporters: “If you give me 100,000 kroner I'll go. But not without it. You should give a million kroner to each of the families who are here in Sofienberg. A million kroner is nothing in Norway.” (At the moment, a million Norwegian kroner is equivalent to about $163,000.)
The establishment of this camp in Sofienberg Park gave the usual journalistic hacks the opportunity to spew out the usual inane rhetoric: “The gypsies' situation can only be understood in a larger political perspective, and against the background of a history full of discrimination, oppression, and marginalization. They live among us, and we are being put to the test. Can we treat gypsies, too, as people?” Those lines were penned by Ingrid Brekke, Aftenposten's correspondent in Berlin, who – noting that that city, too, is a summer destination for a great many gypsy beggars – found it appropriate to imply a connection between the Nazis' murder of gypsies and the reluctance of many Western Europeans to roll out the red carpet for these summertime tourists.
Anyway, the gypsy camp in Sofienberg made huge headlines – and put Norwegian officialdom in a pickle. After all, it was almost exactly a year since Anders Behring Breivik, motivated by a hostility to mass Muslim immigration, murdered 69 people – an atrocity which led virtually every public figure in the country to piously reaffirm Norway's love of diversity and its unbounded respect for other cultures. Now this. What to do? There were murmurs here and there that hinted at buck-passing: this isn't the church's problem, but the police department's. Or: this is a matter for the national government, not local officials, to deal with. On July 12, the acting bishop of Oslo said he felt the church was being “used.” “This Is Foreign Policy, Not Local Politics,” read the headline on a July 13 op-ed by the head of Oslo's city council.
Oh, I forgot to mention Folk er folk. That's a group – the name, as you might have guessed, means “people are people” – which publishes a “street magazine” peddled on the sidewalks by homeless people. Folk er folk leapt into the controversy on the side of the gypsies, its leader, Bjørnulv Evenrud, claiming that the several dozen gypsies who hawk his rag qualify for government support – including unemployment, child benefits, and all the many other types of welfare available here in the land of the fjords. Rather surprisingly, the Ministry of Labor shot that one down pronto.
Meanwhile, the authorities had finally worked up the nerve to order the gypsies to move. All seemed lost – but then, out of the blue, came a new offer in the form of a large plot of land in Årvoll, a residential neighborhood on Oslo's outskirts. The gypsies' savior was Vanessa Quintavalle of Årvoll Eiendom (Årvoll Properties), who said that a construction project on the site had been halted for a few weeks and that in the meantime the gypsies were welcome to live there.
No sooner had the gyspies begun to pitch their tents in Årvoll, however, than a problem or two arose. First – and whole articles were written about this alone – the gypsies didn't particularly care for their new home. The ground was too stony – almost like a quarry, they complained. Second, most of the local homeowners – surprise! – weren't thrilled either. Some threatened to form a human chain to keep out their new neighbors; others expressed disgust that a couple of hundred people were moving onto a lot that had no toilets, showers, or sanitation facilities – and that was only a stone's throw from a day-care center. Third, it turned out that Quintavalle, before offering the site to the gypsies, had neglected to consult her business partner, who was on vacation at the time, and who, when informed about his two hundred or so new free tenants, was not, to coin a phrase, a happy camper. Fourth, the lot, as it happens, was located right next door to a shooting range. (A member of a local rifle club wondered aloud: “Who's responsible if there's an accident?”) Fifth, it turned out that it's against Norwegian law to live on a construction site.
As this farce wore on, more and more people actually dared to speak up and criticize the tent people, until it finally got to be too much for Rene Karoli, king of the gypsies (who, coincidentally, lives in Oslo and has his own Norwegian rap sheet – but that's another story). On July 15, Karoli phoned TV2 and ranted for almost twenty minutes about the outrageous mistreatment of his subjects. The next day he met a TV2 reporter at Årvoll, where, before entering the camp, he vented his rage in an interview: “What we see here in Årvoll today is the same thing that we saw in Auschwitz in Hitler's time. We thank Norway for this. Our country!” he sneered. “Even a dog or a cat has a place to live here in Norway! These people have nothing!” Karoli produced a list (he'd put it together, he explained, with the help of a certain high-profile Oslo law firm) of the Norwegian government's obligations to the people in the camp. “Now I'd like for us to go in [and meet] my gypsies!” he said.
Whereupon Karoli and TV2's reporter entered the tent camp. Karoli started speaking to “his” gypsies. Within moments, his whole demeanor had changed. “These aren't gypsies!” he sputtered. “They can't speak our language!...They don't understand what I'm saying!” Right there on camera, Karoli did a full 180: “I'm so sorry for everything I've said. I take it all back. These people don't belong to our people.” Asked by TV2's reporter if he was still interested in helping them, Karoli said: “No. I'll pass on that....Sorry again. Have a nice day.”
Well, apparently they were gypsies, but not the right kind of gypsies. Or something like that. In any event, later that day the local authorities and the Oslo Health Department both ordered the property at Årvoll vacated (one of the reasons, in addition to all the others listed above, being the danger of landslides). But when asked about this order, apparently in English, by an NRK reporter, one of Årvoll's new residents, who was on his way out into the woods to fetch some water, replied, in kind-of-English, “No, not move!” According to NRK, none of the other fresh arrivals at Årvoll wanted to move either.
So things stood as of Monday night.
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