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Just Like a Gypsy

March 5, 2011

In American popular culture, this is how one can be a Gypsy:

‘Cause I’m a gypsy, are you coming with me?
I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me
Never made agreements, just like a gypsy
And I won’t back down,’cause life’s already bit me
And I won’t cry, I’m too young to die
If you’re gonna quit me… ’cause I’m a gypsy

-Shakira, Gypsy

This is also an Americanized Gypsy:

Notice the single hoop earring and the happy-faced goat, both essential to being a true gypsy.

We Americans seem to view Gypsies as brightly clothed, happy, mischievous clever people, beautiful and slightly fey, wise and wandering, not tied down by material belongings and sentiments.

We don’t think of Gypsies as this, though it is closer to the truth:

Slovenian-gypsy family at Ellis Island

My dad used to tell us a story about an old Gypsy woman, from when in his wild and reckless youth, he backpacked across Europe.  He was in a train station, waiting for the next car, when he noticed a wrinkled woman sitting in the corner of the station with a withered arm clutched to her chest.  She beseeched for alms from the passerby and piteously bemoaned the lack of her ability to use her left arm.  After doing this for about an hour, she looked around her, to see if anyone was watching.  She didn’t seem to like my dad being there, but after a glare in his general direction, she quickly tucked her right arm to her chest, holding it awkwardly, and began begging with her left arm, crying about her inability to use her right arm.

As my father put it, clearly her right arm was getting tired.  She chased him away from the train station soon afterwards, because he was gadjo scrutinizing her a bit too closely.

Thus, there is this second stereotype of Gypsies, that they are a sly, manipulative, begging, dirty, dishonest group of people who take was isn’t tied down.   Gypsies are so reviled in Europe that many Roma (or Romani) disavow and dislike calling themselves Gypsies.  The term originally came from the Greek term for Egypt, they argue, and shouldn’t refer to them at all.

My first personal experience with Gypsies was sobering.  I was in Greece with my family the summer before I began University.  We had started off on the island of Crete (which was lovely, with snow white beaches and clear, warm, highly salty and flat water) and then arrived at Santorini.  The islands were as different as night and day; Crete was the beautiful and serenely unmarried aunt to Santorini’s youthful, wild and seedy abandon.  We went from a place where we could easily not see another person for days to an island where humanity, pickpockets, arcades and tourists abounded.  We traveled from one island to the other via a three hour long ship ride, which is an unfortunate tale involving plenty of retching that will have to be told some other time.

A map of the place. Notice the large island near the bottom.

One night as we were eating dinner on a boardwalk, my brother and I spotted two children begging for Euros.  They were both so skinny, and tiny, and brown, with long hair, and wore scraps of filthy cloth as clothes.  The locals kicked at them if they got too close, and my seventeen year old heart thought it would break at the sight of these poor, clearly orphaned children.  I was about to give some money to the two beggars when my father stopped me.  “Those kids aren’t poor orphans,” he told me, “they are gypsies; their mother makes them beg, teaches them how.  They’ll be here until people get used to them, and then they’ll move to a flusher part of the island.”

“Why don’t their parents work to take care of them?”

“This is their work,” he responded.  Sure enough, later in the evening, I saw a relatively well dressed woman come out from an alley further down the boardwalk.  The beggar children meandered their way to her, and she grabbed their hands and took them into the darkness.

Later, during the same trip, I saw the children again, at the opposite end of the island.  I barely recognized them because they were clean and wearing normal looking clothes.  The brother took the sister by the end and pointed at a boat in the distance.  Their mother was there too, talking to another woman.  It was very disconcerting, and a strange part of me felt betrayed.  What I saw wasn’t what I got.  My notion of Gypsies as free whimsical creatures was dashed, now they merely seemed amoral.

Still sometimes appeals about the wandering lifestyle, even if not the begging and stealing portion of it.  My experience in Greece didn’t stop me from longing some (alright, most) days to bum around the Old Country, free, with nothing but my wits and perhaps a cheap bottle of vino at my side.

And I still dressed up as a gypsy next Halloween.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 3, 2012 5:55 AM

    Very good blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused .. Any tips? Kudos!

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