A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: encounters with the Romani

Propped on my knees a hardcover book, Colum Mc Cann’s Zoli, a rare daytime indulgence, more so as I am reclining on a sun lounge warming, lizard-like after exercising in a noticeably cooler pool, summer’s sweat-drench only recently behind us.

I am having a bit of a love affair with Colm Mc Cann!  Stunned by Apeirogon, his most recent book (the first I have read), I commit to read all he has written and pass the word onto all my literature-loving friends. Let the Great World Spin follows; next Zoli, (a Slovakian gypsy woman/ songstress/poet/Communist party member around which the story, set between the 1930’s and 2003 revolves.) His character Zoli is loosely based on the Polish Romani poet Papusza, (Bronisława Wajs, image below).

Mc Cann is a masterful spinner of tales. Some of his characters leap from one book to another, an interesting literary device. As the writing of this piece spreads out over time, I find myself into the fourth book, TransAtlantic, another marvel.

Zoli opens thus: He drives alongside a small streambed and the terrible shitscape looms by increments– upturned buckets by the bend in the river, a broken baby carriage by the weeds, a petrol drum leaking out a tongue of rust, the carcass of a fridge in the brambles. Instantly transported, I get the picture; it is the punchiness, concision and poetry of his writing which has so captured my attention. And then there is the subject matter, the Romani people, in this case a group or kompanija whose world revolves around music, song, and survival, elements central to my fascination of and empathy for them. Times past return in the oddest ways-potent memories of European encounters with Roma people spin before my eyes.

But first, a little background.                                                                                                                    

Demographics and the People

The terms Roma or Romani are interchangeable; the nomenclature ‘gypsy’, though more commonly used, is considered politically inappropriate and offensive. Originating in north-west India, the Roma left in repeated migrations between the 6th-11th centuries. Worldwide they number 12 million, 8-10 million of whom live in Europe though estimates vary wildly as many these days do not want to publicly acknowledge their roots due to continued discrimination, revealing themselves only to other Roma.

My first encounter relates to music and dance. I love their music-think Django Reinhardt or those marvellous scenes in movies such as Tony Gatliff’s Latcho Drom (1993) and the earlier The Time of the Gypsies, by Emir Kusturica (1988). Still more recently the music of the Gypsy Kings. The Romani people have long acted as entertainers and in many places became well-known as musicians. The wide distances travelled introduced a multitude of influences, Byzantine, Greek, Arabic, Indian, Persian, Turkish, Slavic, Romanian, German, Dutch German, French, Spanish, and even Jewish musical forms, also reflected in the instruments they play. A large part of their musical culture dates to the late 1400’s in Spain, Hungary and Italy including a large range of instruments including lutes. Musical (usually instrumental) and cultural influences were taken from the countries where they settled, and slowly transformed into Romani styles, generally more complex than the original styles. In its turn, Romani music has greatly influenced the local music with some songs incorporating the Romani language. Original Romani folksongs, not derived from the countries where the Romani live, are relatively rare. This particular folk music is mainly vocal and consists of slow plaintive songs and fast melodies which may be accompanied by dancing and tongue-clacking, hand-clapping, mouth-basses, clicking of wooden spoons and other techniques. There are five main components found in Romani music- three voices or parts; syncopation; different phrases where musical themes enter and exit throughout a song; minor key harmony, and singing. 

The first in-person encounter with their music takes place in Spain. It is the mid 1960’s. Aged twenty-two, I have been living in Rome for six months and set off travelling with a friend. After Barcelona and the island of Ibiza, we head south. We are now in Granada, the capital of Moorish Andalusia, with its striking architecture… and Flamenco. I am hot to experience it and here it is possible to find the real deal, gitano musicians and flamenco dancers. Flamenco is strongly influenced by the Gitanos (Spanish gypsies) but has deeper roots, although its origin is the subject of many hypotheses. The most widespread is that Flamenco is the result of the influence and miscegenation of various cultures such as Romani, Arab, Christian and Jewish, integrating music, song and dance. The Gitanos, are thought to have arrived in Andalusia from India in the 15th century. They brought with them an extensive repertoire of songs, dance styles and musical instruments such as tambourines, bells, and wooden castanets, that have strong Indian connections.

At this time Andalucía was still under Arab rule, and along with the Jews and the Moors, the Gitanos were soon to be persecuted by the Catholic monarchs and the Inquisition. The Moors were forced to convert to Christianity, and failure to do so resulted in expulsion from Spain, the Jews suffered a similar fate, and the Gitanos were subjected to some of the worst atrocities in an attempt to eliminate them as a race. Many laws were passed by various monarchs, which forbade them anything to do with their identity. They were to stop wearing their style of dress, cease speaking the Romani language, stop their wanderings and seek steady employment, which prohibited them obtaining money in their usual way from horse dealing, trading at fairs, and sorcery. These laws and restrictions resulted in bands of Gitanos, Moors, and Jews taking refuge in treacherous mountainous areas, too desolate for the authorities to pursue them. These diverse cultures lived in relative harmony for many years and by the eighteenth-century attitude towards the Gitanos changed considerably, allowing them to leave the remote mountains for small villages and towns bringing their music with them.

As in Sicily and other parts of southern Europe, rocky hillsides and escarpments are dotted with caves. These were still inhabited into the 1960’s though not much beyond. It is in one such intimate place that I find what I am seeking. A dark-haired man in waistcoat, gold chain around his neck, sits on a stool, hands punishing an acoustic guitar, fingers thrumming the fretboard. Two other men are singing accompanied by foot stomping, syncopated hand clapping and shouts of encouragement. The Spanish term for this is Jaleo, roughly translated as ‘hell raising’. The sound bounces off the cave walls, the energy is raw, we, the small audience, enthralled. A sole woman wearing a long red dress and black heeled shoes pounds the floor, stamps like a proud horse, head thrown back, hair flying, castanets clacking. She twists and swirls, lithe, lightning fast, then slow, sinuous. She is intense, contained. It is unlike anything I have experienced. Dancer and musicians are spinning in their own orbit, separate, together, passionate, powerful.         
Finding my research fascinating and illuminating, I delve further.

Romani is an Indo-Aryan language; according to Ethnologue, there are seven varieties, divergent enough to be considered separate languages. The largest of these are Vlax Romani, Balkan Romani, and Sinte and there are hundreds of dialects. No accurate statistics for the number of Romani speakers exist. However, according to a conservative estimation there are some 3.5 million speakers in Europe and a further 500,000 elsewhere, spoken by small groups in forty-two European countries. This makes Romani one of the largest minority languages in Europe, together with Catalan. The most concentrated areas of Romani speakers are found in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia though Romani isn’t an official language in any country. Some Romani communities speak mixed languages based on the surrounding language with retained Romani-derived vocabulary. These are known by linguists as para-Romani varieties rather than dialects of the Romani language itself, and are the mother tongue of nine million people in nine countries, constituting a minor part of the overall population.

Social Structure and Religion                                                                                     Traditionally, anywhere from ten to several hundred extended families formed bands, or kumpanias, which travelled together in brightly painted and carved horse-drawn caravans. Each band was led by a voivode or chieftain, who is elected for life. A senior woman in the band, called a phuri dai, looks after the welfare of the group’s women and children. Communities typically involve members of the extended family living together and they place great value on close family ties. A typical household unit may include the head of the family and his wife, their married sons and daughters-in-law with their children, and unmarried young and adult children. Romani typically marry young – often in their teens – and many marriages are arranged. Weddings are typically very elaborate, involving large, colourful dresses for the bride and her many attendants. Though during the courtship phase, girls are encouraged to dress provocatively, sex is something that is not had until after marriage. In daily life women wore, and many still wear, long skirts or dresses and often head scarves and jewellery; for occasions or dancing, a more elaborate version thereof – the dresses are sometimes threaded with silver, skirts may be triple layered, the top one perhaps made from silk and pearls. Coins may be sewn into their hair.

The phone rings….a call from my cousin Ellen in America. We talk regularly. She is a prolific reader and we always discuss books, so I mention Colum Mc Cann and I tell her about Zoli. It leads to a discussion about my interest in the Romani culture.

She tells me: We had a ‘gypsy’ family, the Lazarowich’s living just a few doors down from us in the 1950’s when we lived in Queens. As her tale unfolds, it reveals, amongst other things, an early and arranged marriage, hospitality, family, and celebration. She continues: They lived a few doors down in a Spanish stucco house built around 1910-1920. It still had the original red brick steps in the front. Our house, and many others in the street, had removed the steps to accommodate an additional room in front, like my father’s medical surgery. The Lazarowich’s were patients of my father. The grandmother used to sit out on those steps smoking her pipe. It was different, interesting. The daughter Dorothy had dark hair and an olive complexion, was year or two ahead of me at the same school, she says. They were hard-working people, led a quiet life. The father made brightly-coloured wax flowers and bamboo garden furniture and delivered the goods in his pickup truck. When she was thirteen or fourteen, Dorothy had an arranged marriage to a much older man she had never met and apparently was really panicked by this. Ellen continues: My father told me this as her parents brought her to see him. A year later I saw her visiting her family, she already had a baby. When her father died it was amazing- a big ‘do’ with about fifty pickup trucks from far and wide lining the street, many from out of state. I ask her if they spoke Romani and she suspects that the grandma did and probably spoke no English.

The Romani people live by a complex set of rules that govern things such as cleanliness, purity, respect, and justice. These rules are referred to as what is Rromano, to behave with dignity and respect as a Roma person. In some groups, the elders resolve conflicts and administer punishment, based upon the concept of honour. Punishment can mean a loss of reputation and at worst expulsion from the community, as in Zoli’s story. As a matter of survival, the Roma were continuously on the move. They developed a reputation for a nomadic lifestyle and a highly insular culture. Because of their outsider status and migratory nature, few attended school, thus literacy was not widespread. They were known for centuries for their skill as metalworkers and for basket-making. Local guilds often resented this type of competition from outside their ranks and economic action by these guilds may well have pushed Romani men and women to engage in acts of petty crime, like theft, to stay afloat. It was, unfortunately, this aspect of the culture that we encounter in Florence. (See below). These days dealing in scrap metal, horse-trading, working in fairs, fruit picking, hawking items such as basketry and wooden pegs, fortune telling (tarot cards, astrology, palmistry) are common practise. The Roma do not follow a single faith; rather, they often adopt the predominant religion of the country where they are living and describe themselves as “many stars scattered in the sight of God”.  Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal, Protestant, Anglican, or Baptist are all religions followed by the Romani people.

My second encounter is in the early 1970’s in a campground in Finland. Living in London at the time with my then husband, we spend several weeks driving through Scandinavia in a VW station wagon, camping with tent, small stove, folding table and two chairs. We pull into a campground adjacent to a lake, and following the unspoken rule, position ourselves at a respectable distance from the next campers in this large uncrowded space much like a local football oval. Tent pegs, guy ropes, up goes the tent amidst laughter, fumbling and all that ballyhoo. We are inside the tent arranging our few possessions when we hear engines revving. Many of them. Curious, we open the tent flap and peer out to see a procession of large American cars hauling caravans.  Unlike the rest of us discretely spaced at regular intervals around the circumference, this lot make their way directly into the centre, confidently creating their own inner circle. Everyone is observing the unfolding scene, undoubtedly with varying reactions, we with fascination- it is reminiscent of a Fellini movie. The people, clearly Roma, are noisy, brazen, oblivious to those not part of their ‘tribe’. I can’t take my eyes off them. Like me, they are of a swarthy complexion. The women wear headscarves over their long hair, colourful skirts fall full to their ankles. One woman appears at the door of her caravan, tin basin in hand and hurls dishwater onto the ground in front of her. Nearby, a small girl squats and pees. As I recall this incident of some forty years ago, I clap with delight. It was wild! But was I perhaps also a little discomforted at the time or did I simply revel in their free-spiritedness?

While some Roma today are still itinerant, travelling with caravans, cars, trucks or RV’s, many others have adopted a settled lifestyle and livestock trading has given way to the sale of used cars and caravans. As I am writing, our eighty- three-year-old friend Dino drops by. We get talking about the Romany people. Much to my amazement he tells me that when he was a boy growing up on a farm in South Australia in the 1940’s, a group of ‘gypsies’ lived nearby on a Council-owned reserve in the middle of nowhere, distant from the one little store and far from any town. (Dino uses the term ‘gypsy’ probably unaware that despite its wide use, many Romani consider it a racial slur and are offended or made uncomfortable by its use). I am surprised to learn that they still used horse-drawn wagons. And from another source I hear that there were ‘gypsies’ engaged in seasonal fruit-picking in the 1950’s in Shepparton, Victoria. As this is the first time I am hearing about Romani folk in Australia, I want to know more.

The first Roma arrived in Australia in 1788 with migration patterns continuing throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The population is currently estimated to be between 5,000 and 25,000, with significant numbers living in New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia. Roma in Australia trace their roots to the United Kingdom and Greece, who in return trace their roots to northern India.

The First Fleet

The Romani community is under-represented in Australian society, and is commonly referred to as the ‘invisible community’. Many members are not registered on the electoral roll, nor do they identify as Romani in the census. Reasons behind this include the nomadic lifestyle of many who fear discrimination. In Australia, the Romani community engages in many traditional practices, including early marriage, fortune-telling, nomadism and poetry writing, cultural practices central, as we see, to the diaspora in general, with slight variations across populations due to contextual influences. And I am struck by certain commonalities with aboriginal Australia for obvious reasons.

Like any diverse culture, there are many modern and assimilated Roma who eschew the traditional and more orthodox beliefs and have settled into houses and apartments. In such cases they are not readily distinguishable from other immigrant or marginalized groups; they live big, loud, and proud, refusing to be ashamed of what the past has wrought on them. Although mass production of stainless steel pots and pans has rendered the tinker obsolete, some urban Roma have found employment as car mechanics and auto body repairmen practicing their trades or working as unskilled wage labourers. Travelling circuses and amusement parks also provide employment for modern Roma as animal trainers and handlers, concession operators, and fortune-tellers. In the early 21st century Roma continued to struggle with contradictions in their culture. Although they are forced less often to defend themselves against persecution from a hostile society, some amount of distrust and intolerance continues. Perhaps the greater struggle they face is the erosion of their lifestyles from urban influences in industrialized societies. A phrase from Zoli again resonates with the Australian aboriginal experience – My land, we are your children. Who could tell the time from the stars if the roof was an inch from their eyes?  

Themes of familial and ethnic loyalty typified in Roma music helped to preserve certain beliefs, yet some of the younger and more talented exponents of this music have been drawn away by material rewards in the outside world. Integrated housing, economic independence, and intermarriage with non-Roma are increasingly common. Romani artists and writers in addition to musicians, of course, are to be found and I have come across some beautiful works.                                                                                              

My third encounter, again a musical one, takes place in Vienna 2011, the city of my parent’s birth from which they fled in 1938.  I have come with a mission- in my notebook addresses of the apartment where my mother lived with her parents before marriage; the apartment my parents lived in until emigrating to Australia; the Jewish cemetery where perhaps I can find some of my father’s relatives. It is also here that Dymia, a friend since primary school days in Melbourne, has lived since marrying an Austrian in the 1960’s and who we will visit. This beautiful city is the home of many magnificent art institutions which we intend to visit. After a morning spent in Mumok – the Museum of Modern Art, Jon returns to our Airbnb apartment. I set out to wander other parts of the city. I find myself at Karlsplatz (Charles Square) near the famous Karlskirche, the 18th-century baroque church built by Emperor Charles VI. To one side stands an elegant Art Nouveau pavilion which was the entrance to the Karlsplatz stadtbahn, a former station of the Viennese city railway built in 1898. The large area encompasses parks and gardens, manicured lawns, and flowerbeds. Mothers push prams through the park, kids zip past on skateboards, the trees show off their spring foliage and the park abounds with colour; roses, magnolia, wisteria, and tulips are in bloom. And then the haunting strains of an accordion and voice reach my ears. The sheer beauty entices me. As I draw closer, it becomes evident that it is coming from Romani musicians – two men, one playing the accordion, the other a violin, and a woman singer. They are in full flight. I sit on a low retaining wall listening for some time, swaying to the music, foot tapping.

There are 40,000 – 50,000 Roma living in Austria, 0.5% of the population, most in rural regions. Already from the late medieval/early modern period ‘Gypsies’ were considered dirty, deceitful, too lazy to work, prone to steal. Europeans came to equate them with vagabonds. Moreover, with their distinctive dress and language their culture, even if they professed faith in Christianity, was often reviled as something alien. The most heinous accusation was that they kidnapped the young, a charge frequently hurled against Jews as well. They were portrayed as cunning, mysterious outsiders who told fortunes and stole before moving on to the next town. In fact, the term ‘gypped’ is probably an abbreviation of Gypsy, meaning a sly, unscrupulous person (the word ‘gypsy’ actually traces its origins to Europeans incorrectly surmising that Romani people came from Egypt). Discrimination, as with the Jews, resulted in a shocking shared fate in the second world war.

The Roma and the Holocaust Drawing support from many non-Nazi Germans who harboured social prejudice towards Roma, the Nazis judged Roma to be racially inferior. The fate of Roma in some ways paralleled that of the Jews. Under the Nazi regime, the Roma were subjected to arbitrary internment, forced labour. Thousands were murdered in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia and thousands more in the killing centres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobobor and Treblinka. Altogether, 500,000 to 1,500,000 perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Many days after beginning this piece, I finish reading Zoli, my eyes brim with tears in the closing pages. I am compelled to ‘talk’ with Mc Cann and pen the following: ‘Dear, dear, dearest Colum Mc Cann’, I begin’. I have an urge to add the pre-fix- ‘just another fan mail’, making fun of myself because it’s so ridiculous writing to a famous author, though I have done so twice in my lifetime. On the first occasion, long ago, a touching reply surprised me. Nonetheless I am unable to hold back. ‘What a fabulous, fabulous book’, I proclaim, and continue: ‘After reading Apeirogon- and you new to me- I immediately decided to read all your books. So, Let the Great World Spin- marvellous- and now Zoli, a brilliant read which has moved me so deeply. Never have I photographed pages and passages from a book but there was so much I wanted to recall, to record. I am the daughter of Hitler refugees thus very aware of the terrible fate of the Roma people who, like my mother, lost so much to the Holocaust’. And I quote from Zoli who says: I could not go back there, I could not cross that river, it was too difficult for me. That whole journey back…I wondered what I had missed, or perhaps what it was better to have missed. I feared my old country would be the same and yet I also feared it would be terribly changed. It seemed to me that our lives though mostly gone and getting smaller, were still large with doubt. I was still unsure I could make the journey back to the place I had been a child. ‘Again, an echo of my mother’s experience. Thank you for this great offering, you are a gem.’

Weeks have passed, these words sit firmly here but not (yet) sent to McCann. Perhaps I am writing to myself?

And now we are in Florence, 2014. This encounter is of an entirely different tenor. We are staying in a charming tiny Airbnb apartment in one of the narrow pedestrian-only streets a couple of minutes from the magnificent Duomo, the famous cathedral. Construction of the Duomo commenced in the Gothic style in 1296 and was completed in 1436. The extraordinary Dome, designed by Brunelleschi, dominates the city skyline. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance, inspired as it was by models from the classical age. It is considered one of the most significant architectural achievements of the Renaissance. The apartment is light-filled with pale terrazzo floors. The 1 sq. mt. kitchen with its eggshell blue tiles and bright window, leads off the small living room from which a glass door leads onto a tiny balcony just big enough to accommodate a diminutive white metal table, two matching chairs and some potted plants. Two storeys up in this four-storey building, it overlooks an open carpark area resembling a small square. The space is surrounded by huge deep green trees and beautiful, Florentine ochre-coloured buildings and is at the back of the university. The view from the apartment in this direction is like a Renaissance painting. As soon as we step out on our first evening, we see a group of people, clearly Roma, who appear to have made this place, secluded and devoid of cars on weekends and evenings, their home for now. We see them every day thereafter; no one appears to bother them. Numbering a dozen or more, women in their long skirts and headscarves, they have no actual shelter. They simply spread out large sheets of cardboard on the ground each evening, covering themselves with blankets. A few of the men sit on the low wall, one has a musical instrument.  Strangely, we see no children, though a couple of younger women are amongst the group.

After unpacking and settling in, we venture out into a cold, windy 15-degrees well rugged-up, passing leather shops full of stylish, colourful handbags, backpacks & satchels in our little street. Looking down the street is a sight to behold; instead of seeing buildings or sky, a small section of the immense terracotta-tiled dome fills the entire visual space. Once at street end, we find ourselves in the area surrounding the Duomo with its soaring façade of white, green, and pinkish marble which I have not seen since I lived in Italy as a twenty-two-year-old. Immediately we are amidst a throng of people. Next day and each day thereafter we see a few Roma women in this area milling through the crowd. We recognize two of them as our ‘neighbours’ from below.

The following day after visiting some spectacular sites and Michelangelo sculptures, we have had enough of the crowds, take money from an ATM using our Travel Card, and head toward the Arno river to visit the Boboli Gardens. We approach the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest and most famous bridge in Florence, built in 1345, and hence another heavily touristed area. Here we find find road works with resultant barriers along the footpath channelling the throng of people who jostle single file through a confined space. Jon is carrying our small yolk-yellow daypack on his back. He is in front of me when suddenly I notice that the main zipper is undone. Stop, stop I cry, the zip of our bag is undone. Immediate panic as I look inside and see that my wallet is missing. It had contained the two-hundred euros just taken from the bank, all my important cards but most immediately relevant, my Travel Card loaded with our travel money. We, seasoned and careful travellers, have been pick-pocketed!  We can’t believe our eyes. Jon then tells me that, in the throng as we started across the bridge, he had felt someone bumping his back. He had turned around and caught sight of a young woman who he thinks is one of our ‘neighbours’ from below. Very skilled indeed but upsetting. He looks ashen, my heart sinks. Our pride a tad damaged, we realize the foolishness of carrying a bag on back in such a crowded place.  A big hassle ensues over the next two days. We have forgotten the password for Jon’s Travel Card and are consumed with frustration and anxiety  contacting our bank by phone, replacing cards and so on with our less than helpful Airbnb ‘landlady’. Ah, the downside of travelling!

Such an incident can’t help but leave a bit of a bad taste and sadly, in the immediacy, we feel less sympathetic to our Roma ‘neighbours’. A day or so later we are walking around the Duomo area and notice the same young Roma woman working the crowd. She is asking everyone for money. When we see her, she instantly makes a 360-degree turn, and moves away fast as a jet plane hoping to merge into the crowd. It is obvious that she has seen us and is attempting to avoid us, so we deliberately move toward her several times, feeling quite Bolshy and determined. She is absolutely avoiding eye contact. We are now sure she is the culprit. I have the thought to get close enough to pointedly take her photo next time we see her just to give her a big fat fright, but this doesn’t transpire!  We do not bother reporting the incident to the police as we are told the process takes an enormous amount of time and would undoubtedly prove fruitless. I would rather spend our limited remaining time taking Jon across the Arno to share with him the wonderful rose garden of yesterday, the quirky sculpture and the fantastic views back across Firenze (Florence).

In 2013 I reconnected by email with Dan Perlongo, an Italo-American composer/pianist I befriended while living in Rome in 1968 and with whom I have had no contact since that time. A more significant friendship begins. In 2014 while in America, we visit Dan and his pianist wife Susan Wheatley. A collaborative project emerges from our rekindled friendship, inspired by a triptych of mine, Skymaps.

The triptych artwork transforms into a three-movement piano piece (for four hands) titled Earth Soundprints. (See ART/OTHER PROJECTS/EARTH SOUNDPRINTS if interested). In 2015 Dan and Susan visit us in Australia and the piece is premiered in an intimate performance for music-lovers in our area. Later that year it has its European premier at the College Music Society 2015 International Conference at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. I am invited to present my works to accompany Dan’s piece. Thus, Jon and I incorporate a side-trip to Helsinki in our travel itinerary. As usual, Rome is our first stop in Europe, Rome, beloved ever since I spent six months living there as a young woman. Around Stazione Termini, the main railway terminal of Rome, several Romani people linger. It is a rather poor and rundown area, though much improved from fifty years ago when Dan first lived there. An old Roma woman pushes a cart with her meagre belongings across the open space. Some old men sit nearby, cars scoot by noisily, buses groan. The men have a desolate feel about them which washes me with sadness.

It is late June 2015, we have left our month in Sicily and some days in London behind us. We are now in Helsinki to meet with Dan and Susan and attend the Conference. We are so far north that, as I peer out the hotel window at 2 a.m. on our first night, the sleeping trains and railway lines below are still clearly visible in the dusk-like light. The strangeness is both beautiful and somehow disconcerting. Next day, we walk to the Sibelius Academy through a well-kempt park carpeted in summery green. A profusion of purple and pink Rhododendrons and Azaleas create a dizzying colour contrast. A group of Roma men, women and children sprawl on the grass, their belongings scattered around them. They do not make eye contact when we pass nearby. They are a world unto themselves. It is not clear if they have slept there or not but they project a feeling of contentment and at-homeness. Where might they be  spending their days and nights through the freezing winter?

Next day, we head to the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in this uncrowded, quiet city. The expansive paved area in front of the modern art museum building is sparsely peopled but the air is stirred with music. A Roma woman in long skirt and head scarf sings accompanied by a Roma man playing a violin. Her voice is rich and powerful, the music is evocative, melodious. I am smitten and stand close by listening. The woman immediately makes eye contact with me and we exchange several smiles over the next bit of time. As I leave to enter the museum, I bow my head to them both and place a little money beside them in a small gesture of appreciation.

Just as I think I have finished this piece, I decide to phone my friend Julie in Brisbane. We last saw one another in February and haven’t spoken since then. But she and Colin arn’t in Brisbane-they are stuck in the freezing , hailing cold of Melbourne’s fifth Covid lockdown! So, she is quite pleased to hear from me. In the course of our conversation she asks: So, are you writing poetry? No, no, I haven’t for some time now, I reply and she asks for more detail. I explain I have been writing the African travel piece and some blogs and so we come to this current piece and Colum Mc Cann. As she is a literature-lover I recommend Apeirogon we get to Zoli and ‘gypsies’. Have you had any encounters? I ask, and she starts telling me a story about the UK where they spend time each year in rural Sussex where Colin’s mother lived until her death. A small road runs between fields. It is called Gypsy Lane; elsewhere in the area they spot a ‘gypsy’ cart. They are curious about both. In a nearby a bookshop she falls upon a Romani dictionary and curious, asks the bookshop owner about it. He tells her that he was approached by some people who, in the true Romani way convey their heritage by subtle ‘clues’, at the same time acknowledging that they recognize him as one of their own. He duly responds ‘in code’. And thus they begin to exchange conversation. He lets it be known that he wants a gypsy cart and asks if they might put it about within their network. Quickly someone comes forward and offers to build one for him. Hence the cart that Julie and Colin subsequently see. Julie then asks about the dictionary and learns that it was put together by the owner who, together with the group of Romani people in the area, worked on it .

And she tells another story from their time in Sussex. A group of Romani men in leather jerkins with slicked back hair goes door to door through the village seeking scrap metal to buy-traditional tinkers. The women folk, dressed in long skirts, independently follow. They approach households offering for sale their crafted items such as shawls. And thus the group goes from village to village eking out an honest living. Now I am starting to think that perhaps I should have asked more people of my acquaintance if they have encountered the Romani but perhaps this piece would then never end!

In any case, I have travelled far from Zoli, yet not so far; the book still resonates and I remain ‘in love with’ Colum Mc Cann, am by now into the fifth of his books but have not sent him his fan letter! I invite those of a literary bent to check out his work. In working on this piece, my knowledge and appreciation of Romani culture has deepened. I have revisited what I am able of the music and films referred to which brings great joy and excitement late into the night. I hope I have been able to convey my enthusiasm and interest and perhaps stir yours too, good reader(s). Finally, it is my hope that post-Covid, overseas travel will open up once again allowing further encounters with these enigmatic, fascinating people. Vesti bune ( Romani for good tidings)

Some time after publishing this, I found two photographs of myself as a child dressed in ‘gypsy’costume for two fancy dress parties some years apart. Apparently my interest in these folk dated back further than I had remembered!

7 thoughts on “A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: encounters with the Romani

  1. Hi Bonney I enjoyed reading your trip stories so much! I could almost see the streets and sites with your beautiful descriptions. I did leave a comment with my own musings from my travels and readings. Don’t know if you will see it, so here it is below. So great to hear from you! Fondly, Susan

    “Roma women are virtually invisible within their culture because of the persistent, restrictive gender rules imposed by their extreme patriarchic social norms. Nearly half are physically abused by their partner, and this abuse is normalized. Traditionally all are forced into arranged marriages and pregnancies at age 13 or 14 whenever menses begins and considered unclean until after menopause. There is no ‘free spirit’ lifestyle for girls; more like being caged for life. I cannot deem any romanticized notion of the Roma as valid. I am always very saddened at seeing bands of Roma knowing that the women are under such restrictive gender roles whether seeing them in Rome, Munich, Florence, or Warsaw; and even more so in the presence of the lively folkish but not so remarkable music and dance. What does Colum say about this?”

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Hi Susan, thanks so much for your considered comments. I agree there is a danger of romanticising and hope my piece does not do just that. Certainly the restrictive gender rules/ roles are problematic and undoubtedly widespread. It offends the feminist in us. However, it is good to understand that more ‘integrated’ Roma are probably different though also probably are a minority. I am interested in your comment about the ‘not so remarkable music and dance’. This doesn’t in any way concur with my experience or opinion regarding this. As you are a professional musician / pianist, I would love to discuss this in greater depth with you but this might have to wait for our next zoom talk!
      As to Colum, you will have to read the book! He definitely isn’t romanticising anything. Zoli is one of three main characters in the book, the other two are not Roma, Zoli herself, and is atypical as she is a poet and is in fact ostracized by her group.
      X bonney


  2. Hi, Bon. Enjoyed your timely & informative piece as I, too, have just finished ZOLI & APEIRIGON. We have much to learn from such cultures….as I head out to plant a straight line of trees. xm


  3. Hi Bonney I found your blog in my social emails which I never look at. I only look at the Primary category emails. Av


  4. Good you found it. I am not familiar with how you have set this up,but perhaps you can change it or check your ‘social emails’ periodically? Hope you find the read interesting😘


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