Expat Adventure: Dancing with the Gypsies

by missfootloose on October 15, 2011 · 21 comments

in adventure, Culture and Customs, Roma people, Romania

Mother of Roma family

Tell me, what do you think of Gypsies? Or should we even say Gypsies? Growing up in Holland I heard a rumor that there was Gypsy blood in my family, on my mother’s side. Apparently this expressed itself in my grandfather’s behavior since he was of a roving sort. Is it true? I have no idea, but it rather appealed to my childish sense of the adventurous as in my mind I saw beautiful exotic horse-drawn houses on wheels. Of course in due time I became familiar with the infamously negative stereotypes, stories and prejudices that I won’t need to elaborate on. Sadly, the only Roma people I ever encountered were the tragic beggar women with their babies sitting in the streets of Naples, Belgrade and other big cities.

Well, until recently, when I was in Transylvania, Romania (see my two posts here and here) and had the opportunity to learn more and to meet a lovely Roma family.

As I was writing the piece below, I could hear your collective groans about how I was sucked into a tacky tourist trap, so let me tell you, I am no innocent when it comes to tacky tourist traps, but this one stole my heart, so shoot me.

Tzigania Tours is a project started by an American journalist from New York who fell in love with the Roma people he was studying in Transylvania. He stayed on with the hope of creating some understanding and respect for their culture and life style. It was fascinating to hear him talk with passion and thoughtfulness about the people he is now living with. It’s easy to be a cynic here, but I refuse. I’d rather be a sucker idealist.

Our host on the left, journalist on the right

I’m not in any way qualified to tell you about the difficult and complex history of the Roma people. You can find it all on the Internet. Just let me say that Europe’s largest Roma population lives in Romania. Although many still trek around in their carts and are not assimilated into Romanian society, the majority of the Roma people here are settled and live in villages, have jobs, live respectful lives and send their children to school. It’s one such family I visited with my eight travel mates when in Romania a couple of weeks ago.

The family consists of a father and mother, a young daughter of nine or ten, a small son of about five and a grandmother.

A little shy, but he loosened up a while later

The father has his own metal workshop and car repair place. They live in a normal house that has been furnished and decorated Gypsy style with lots of color everywhere – on rugs, wall hangings, pillows, blankets and curtains. Several rooms sport china cabinets filled with large collections of dishes, teapots and cooking pots, none of which are used. These are a show of wealth and status. No, this is not trendy Western décor, but where does it say it has to be? I thought it was fabulous and cheerful and fun. Go for it if that’s your bliss, that’s my philosophy.

We were told that the family is considered “middle class.” Some families live in much bigger houses and have more elaborate possessions. The poor Gypsies are the only ones most of us “outsiders” are familiar with: The beggars in the streets of big cities.

After the presentation and questions, meeting the family, and a tour of the house, we moved to the courtyard where appetizers were served along with shots of a homemade hootch so strong I worried it would make my hair fall out (so far so good). The nibbles included chunks of roasted pork fat we were instructed to impale on sticks and roast over an open wood fire. Delicious! The best bacon I ever had!

Extreme bacon, homemade. Behind the house we found a few more pigs being raised.

In the dining room we were given a plate heaped with the traditional fare of pork and cabbage stew along with a helping of polenta with local white cheese melting into it. Cake finished off the meal, served by the sweet young daughter, who had fun helping out (not in school because it was Saturday).

Let's eat. Grandmother on right, always smiling. Note the china cabinet on the far left.

Afterward, and here comes the cheesy stuff, the women were given Gypsy skirts and music was put on in the courtyard so we could dance. Tell me, what’s wrong with a little fun?

Gypsy Skirts: I want one!

The young daughter enjoyed showing us how to do it

The Roma people are a very diverse group of people, spread out all over the world. I’m happy to have met this hospitable family in Transylvania, to get a peek into their lives and to learn something positive.

* * *

Have you ever met a Roma family? Have you ever learned something that did not fit the stereotypes so many of us have of them? Or have you met other people in the world who surprised you?

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

an expat wife October 15, 2011 at 3:17 am

I grew up in Australia and did not even know about Gypsies until I spent some time overseas.

This entry really was fascinating to read, the photos are gorgeous. I love the colours in their home, I love the skirts.

thank you for writing something so interesting and something that has also interested me since living in Spain for a couple of years.

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chania October 15, 2011 at 4:13 am

I have met Romas families. Growing up in the UK 40 years ago, we encountered many Gypsy families, both at school and when we stayed at my Granny’s house in Lincolnshire. Small groups would pass through her village and frequently camped for several days down near the quarry. My Granny always went over to meet them and gently emphasized the unwritten rules such as not leaving trash about. They were always very friendly to her and respectful of the countryside and campsites. Mys sister and I were allowed to go and visit them and would spend ages brushing the horses and having tea with them. They were likely as curious about these proper little English girls as we were about them. We both found them so exotic and exciting. I can;t imagine parents now letting their children go off and hang out with a group of travellers nowadays. My Granny was very open and accepting of any people and it taught us too to be respectful and interested in all sorts.

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guyana gyal October 15, 2011 at 5:08 am

I’ve heard that gypsies originated in India. Hmmm, that should explain the decor in many East Indian homes here 🙂

People surprise me quite often, no matter who, what group, where.

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BG October 15, 2011 at 6:51 am

I have encountered many different cultures and their people on our adventures living in different parts of the world. It has been and continues o be an incredible journey that I love being on!

I do not know any gypsie families….thank you for sharing your experience, cheesy or not, it still seems fascinating! I lve this tour you were invite on…wish I could go on one!

BG

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MaryWitzl October 15, 2011 at 3:04 pm

That sounds like so much fun!

We have Gypsy blood in my mother’s family too — or so we were always told. I was skeptical about this until I did our family history and found a line with the weirdest surnames you’ve ever seen. One of my mother’s great uncles was very dark and had a little cart full of sewing notions and pots and pans, so the story may well be true.

Whatever the case, the colorful fashion sense of those ladies and all the pots and pans and dishes displayed but never used — those are eerily the same on my mother’s side.

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Lady Fi October 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm

I have gypsy blood in me too!
The Romany gypsies get a lot of bad press, unfortunately.

I adore these colourful skirts!

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Michelle | Bleeding Espresso October 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm

The colors in these photos are simply gorgeous.

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Ashleigh October 16, 2011 at 12:56 am

Everybody needs a little “cheesy” in their lives…I have encountered poorer gypsies here in Spain, but when I lived in the US, I used to watch a show called 10 Years Younger, where they gave you a makeover and some life style tips, they often did lasik eye surgery and cosmetic dentistry, and non-surgical dermotology procedures, new wardrobe, etc. One of the shows featured a Roma man. He talked about being a “gypsy” and the stereotypes. He was a family man who lived in California, middle-class and he shed some light on the Roma religious practices which were a very important part of his culture. I was fascinated because I had never seen Romas depicted in this way, only the stereotypes which are sadly, often negative…thanks for sharing your experience…

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Mara October 16, 2011 at 4:06 pm

You know the saying don’t you: ‘t Zijn net mensen (they are just like people). In every people there are good and bad and I am happy to say most people I have ever met were of the good sort. Unfortunately the only gypsies or Roma I ever met were the beggars though and it always surprises me how sprightly and healthy they look after about half an hour of looking extremely sick and begging!

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Haze-Dweller October 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Hmmm, I have a worry about tours that turn a family and its culture into a museum-piece. The little girl; let’s say one day she wants to go to university and buy minimalist designer fittings for the home. Will that be allowed? You and I can do it if we wish.
Actually I only can for having rejected my family traditions, part of which are of gypsy heritage, so maybe I have an axe to grind.
But it still seems pretty patronising, glorifying a time-warp. I’m very uncomfortable with the implications.

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missfootloose October 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I understand your feelings. The positive part here is that perhaps visitors come away with a little more understanding and education and learn to examine their preconceived ideas and prejudices.

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Veronique October 18, 2011 at 5:41 am

Hello,
I like the pictures, especially the fourth one with all the red cooking pots. Very interesting post. Thank you.

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GutsyLiving October 19, 2011 at 6:40 am

I am one of those with only bad experiences from gypsies, like theft in the Paris metro, and my dad in the Paris CDG airport getting his back pocket (money) stolen. I’m happy to read a positive story about them, but it’s difficult when there are so many with bad intentions in Paris, to see the positive. Thanks for sharing this story.

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Balanced Melting Pot October 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Great pictures! I love when we can get past stereotypes and see the richness, as well as the complexities in other cultures. By the way, you can say Gypsies. It’s now politically incorrect to say “I got gypped” in reference to being ripped off because it’s considered offensive to Gypsies.

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missfootloose October 22, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Thank you! I didn’t even know the word “gypped” was related to Gypsy. We live and learn. I don’t want to be culturally insensitive, but it’s not always easy to know about cultural sensitivities!

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Michelloui | The American Resident October 21, 2011 at 7:16 pm

This was a really interesting post! I have never met any Roma, but have seen many around in different countries. I love the idea of having an opportunity to look inside their lifestyle that the journalist has made possible.

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Rambles with Reese November 5, 2011 at 10:25 am

This is definitely a change to what we always read about Gypsies and the Roma people. I’m now a little more enlightened…cheers for teaching me something new Karen!

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Sarah Has Moxie April 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm

This is one of my favorite posts from you. What I love about people I’ve met from Romania is their taking something simple—a flower, a parper cut-out of a star, and putting them around the house (whether dirt floor or wagon, wood or stone) and making a home. A small group of the people I met were super scrappy and smart, because they had to just…survive…the best ways they could. They were not always ‘honest’ ways, true, but they were happy, even in heartbreak. They could take a couple oranges, some nuts and some bread, put on some music, gather friends and make a feast. It’s one of my favorite lessons in life—be happy with simplicity, be grateful for everything, and live and love, wherever you are.

Thank you for sharing this! (p.s. my favorites, of course, are the red teapots and dishes!!!) 🙂

hugs from Brussels!

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missfootloose April 21, 2012 at 10:03 am

I am so glad you feel this way! It is often humbling to see how people are able to be happy and make do with just simple things. It’s something I need to be more aware of. And yes, those red teapots and dishes are great!

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Mary @ Green Global Travel October 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I have come across numerous similar arrangements where westerners are working with local families who open their homes to introduce travellers to their culture. It allows tourists to connect with locals and allows locals, many of whom live in parts of the world with limited economies, to increase their income. Done well, it can be a beautiful experience for all involved.
Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..ECO NEWS: Car Wars- The 2014 Electric Vehicles Race Heats UpMy Profile

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Marc October 31, 2015 at 6:38 am

Great story. I enjoyed reading it. I have met so many gypsies when I was in Paris and they are not as bad as some trying to portrait them.

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