Expat Life: Dancing with the Gypsies

by missfootloose on November 15, 2013 · 11 comments

in adventure, Expat life, Roma people, Romania

Tell me, what do you think of Gypsies? Or should we even say Gypsies? Roma people is the more pc name I’ve heard. I live in France right now and the Roma people have been in the news recently, which made me think of my own experience a couple of years ago. So I decided to share my story with you again.

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 a couple of years ago when I was in Transylvania, Romania 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 Roma 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.

Roma kitchen, lots of colorful pans and dishes

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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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

chania November 16, 2013 at 12:39 am

When I was a young girl living in the UK, groups of gypsies would pass through my grandmothers village and camp out by the quarry. My sister and I would go over to the camp to see the horses and visit. We were always welcome and completely fascinated by their clothes, horses, caravans and customs. They were always very nice to us. My grandmother would always stop by their camp on her dog walk to say hello and remind them not to leave their rubbish. They were well tolerated by the village and it was always very exciting when they came to town being a young girl, I thought it seemed like a wonderful, colorful life of adventure. I do remember issues at school with rivalry between the older girls and the the gypsy girls.

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missfootloose November 16, 2013 at 11:37 am

Chania, how nice to read about your positive experience with the Roma people. The media coverage seems to be so one-sided and focused on the problems. You know there has to be another side, or even more than another one! Thanks for sharing.

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Eli November 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm

That is some colorful skirts:-) Love reading your post:-)
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Grace @ Sandier Pastures November 19, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Gypsies have always fascinated me. I have not met any of them but I really want to see how they are in daily life. I never knew about “Roma” until I saw in the recent news.

There is still so much to explore!
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judy devries November 20, 2013 at 4:28 pm

I really enjoyed reading your article on the Roma people and your visit with them. Incredible history of these people and most of it has been very negative so it’s so good to see such a positive and colorful report about their kindness and hospitality. During the many years that Jim worked with Heifer International, he also experienced positive times with the Roma people in both Romania and Slovakia. Heifer had projects in both of these areas and they saw some very positive growth and progress for the people as they worked together.

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Welshcakes Limoncello November 24, 2013 at 10:50 pm

The skirts are lovely. I believe we should judge people as individuals.
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Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot November 25, 2013 at 12:25 am

Hello Ms. F,

I was long overdue for a check in and wondering how the life in the expat lane is treating you so very happy to see you are still at it!

Gypsy does sounds so romantic and lovely. Maybe that’s why they rebranded them and all the news is now bad. I was reading to my kids about that same story from France yesterday so love that you are redressing the balance and sharing some good news from what looks like a strong and vibrant culture. Yes, I want one of those skirts too!
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missfootloose November 25, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Hi Annabel! We’re in the south of France right now, but not charmed by the weather. Lots of rain and wind. Ye gods, the wind! It’s not always sunny and cheery here. Life here is a bit of surprise, as it always is when I move to a foreign country 😉 Proof again how much we are always so influenced by stereotypes and generalizations, as my Gypsy tale demonstrated as well. PS: Did you eat mopane worms in Zimbabwe?

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Sami Veloso December 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm

A lovely story about the gypsies. I must say that when I lived in Portugal, where there is also a big community of Roma people, they had a bad reputation, but I never really came across them doing anything wrong, so I think sadly it’s just a reputation that follows them around.
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Sabina February 3, 2014 at 8:14 am

This is absolutely fascinating! The little city in the Czech Republic where I grew up was largely populated by Roma people and I always found it kind of depressing how ostracised they were. There is a lot of discrimination toward Roma people and although some of the criticism is rooted in some real issues (high unemployment rates, many people on benefits, large families), I wonder which is the cause and which is the result. I’d love to explore their culture – I’m sure it’d be eye-opening!

Thanks for the lovely article, I really enjoyed it 🙂
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missfootloose February 3, 2014 at 11:31 am

It was such an interesting and fun experience. As you mentioned, the Roma people don’t have it easy. And of course, not all are the same, live the same, speak the same language or have the same customs.

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