Exploring The Gypsy Lifestyle With A Roma Home Stay: So Much For Being Free!

Exploring The Gypsy Lifestyle With A Roma Home Stay: So Much For Being Free!

Gypsy: the very name suggests freedom, flexibility, an adventurous spirit and a little bit of lawlessness… I’ve always envisioned gypsies epitomizing the vagrant traveler with the liberty to explore greener grass on the other side of the horizon, hence the title of my blog. During my travels, this self-association with ‘gypsy’ has shocked some Europeans, since gypsies in these countries have earned the reputation of squatters, beggars, liars and thieves, which some consider the most hated minorities in Europe. My first encounter with gypsies was in Spain, where wrinkly women pressed pine tree clippings in my palm and mumbled incomprehensibly about my future. We saw some playing instruments in touristy areas and others looking for money with dirty hands. While in Granada, I saw a gypsy flamenco performance and hiked to the Sacramento hills to see their cave dwellings and learn about their lifestyle in a cave museum. However, the opportunity to stay with a Gabor Romani (=gypsy) family in Valencii, a small village outside of Tirgu Mures, revolutionized my understanding of this often-stereotyped population. I was especially surprised to learn the extensive rules and regulations governing Romani life, from dress to dating… hardly the free-spirited, do-whatever-you-want community that I expected to find.

Song of the Moment: Colder Weather by Zac Brown Band

My gypsy guide walking down her village

My gypsy guide walking down her village

Gypsies migrated out from Northwestern India and they have maintained a hierarchical caste system. The family who hosted me is of the highest class, the Gabor, responsible for maintaining Romi traditions, which probably contributes to their proud and highly regulated lifestyle. Under this traditionalist caste, fall the formerly nomadic tent gypsies (cortarai, comprised of the old bear trainers, bone carvers, etc.), then the house gypsies (musicians, basket-makers, brick-makers and blacksmiths who have lost many of the old laws and skills) followed by the tzigani city gypsies and finally, the khashtale, untouchable forest gypsies. So I got to experience the height of Romani culture and traditions, which unfortunately have been lost by most of the other castes.

Traditional Romanian gypsy dress

Traditional Romanian gypsy dress. Photo courtesy of Nienke Nijp

Dress:

I’ve learned many gypsy traditions originate from what can be easily acquired cheap and easily. For example, typical gypsy cuisine? Whatever they can scavenge together… in my case, fried eggs and French fries.   Their traditional attire is similarly economical, however but these proud people love to attract attraction. Thus, they combine colorful, borderline gaudy clothing items with a twist that is unmistakably their own. You’ll see females donning sparkly blouses, long bright sequined skirts (even the colors are regulated… my gypsy sister was saying she could wear red or white but they reserve yellow for more elderly women and black for funerals) and (my favorite) rainbow knee socks. Pirty explained that the traditions even cover the way women wear their hair, strictly parted down the center and one or two braids starting low at the nape of the neck wound with ribbons. Married women cover their hair with a scarf, indicating a certain degree of modesty I never expected to associate with gypsies. However, they believe that women have “radioactive impurities” which the dress is partially designed to contain. According to my ‘tourbook’;

“The Roma dress is divided into two parts representing the dualistic purity and impurity of the female body. The flowery wrap forming the first layer is covered by an apron concealing the pocket where money and other valuables are stored. Its aesthetic and utilitarian value has also a metaphysical duty as a virtual lead shield blocking the female’s ‘radioactive’ impurities (maxrime) from spreading”Tzigania Tourbook

Men’s attire is less regulated, as long as they sport a ‘stache (mustache) and a gaucho-like hat for special occasions (weddings and such).

Pirty and I in her home

Pirty and I in her home

Dating:

One of the most controversial aspects of gypsy life in the modern age is their tendency to get married young, women around the age of 14-15 (practically “childhood brides’’) and men around the age of 16-17. Even Pirty knew a 15-year-old with a six-year old son. Gypsy men have earned a reputation for being rule-breaking trouble-makers and from what I witnessed and learned, that still seems to be true. Young boys raced their scooters down her quiet farm road, stirring up dirt clouds as they hooted and hollers. Pirty talked about the aggressive boys at school, who she worried about “stealing her away” for an early marriage, partially justifying her decision to end school after the 5th grade. She talked about how her status as a “Gabor” disqualified many of the eligible bachelors, since boys should appeal to the woman’s father for permission, which is unlikely to be granted for a man of a lower class. Thus, a bride getting “stolen away” by a man who hopes to avoid the dowry and dad’s permission could be a reality for someone in Pirty’s shoes. Overall, the modesty and old-fashioned approach toward women surprised me quite a bit. Pirty couldn’t even leave the house after sunset… so much for freedom!

Around Europe, gypsies have a reputation for being lazy leeches of society, living off stolen goods and handouts from tourists. This was certainly not the case for this family. Pirty’s dad worked two jobs, as a policeman and an auto mechanic, and I witnessed him working away from 8 AM to 8 PM. Pirty’s mom and grandma served as housewives, both only having received a basic education up to the 5th grade. The mom took care of Pirty and her brother as well as two kids from Pirty’s sister’s first marriage. Pirty mom kept the men working in the shop supplied with sweet, thick cups of coffee and shotglasses of water. She also worked to stow away the stockpile of cabbages they just purchased to help get them through the winter. They have chickens and grow as much of their own produce as possible but supplement it with vegetables from the market when the weather gets colder.

All this considered, they lived a rather good life in a relatively modern household. They owned a TV, a laptop with internet access and Pirty even had a smartphone with facebook (a relatively new and somewhat controversial thing amongst gypsies that only became accepted within the past year or so). We spent most of our time together on youtube, watching videos of cute babies, demonic possessions on the metro and gypsy weddings. At the same time, they still use a pit toilet and the kids sleep on mattresses in the kitchen so they still have elements of more rustic living.

 

Gypsy kitchen at my home stay

Gypsy kitchen at my home stay

Overall, “sleeping with gypsies” definitely changed the way I think about this stereotyped, and often discriminated against, people. Since gypsies don’t possess a written language and rely on oral transmission, many of their traditions have already been lost and they cling to these rules and regulations to maintain what they do remember. Even though many may lack the formal education we value in the West, I found all of the family members to be intelligent and independent-thinking individuals, who do at least adopt aspects of outside civilization (for example, gypsies don’t have their own religion and tend to adopt the regional one. Pirty’s grandmother was Orthodox, like most people in the village but Pirty’s mom chose to practice the Jehovah’s Witness faith). Pirty spoke perfect English (as well as Romanian and some gypsy) and thought critically about the life she wanted to lead but still dutifully followed the traditions, even though she complained about not being able to wear her hair down or wear pants.

Modern society condemns childhood marriage and illiteracy but if the Roma chose that lifestyle and don’t harm anyone, can we criticize them for it? I know the Gabor represent the best-case scenario of gypsies who can support themselves, but I can see how people who have been discriminated against in the past may resist outsiders meddling in their affairs. Things like rainbow socks and sequins may appear as a random, quirky fashion decision but I’ve discovered there’s layers of justification behind their various behaviors. Without spending some time to appreciate their traditions, I don’t think Westerners should be able to judge and criticize.

“’You are a wild set,’ I observed to a young Gypsy.
‘Open air and liberty makes us so,’ was her reply.
‘But would you not like to live in a house?’
‘No,’ said she. ‘I would pine away and die, just as would that lark if you put it in a cage. I was born in a tent. I have lived in a tent, and I hope to die in a tent… No one who has a drop of the real Romary blood in him ever yet willingly took up to the life of the house dweller. No, no”

–The gypsies by Henry Woodcock 1895

Song of the Moment: Roma Music from Romania
If YOU want to stay with gypsies: The Gypsy House Hostel at Gabor near Targu Mures (on the road from Sighisoara) is where I stayed and from what I can gather, the program is one of the few opportunities outsiders have to experience this unique lifestyle. The program is incredibly affordably priced (and includes dinner, lodging and breakfast for ~10 euro) but is still rather rustic (pit toilets, no running water or internet access), which I think adds to the experience!

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2 Comments

  1. burjis
    May 6, 2016

    I am looking for a homestay with some Gypsy people in romania. Please suggest

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