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What You Should Know About Romani Before Studying Abroad in Europe

gypsy, man, italy

I am guilty sometimes, on a hot day when I am simply trying to eat my gelato and I don’t want anyone even glancing in my direction -- but I hear her before I see her. The signature jangle of a Euro and a fifty-cent piece in a paper cup is background noise to the smoke-charred lungs grumbling a plea -- "Per favore signoria, per Dio, per favore," she sends her words in any direction there may be ears to listen.

“Gypsy” is not a name of honor, but of shame.

"Please, Miss, for God, please" -- the words trickle from her mouth in a repeated mantra; as she walks by me, I refuse to look up, pretend she does not exist, and she moves on to the next gadjo in her sights.

But as she passes, I raise my head and watch her flowered skirts stumble down the cobblestone -- and I am curious about these people that have become pests to my Italian friends. Literally, pests -- zingari, they scoff at them, mosquitoes. They call these people mosquitoes. You will scoff at first too, as you settle in to your study abroad program in Europe, but perhaps, after reading this, your heart may lighten a bit.

Who Are "Gypsies"?

People in Venice square with birds

The “gypsies” of the world are mostly living in this poor light, instead of the Hollywood façade we hold in our minds here. For these people, “gypsy” is not a name of honor, but of shame. These people are not gypsies, and do not like the term –- instead, we need to learn about them, this impoverished, forgotten people of this world we live in. We need to learn of those that recognize themselves as the Romani.

The history of the Romani (or Rom) people is largely misconstrued due to the lack of documentation within their culture. There were no historians, nor even many oral stories to be passed down through generations. Historical documentation isn't as culturally important in Romani culture as it is in ours. But what we do know is that they have migrated from the north of India over a millennium ago because of the displacement of war and traveled up through most of Eastern Europe.

This fact is mostly based on the linguistic analysis that shows its close assimilation with Hindi and other sub-languages of the Indian region. For much of the last thousand years, the Romani people did have the freedom of movement. They practiced this with grand caravans traveling from place to place and using their talents of music and crafts to allow them to gain a bit of positive recognition within the gadje -- the people like us, without any Romani blood or culture within our veins.

But mostly, these people were suppressed without a homeland, and forced to roam the earth as they practiced their own culture and customs. Think about this when you encounter Romani while you take a weekend trip in Rome, or take Italian classes in Florence.

Fast Facts about Romani Culture

  • There is an estimated eleven million Romani people in the world – though the true number will never be known because of lack of legal documentation on many in this population.

  • The Romani have extremely strict customs that most of the population abides by. This includes an extremely male-dominated family structure while the women cook and clean. Marriage happens young but the children are taken care of by the entire family and very coveted as gifts from God. These children are rarely educated, however, and simply fall into the same lifestyle as their elders – stealing and begging on the streets.

  • Though many believe them to be uncleanly, most of the Romani are the extreme opposite -- despite their appearance while begging in the major cities of Europe. The culture even has restrictions on washing clothing from the top of the body separately from the bottom. It’s these considerations that create even a wider divide between the Romani and us, the gadje (others) because they feel like we are the unclean ones.

  • These people were persecuted in WWII and sent to concentration camps as well. Over two million Rom people perished under the Nazis and this tragedy in Romani language is called the “devouring.”

  • Though many believe the Romani are cheap, conniving people, they are held within a wicked cycle that drives them to steal and beg to survive. Many governments in the EU go as far as segregating schools and bulldozing Roma camps. Though some are able to escape from the struggle and conform to the current society they are in, many refuse to abide by non-rom laws or are unwilling to undergo extreme hardship because of the racism they will face. Thus, they continue to steal to survive.

  • If you haven’t made the connection, getting “gypped” is derived from the word “gypsy” with unfortunate good reason. Though it is a circular struggle, the Romani that delve into stealing learn to do it well when they are very young. Though it is not right to deem these people as invisible or become racist, if you do want to hang onto your travel items, follow the warnings given.

Romani Today

rome, gypsy

In the present day, the perception of Romani is dramatically different from one continent to the other. In the United States, with glamorized/beautiful portraits such as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Shakira’s song "Gypsy," and, most recently, the Romanichal population has been popularized by reality TV shows like "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding". Americans see Romani as an idealistic, free-spirited people, but Europeans see them simply as a nuisance.

When American students study abroad in Europe or travel in general, we are forewarned about the “gypsies” and their tricks. We are pre-programmed to look down upon these people -- further continuing the racism cycle that never allows these people to become people in our eyes.

Yes, you need to be careful when you travel abroad and watch out for any pick-pockets or scam artists. But I think we all need to remember that these are all people.

Perhaps the struggle for this culture to assimilate to ours is too strong, but we should not look down upon these people, or simply not look at them at all. They are individuals with hearts, dreams, desires, and love to share. They are simply misplaced, expats without a home, and looking for a better life for themselves and their children.

Yes, you need to be careful when you travel abroad and watch out for any pick-pockets or scam artists. But I think we all need to remember that these are all people. Perhaps some are not the best people. Perhaps some are simply out to underhand you. But try and understand before you judge. When I see these women now on the streets, and they approach me with their cup, I still cannot afford to give them money every time.

But as I look up into their eyes, I see a person staring back at me. I see deep blue in a weather-worn face or a little girl that has such a solemn a look for her young years. I see centuries of repression, of struggle, but also times of laughter and happiness. I look into their faces, not the ground, and I respond as I would to any question from another human. No, I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m sorry.

Still Interested in Learning More? Check Out These Additional Resources:
Read These Books:
  • Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonesca is a memoir of her four years spent breaking into this mysterious culture and what she learned after befriending these people from an anthropological and linguistic perspective.

  • Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies by Mikey Walsh is an account of Mikey’s childhood as he grew up in a Gypsy family - the good, the bad, and the ugly, this recount is from the perspective of being Roma instead of merely being accepted.

  • We Are The Romani People by Ian F. Hancock is written from a Romani to you, the gadze, or non-gypsy. This book goes into greater detail about the history of the Romani as well.

Watch These Documentaries:
  • Gypsy Child Thieves, a BBC documentary on the children of the Romani and why they begin to live as thieves and beggars. This also can be found for free on Youtube.

  • Gypsies, a German documentary attempting to show the world how dire the Romani situation is and perhaps allow this new knowledge to help others begin to support and understand these people and their culture.

Photo Credits: Trancey Gunanto Alison Waldman, and Patricia Feaster.

Lisa Saltagi

Lisa studied in Ascoli Piceno, Italy in 2010 and since has always needed to have a flight booked somewhere. After failing at office life, she flew to Italy and became a European tour-guide for a year. Now, she’s focusing on her writing while living in Florence with her husband. Check her out on Google+.