By Eion Gibbs
Walking through Holland, Belgium, France, Italy and Slovenia the word gypsy didn’t enter my thoughts once. This doesn’t mean Traveller communities don’t exist there, it’s just that they’re so far removed from everyone’s daily lives that there was no cause to call them to mind.
I reached Budapest where I got a job working in a hostel for a few months to wait out the worst of winter and to replenish my rapidly depleting funds. Whilst there I paid a fleeting visit to a Countess, an old friend of my great-aunt. On hearing that after traversing the Great Hungarian Plain I would reach Romania she took a sharp intake of breath. “Eion, you must be extremely careful. The gypsies there are very dangerous, only last week I was hearing about an old woman who was killed in her home by one who had broken in to rob her.”
How true that is I don’t know, but immediately the dual sensation of intrigue and fear was awakened. I was 7 years old again, wary of the phantom Travellers but drawn to them out of sheer curiosity. Like fairies at the bottom of the garden, they seemed to only exist as long as you didn’t go looking for them.
As I only had a handful of experiences with the Romany Gypsies my assessment is perhaps romanticised. I was able to view the community from a perspective of novelty and fascination. I haven’t the knowledge, experience or right to preach on the Roma, but I can offer up my involvements for the sake of a complete interloper’s take on them.
It was somewhere between Sibiu and Câinenii Mari that I was beckoned across the road by one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She was unmistakably Roma, wearing the clothes that has been their fashion for centuries: A colourful long homemade pleated skirt, a blouse and an abundance of heavy looking necklaces and rings. It was as if she’d walked from the pages of all the accounts I’d read of the Roma. Sadly, my knee-jerk reaction was wariness.
She spoke decent English and claimed that her companions and her needed help. I peered over her shoulder to see a few similarly dressed old women sitting around in various stages of despondency and wondered what I could possibly do to help.
Something told me that, one way or another, it would end with my wallet getting lighter. I was caught between wanting to see what came of it and, on the other hand, detach myself quickly and tactfully before I was sucked into giving away a portion of what little I had. I regret now that I mumbled excuses and pressed on without finding out much. The scepticism I had thought was suppressed rose up and I fled the situation in rather a cowardly manner. Not even the beautiful woman’s promise of a “gypsy ring” convinced me to hang about. It would have made a wonderful memento but when the cost is ambiguous my desire to avoid a scam takes over.
My next Roma encounter was with a more modernised contingent. I was in the hills, near Sălătrucu, having a cigarette break by the side of the road. A beaten up old Dacia filled with 6 or 7 people but somehow still roadworthy spluttered past. I was spotted and the car reversed my way as a passenger in a leather jacket leant out of the window waving a smashed smartphone at me before accidentally dropping it in a puddle.
He retrieved it and continued to waggle it at me. After some brief confusion I realised he was trying to sell it and it took quite some time to convince him that I really wasn’t interested. I admired the audacity of trying to flog a broken thing with such vigour so gave him a cigarette when he pointed at my packet. That was a mistake; suddenly he wanted two each for every passenger in the car.
I looked at them all squashed together. The men were stony faced but the women were smiling and laughing, I couldn’t help thinking it was at my expense. I refused them more cigarettes as they were my last and after a short standoff he clambered back into the car, leaned out of the window and shouted to all the houses as they sped through the village.
My first two encounters, however fleeting and perhaps uninteresting, really meant something to me. It was like in a film where the imagined villain is always so much worse than the reality. I had a sense of relief more than anything, as if I had been a slave to anxiety but it had lifted now. The Roma were just an eccentric strain of grafters similar to those I had met in market places all over the world. After reflection I decided I could enjoy my run-ins with them in the future.
The next Roma man I came across was driving a horse and cart and, using hand signals, asked me for food. I had none on me at the time but that didn’t matter as he’d spotted the bottle of whisky attached to the side of my rucksack. I shared a little with him in pleasant silence and enjoyed myself immensely.
It wasn’t so much an experience of conquering fears, more the sensation that this was a very unique moment in my life. While the rest of my friends were finishing university or getting jobs in The City back in the UK, here I was in the middle of Romania sharing a dram with a Roma Gypsy and suddenly feeling very much within my comfort zone. I’m aware that in some respect I was doing all the giving but that didn’t bother me in the slightest, for I was taking far more than mere whisky via my pleasure of the moment.
From then on I’d run into Roma a few times every week until I reached the Turkish border. The most common were groups of young women and girls who would crowd around and ask for money. Sometimes they’d follow me for small distances plucking at the straps on my rucksack and making jokes in their own language. It didn’t annoy me and I found myself laughing along, caught up in their enthusiasm and slightly sad when they eventually realised they’d get nothing from me and moved away. They were the best and at times most exciting distractions that the monotony a long walk inevitably brings.
In Bulgaria a recurring and morbidly beautiful sight were the Roma Gypsy prostitutes. They’d stand alone along the road amongst the rolling green hills, usually in the immediate proximity of a decrepit concrete building. Occasionally a car would slow down and after a brief interchange through the window it would pull off the road and park behind the building with the woman tottering after it in high heels over the uneven ground.
I only found out they were gypsies after meeting a man in a bar who admitted to being a regular customer. At first he seemed to be boasting about his late night excursions but then lowered his voice and hung his head in a shameful manner before saying, “they are gypsies though”, as if that were the seediest part of the whole ordeal.
In Bulgaria I met many a concerned citizen. They didn’t like the idea of me walking through their country, as they were sure I would be set upon by a gang of gypsies: “You must accept a lift with me,” they would say, „Bulgaria is very dangerous! It is gypsy country you know.” Some would get quite exasperated when I insisted I couldn’t take any form of transport. The police too were full of warnings, even though they refused to let me sleep in a cell for the night.
I may have stumbled through this age-old rift in rather an Inspector Clouseau like manner, unaware of the danger that waited around every corner and blissfully missing it by a hair’s breadth. But the same case could be made all over the world for all sorts of different reasons.
I don’t count myself lucky that nothing terrible happened; I’d only count myself unlucky if it did. I look at the Roma as one of the defining features of my walk in Romania and Bulgaria. They were always there in one form or other, whether in thought, speech or body and I was grateful for that exciting layer to the experience.
You can see Eion’s first article about the Roma here.
Eion Gibbs graduated in English from Exeter University in 2014. He then walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor. He is currently based in the Highlands of Scotland and training to be a journalist.