Gypsy's First Caravan
My grandmother is a Gypsy but neither of us had ever been inside a caravan. There is a history-rich reason for this, appropriate for Roma & Traveller History Month, but I will get to that later. This status changed for me when my husband and I went back to Europe to visit friends and family, and enjoy the most gorgeous and love-filled wedding we’ve ever been to. One of the options for accommodation at our dear friends’ wonder-wedding was The Gypsy Retreat: two caravans, one for sleeping and one for living quarters, originally owned by a Romani family in Britain, restored and moved to the island that hosted the wedding. My friend, the beautiful genius bride, emailed me right away and asked if we wanted her to dog-ear the site for us. YES, PLEASE, YES.
I love Europe, but I admit, when I go back, I’m often enraged. America is bad enough with its Romani racial profiling, cultural appropriation, history of slavery, shockingly current forced sterilizations, and removing Romani kids from their parents and sticking them in orphanages where their culture is beaten out of them. But Europe makes Gypsy-hating a public blood-sport. I see “Kill Roma” scrawled on the wall of public toilets and “No Roma” in shop windows. People who know my heritage still don’t think twice about telling me that they hate Travellers, another nomadic ethnic group separate from Roma with their roots in Ireland who suffer the same stigma and oppression as Roma. Even though I don’t dress traditionally or talk much about my heritage in Europe, I feel unsafe. Even though my DNA is more Caucasian than Romani, in Europe people scream “Darky!” at me in the street, or “Pocahontas! You’re the last of the Mohicans! Be my Mohican bride!” Or, “I want to fuck you, little Indian girl.” Sometimes they get it right and say, “Go to hell, gyppo.” Depends on the racist. When this happens, sometimes well-meaning people “reassure” me: “Don’t worry, you don’t look Indian,” or “Don’t worry, you look white to me!” They don’t realize how hurtful and discriminatory it is to say such a thing. I’m OK with how I look. My ethnicity and appearance is not the problem, here, and damn, it shouldn’t matter.
So as you may be able to imagine, I was delighted when this artifact of my Gypsy culture was preserved, proudly displayed, and made available for the public in my own beautiful, back-stabbing Europe. Its preservation seemed to token some glimmer of affection for Gypsies, sort of like Europe’s love affair with Jazz Manouche (Gypsy Jazz). “The Gypsy Retreat” seemed like a fantastic opportunity for people outside of the culture to learn about ‘real’ Gypsies, as opposed to the crazy fabricated mess the media usually presents. I had ridiculously high hopes for the experience, so I did something that, in retrospect, seems insane. My friend warned me that the people that own the estate are unpleasant landowner types. The venue was perfect in every way except for them. When I shook hands with Mrs. Unpleasant Landowner, she touched my hand with her own limp-fish hand then pulled away reflexively, saying, “Ugh. You’re cold.” That was her best ‘I-work-in-hospitality’ greeting. So when Mr. Unpleasant Landowner offered to walk Len and me to our caravans, I should have been prepared. But I was dizzy with caravan wedding joy.
“This is what we refer to as our ‘eccentric’ accommodation,” Mr. Unpleasant Landowner said, turning to me and breaking the comfortable silence, somehow making scare quotes with his eyebrows.
“I’m so excited to see these caravans. It’s just lovely that you’ve restored and preserved such a gorgeous cultural object.” I should have stopped there, but didn’t. “My grandmother is Romani, and she’s never been in a caravan before, and I haven’t either. I can’t wait to tell her all about it.”
He stared at me for a few moments. His lip involuntarily curled. Then he stared at the ground and continued shepherding us to our vardos in what was now a decidedly uncomfortable silence.
Let me assure you first that the caravans did not disappoint. They were not wooden vardos from the days of yore, but they were equally magnificent silver-bullet style chrome vardos built in 1988 by Baz Warters and his team at Roma Caravans. They are the last chrome caravans, in fact, to be built in the UK. Inside, they were practically walled with mirrors. Mirrors as doors, mirrors as cupboards and drawers. Mirrors everywhere, which maybe could have been a bit sexy if they didn’t, as my husband put it, “make everyone look like Danny Devito.” (Sorry, Devito. You look great, baby. Never change.) I figure the family who owned it must not have been from a clan with the mirror-covering mourning custom. Mr. Unpleasant Landowner seemed to want to leave us as soon as possible; he rushed through the heating unit instructions so quickly that we couldn’t figure out how to turn it on the first night. He did pause, however, to look at me before he left and say, “We have an inventory of all items in the caravan, and after you leave, we will check to see that all has been accounted for. We will deduct for anything that’s been taken,” in a perfectly conversational tone.
That’s exactly when I realized that the caravans were not meant for me. They were meant for “normal” folk to play-pretend to be Gypsy fantasies, but Mr. Unpleasant Landowner didn’t want the real Gypsies showing up at all. The nerve of me, paying good money to discover lost pieces of my heritage! I may as well have stolen all their horses and cursed his family line. The familiar feeling of un-belonging crept over me. This is why Roma and other ethnic minorities are so hurt and outraged by cultural appropriation:
- It colonizes, whitewashes, fabricates, and erases ethnic minorities’ cultural/ethnic identities.
- It belittles, obscures, and erases human rights issues, politic crises, struggles for equality, hate crimes, genocide, and lynching. Ex: Darius, a Romani teen, was recently beaten into a coma in a race-motivated attack in Paris. Not so coincidentally, France’s politicians have been making very public antigypsyist remarks lately, like Gilles Bourdouleix telling a French paper that Hitler should have killed more Roma.
- It exploits and fetishizes oppressed ethnic groups for financial gain/branding, like Gypsy Warrior, Junk Gypsies, Cirque du Soleil and others.
- It lampoons the ethnic group and reduces the culture to cartoonish clichés. Ex: xoJane’s “Gypsy Beauty” cracks racist jokes and re-writes what a Gypsy is.
- It perpetuates harmful stereotypes and misrepresentations like thievery, promiscuity, mysticism, and child-stealing.
- It disrespects another culture’s, often sacred, rituals, customs, objects, and ways of life. For example, Native American headdresses are a symbol of honor and should only worn by tribe leaders.
“Outrageous, kitchy, quirky”
“To whoever [sic] it may concern. I’m the spirit of the old gypsy [sic] that who used to own this caravan. If you look in the mirror and see a glimpse of something it’s me…! Beware of the bathtub, it may suck you into the 8th dimension!”
“Gypsie [sic] this, Gypsie that, Gypsie us, Fankastack! Swapped our fancy wedding frills for wifebeaters + trillbeys [sic], stole a blondie child + opened a bottle of Powers to encapsulate the true essence of our Roma gypsie [sic] bunker. Hup! Hup! Hup!”
This last one was made complete with a mildly-racist doodle of a “Gypsie” family.
It’s because of cultural appropriation that people, like the authors above, believe that Gypsies are nomadic because of some inherent free-spirited, devil-may-care whimsy. Not so. Roma originated in northern India one thousand years ago, and Romani scholar and writer Ronald Lee tells the fascinating story in “The Origins of the Roma.” When the Roma moved West after the Islamic wars, wherever the Roma arrived, they were met with xenophobic hostility, so the Roma remained nomadic in an effort to escape persecution. Roma in the Balkans were enslaved for centuries. Roma were shipped to the U.S. colonies as slaves. Roma were murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps. And the persecution continues; Roma all over the world are still fighting for basic human rights. Today, many Roma have settled, often forcibly at the hands of the government. Some are assimilated into gadjé society, usually because they had the ability to hide their ethnicity. Others are not assimilated, and many suffer poverty, segregation, hate crimes, forced sterilization, ghettoization, abject living conditions and more at the hands of their governments. Ah, the romantic, carefree Gypsy life.
The reason my grandmother has never been inside a caravan is because my grandmother’s family, like many other Roma, scented the increasing danger in Germany before the Holocaust began. Her mother, a very beautiful, kind, and resourceful woman, had bad luck with men. She had a few Romani children and nowhere to take them, but she met a gadjo farmer in Northern Germany near the North Sea and settled with him. He wasn’t a good man, but they were safe. My grandmother remembers that some of her extended family was able to settle nearby, secure documents, and pass as Germans. They stopped speaking Rromanes, the Romani language, and she was told over and over again that they weren’t Gypsies anymore. They were Germans.
Remembering Romani and Traveller history is imperative to the human rights effort. Knowing the truth about Gypsy culture is what will save it. I thought about this as I looked up from the guestbook. Knickknacks decorated the glass shelves skirting the ceilings, and admittedly, they were kitschy: ceramic droopy eyed-dogs and little girls with parasols, and likely not authentic. Some were broken. Among them, a crystal ball shone dully.
Unlike other Roma, my family embraces fortune telling. My grandmother attributes that to her grandfather. He had been prosperous enough before the war to settle in a small farm with fruit trees. She says he would cut down entire cherry branches for her if she asked for them. Despite his good fortune in hard times, he missed his freer, arguably safer life on the road with his lovely wife, Mathilde Von Thiele, the riparian dancer. He was afraid of what Germany was becoming. He asked Mathilde to teach him fortune telling, which she thought was very odd, but she did. He insisted the whole family, including my grandmother, would meet on Sundays and read each other’s fortunes to pass the long stressful days. If any Nazi officers burst in (and they did, from time to time) to question them, there would be no evidence of their culture. Just tea. Just hands. At first, reading each other’s fortunes was a game, but it grew into something else over the years: it became a way to feel in control in a terrifying situation, to feel close to each other, and to speak frankly about their lives. And because no one spoke the Rromanes any more, many of the old advising rituals and spells could not be performed, so some of the old spiritual, diagnostic and healing practices were adapted to fortune telling. Yet another aspect of our family culture born of persecution. But it helped: the family meditated together, prayed, and really believed in something. And as friends and family were killed around them, while reports of so many missing crackled through on their contraband radio, while Russian and German soldiers raped and abused the town’s women and children with rapacious dedication, they needed to believe in something.
In the caravan, it struck me how odd it is for gadjé to say they have “a Gypsy spirit.” It’s like saying, “I’m Chinese in spirit,” or “I’m a Jew in spirit.” This is what I know of being a Gypsy: my grandmother’s stories of terror and fear; being stoned by other kids in first grade for looking different; being put in detention for being a “Gypsy and a witch” and casting “the evil eye;” flinching when people say “gypped” when they mean “cheated;” constantly explaining “It’s racist/hurtful/offensive when you do/say XYZ,” it’s racist that you assumed that we don’t have feminism and we don’t need you to “make a case” for it and enlighten us, “it’s racist when you make ‘how to spot a gypsy’ guides for tourists so I’m making my own for spotting white people,” or “it’s racist that when you find out I’m a Gypsy you tell me about how you saw a pick-pocketer in Europe as though you’re connecting with me on a cultural level.” It’s utterly alienating, and without a Romani community to connect with, there is no one. My grandmother emigrated to the U.S. alone, and nowadays she refers to Gypsies as “they” and not “we,” and still has to patiently explain to her American friends why she doesn’t want them bad-mouthing Gypsies. Her community was taken from her so long ago that we don’t belong to one anymore, but we don’t belong here either.
I don’t know whether “The Gypsy Retreat” is cultural appropriation or cultural exchange. I do know that a nicer way to educate people about this topic is by sharing the culture, through food, music, dance, literature, art, language, history, and beautiful vardos. I’m thankful to have stayed in a shiny 1980’s caravan. After I put the guest book down, I picked up Diane Tong’s book Gypsy Folktales and enjoyed myself. So often I feel separate from Gypsy culture but close to my Gypsy family, and “The Gypsy Retreat” mirrored that ambivalence: it was both alienating and familiar, like an Epcot version of my culture. Still, I’d love to take my grandmother to a lovely vardo somewhere in Europe, hide the guestbook, and give her some catharsis too.