Uncharted Nation: Living four months among ‘Gypsies’

The first word I was taught was gypsies thus followed by words like gypsies and ziganes, more refined manners to try and express the same reality

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[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]his reality, however, does not exist. They are sticky and coarse words used from the outside in order to forcefully group together what are actually different ethnic groups with many similarities but not so many to be able to consider them all the same, all belonging to only one imaginary culture. Every ethnic group, every family, every settlement has its own history and has followed its own course, however similar they may have been There is no such thing as a gipsy culture and through the latest analysis, there are no gypsies.

Hiding behind supposedly gipsy cultures and traditions may seem like a way for justifying a pre urban existence with precarious homes, abominable living conditions, illiteracy or other. Stealing is their culture. Living apart from others is their culture. The truth, is that often, behind this false cultural justification, there lies a desire for not wanting to look after and resolve the problems of part of the population, almost as to define their emergencies as characteristically aspects, peculiar and quaint, entire different ethnic groups gathered together under the same auspices.

Gipsies, gypsies and ziganes are synonyms while instead nomads are not. Nomadism is something else in great part all these ethnic groups are not nomadic. Furthermore, these citizens were born within the European Union and therefore they own an identity card, which is the only document, requested to live in the European Union. They are not nomads and they live mostly in a steady manner. If the word “gipsy” intended to include different ethnic groups without considering the differences, which separate them, by nature, the word “nomad” actually indicates another culture, a reality that they have abandoned a long time ago.

I can now go into one of their settlements. It is made up of a few small rustic, old farmhouses, abandoned before they even settled in them, by now sadly crumbling down. They are located in a green area where you cannot see anything but trees. The rest of the city seems to have disappeared. This settlement originated when a group of Roms came over from Rumania. Why here? Because in Rumania, despite the fact that they owned a home, they did not have enough money to eat and there they are heavily discriminated for being Roms. So they moved here because, even if they have no home, at least they can find something to eat. They have documents. They are European citizens, all they need to have is an I. D. card, and that is all that they are required to have. “A document to let them stay here” I am told. “And why do they stay here instead of in Government housing?”. It takes five to ten years to obtain government housing. They have not been here long enough. Furthermore, they do not even care much about this. They are hoping to go back to Rumania in the next two years. ”

After the first gate, I follow along a long path where I run into different adults who are going out. I will find out later that it is a constant coming and going. Beyond the second gate, I immediately notice the numerous presence of children, at least a dozen children and few adults, three or four. They all seem very happy to meet me, to even see me for the first time; they all seem very kind and hospitable, smiling. “Accept anything they offer you, it’s important, you must show gratitude even when you don’t want to. For them it is a very important gesture. By offering you something, they are honoring you. There are few women, either adolescents or older. In any case, it is improper to stop and speak to them. Never remain alone with one of them unless they stop you and talk to you in front of everybody. Even with Maria, the oldest lady, it is improper” insists my guide. It’s advise that I’ll always keep in mind. At times it will happen that I’ll address one of them distractedly, but. I’ll immediately feel awkward. I can’t understand how come we can’t address a woman in the same way as a man. Perhaps it is a way of protecting them, maybe to segregate them. I have often found it written that these communities don’t have any form of emancipation. I wonder what this emancipation is and how correct or out of place it is to talk about women’s emancipation when the only aim of the entire family is survival. The activities carried out by the men seem to be the same ones carried out by the women. The men don’t seem to have any privileges in respect to women. There aren’t any privileges of any kind, no luxury. The only value with which to measure the role of women here is the respect that she is given or not given and at times this happens in a way that is incomprehensible for an outsider.

Here there is neither water nor electric power. There


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are many children but only six of them go to school. They say that the others haven’t been accepted in school because of a surplus. The men work by collecting iron and other metal waste in order to sell them earning 20 or 30 Euro a day. There is a prejudice that they don’t work but steal. Instead they do work. They wake up at 5 o’ clock in the morning, to go out and find some iron, “ You may follow them at work and see for yourself” explains my guide the day of my arrival “if in other settlements someone steals or begs it’s not because of their culture but for desperation. If they live in these settlements in this way, it’s only because they have no other choice, not because they want to, judging from their living conditions. I don’t know who could believe that they live like this by their own wish, with no roof and no door just because of a cultural whim.

I see very small, smiling children waving at me. They seem to be very happy despite their difficult conditions. They don’t seem afraid at all of me, an outsider, a stranger. On the contrary, they kindly show affection. In any case, they are children, each with his own head and his own personality. There are little girls who hug you the first time they see you and others who look at you keeping their distance and who are happy if you take the way out.

The older children, approximately between fourth year Elementary school and first year middle school, are certainly less naturally outgoing. As a first reaction, they address me with good manners. They show me their school exercise books. We’re in September and they’re still in the first pages. Their handwriting is clear. I am particularly surprised by little Adriano who shows a true handwriting talent. The homework is always carried out properly even though I suspect that in some cases the exercises were too easy for a middle school child. I don’t know whether they had assigned easier homework to these children for any particular reason or if in middle school they are generally still composing sentences with verb, subject and object. The children who interact with me all speak properly except one of them. Furthermore they study foreign languages, and they obviously, speak their parents’ language. All this is very nice but the fact is that only very few children go to school The children prove to be happy to go to school and their parents confirm it. No children tell me of any discrimination suffered and when I ask the parents about any discrimination they answer by saying: “We can’t know about this”. Meanwhile a child tells me about a birthday party he’s been invited to. On the whole I have always seen serene, happy, well mannered children. Those who went to school seemed happy and willing about it. I speak to the parents and they repeatedly tell me that they would like to send all the children to school, that they are all signed up but they can’t find a spot for them. I cannot confirm all of this but they are the ones who ask me to help them with this situation, particularly by one of the young mothers: “They get married very young and become parents and grandparents very quickly.” She asks me to go to school with her and help her find a way for her son to be admitted. Unfortunately, I cannot help her. If then one day these children should find themselves adults and with no residence nor an education, there would be no way for them to get a job, with the predictable results.

Inside the settlement they gather wood on one side, metals wherever I lay my eyes I see piles of iron. They boil water in various pots on wood burning flames. It has rained all day and they haven’t been able to do it earlier. Outside the settlement, we can instead see an individual, at the time going out with their trollies in total silence. In all truth, there are never any sounds that can be perceived from the inside but it is a constant coming and going. They go to work. Jobs were at one time connected to nomadism. They were activities that fitted in quite well with a non sedentary life style. There have been great Circus people and round about workers even today, (it is enough to think of the most important Circus companies or horse breeders and traders). There have been families of street musicians and artists, especially now their activity is linked to metals. At first they are knife grinders and then they turn into copper and iron retailers. They leave the settlement and look for left over metals wherever they can. They pick them up and they take them back to the settlement on improvised handcarts. Someone will certainly buy them at a cheap price.

The working day starts early, around dawn: they stop at lunch time and then they start over again. It’s a tiring job that is carried out by all the adults in the settlement, men and women. The jobs that tradition


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had assigned to nomadic people were poor jobs which are nonetheless disappearing now. Musicians, circuses and street artists are activities which are disappearing due to lack of any type of earnings. All this has certainly brought many people to begging but in this small settlement I see everyone leaving with trolleys which are full of metals when they come back. Unfortunately, they are for the most part people with no residency nor education. This doesn’t diminish their desire to seriously work. But then, the fact, is that as a result. They get only the left overs,literally. Every settlement, every family, every ethnic group each has its own way of life, of conceiving society and their own social structure, religion and mysticism, language and history in a different way. I hear the children speak in a language I am not familiar with. I ask what language it is and they reply that it is Rumanian but at the same time they make fun of one another. “You don’t speak Rumanian. You speak ziganian!”. They laugh they make fun of one another but they all speak Rumanian. A child has a dictionary, one of those small compact ones, of Rumanian Italian. “It’s not mine. It’s the teacher’s one”. He must have given it to him but the child still conceives it as the teacher’s. It’s a bit dirty with mud. What isn’t? He asks me worried how to clean it. I help him and he follows with enthusiasm. One of the elements which characterizes them should be the language. Roms, Sintis and other ethnic groups have a language that seems to derive from India. Hundreds of years ago, when they still lived nomadically, it seems that they arrived in Europe from India. Perhaps India was their departure point, maybe it was just a stop along a journey which had started long before. God knows where. The fact is that of this language and of this culture I see no universally shared trace. I only see lots of people living in this settlement and speaking Rumanian among themselves and Italian with me. I underline that the children also study French and English. A little boy shows me his exercise book. There is a map which shows the routes of ancient peoples’ migrations. Another little boy who is a few years older has taken notes in his exercise book on the history of nomads. In no case do they clearly say anything about their ethnic background. I doubt that there are any school texts which take it into consideration, but it’s clear that their teachers wanted to talk about this topic at the end of the lesson in both classes. Their notes end with an exercise, a question which they must answer: Why do we have to study immigration? “We have to study immigration in order to know our history” is what was written with a blue pen by a little boy. The key to it all is in understanding that we are all hiding behind that word “our”.

A few weeks have already gone by and since the first time I have gone through that gate and everyday I keep hearing this phrase: “No news from the Police”. There was a time when the Carabinieri used to come everyday and would say that there could be a removal at any time. They tell me that it’s the people living in the nearby buildings who file the complaints. We are talking about people who can’t disappear into thin air and therefore by evacuating a settlement. the only thing they can obtain is to move them from one end of the city to the other. It often happens that the community is broken up and the small groups move wherever they can and as a result, instead of having one settlement, we obtain lots of smaller ones in size but larger in numbers, with heavy consequences on the family community which has to break up and as a small uncharted nation, it is broken, spread out and not marked on maps.

The children grow up happy and outgoing, surrounded by the entire extended family and from the self assurance they show it is clear they feel totally secure. It is Sunday evening; The men, who one by one come back into the settlement, relax. For the first time I hear some music, The women begin to make dinner. The children have spent all afternoon doing their homework. Those who go to school, and are now playing in groups, seem enthusiastic.

I know that I’ve had to be present in this settlement for a limited period of time and that I don’t have to withstand any of the difficulties that they have had to endure, to have a tourist vision of their life which is substantially limited and superficial. I become aware of this as I leave. I realize that the door I went in through two months ago, the two gates to be closed behind one’s back, and the road which goes on till the end of the world, are not necessary to set the limits of the settlement nor to separate it from the rest of the world. Their use is to protect it.


Marco Scarpetta
Marco Scarpetta is author of the Baltic Review