Romanian Gypsies: A History of Problems & Particularies

by | July 20, 2015 |

Romanian Gypsies are a problem. There, I’ve said it.

Romanian Gypsies Problem #1: Their name

The first problem is with their name: gypsies, from the place name Egypt. In Romanian it’s țigani. But the Romanian Gypsies don’t come from Egypt. They’re Indo-Iranian. Their proper ethnonym is Roma, more technically spelled Rroma. They’re also called Romany.

Romania has the highest percentage of Roma in Europe, but no one quite knows the number. The Roma don’t specialize in being at home when the census takers come around. The children don’t always go to school.

Romanian Gypsies Problem #2: Who are they?

The Roma and the Romanians are not the same ethnogroup. The Roma speak a language that is ultimately related to languages like Farsi. The Romanians speak a Romance language.

The gypsy population is distinct in looks from the Romanian population.

The Roma often get bad press in Western Europe, like when they try to set up camp in Hyde Park in London or decide to dine on the black swans from a pond in Vienna. The Romanians are unhappy when Western Europeans imagine them to be Roma.

Romanian Gypsies Problem #3: What do they do?

My friend Delia lives in a neighborhood not far from me in downtown Bucharest. She lives in a villa that can house 3 families. Her next-door neighbors are Roma. They live in a single-family villa. She figures at least 40 people live there – but it’s hard to know.

Suffice it to say her neighbors do not work in any office. Their source of income is unknown but not un-guessable. They tend to stay up all night almost every night, playing music, grilling meat. Cars come and go. Small packets change hands. The kids play tennis in the street at 3 am.

Delia doesn’t mind. In fact, she figures they guard the neighborhood. A while back, just as she was turning the key to get in her front door, the key broke in the lock. What to do? She went next door, and sure enough her neighbors had the skills to unlock her door and repair the lock. Useful.

Romanian Gypsies Particularity #1: They stick together

Outside hospitals in Bucharest I often see large groups of Roma congregating on the sidewalks, lounging around on blankets, listening to music, playing cards, drinking beer. They camp out day and night when a family member is in the hospital.

These sidewalk camps are unusual, but it’s nice they stick together.

Romanian Gypsies Particularity #2: They have their own culture

Roma girls and women keep to the tradition of wearing colorful clothing and long skirts.

The Roma are known for salvaging old iron (fier vechi). I often hear the song they sing asking for old iron. I don’t know the words, since they aren’t Romanian, but I do recognize the melody.

Rich Roma build palaces.

Romanian Gypsies

These palaces have distinctive metal roofs with spires and turrets. They often put their family name on top, also in metal. They don’t necessarily live in their palaces. They’re more likely to live in the back yard.

A couple of years ago two friends and I drove to Craiova, a town a couple of hours west of Bucharest to see the main gypsy neighborhood. It extends about two long city blocks and is lined on both sides with palaces exactly like the photo. Everyone had a satellite dish and a large statue of a rearing horse on the corner of the second-floor balcony. Lots of naked little kids were running around.

The sheer number of palaces, side by side, was impressive. Even more impressive was the large ditch running the length of the neighborhood easily 15 or 20 feet wide. It was completely filled with garbage.

The Roma have a king, Dorin Cioabă.

Romanian Gypsies

He wrote to President Trump that the Roma would come help build the wall between Mexico and the US. He was detained by Romanian authorities in September 2017 for tax evasion.

When Madonna came to Bucharest in 2009, she made a plea to stop discrimination against the Roma. She was booed.

Whatever else you want to say about the Roma and how they live, their music is spectacular. Listen to Taraf de Haidouks

Want more history from Julie? Read one of her historical romances.


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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