It’s summer 2012, and I’m camping alongside an isolated Romany Gypsy village. As part of a road trip via Russia-Istanbul I find myself in an obscure part of Transylvania, way off-the-beaten-track. I am intruiged by my neighbours. I’ve always been fascinated by Romany Gypsy culture. Why? Possibly because gypsies belong nowhere… and yet everywhere. Or is it because despite having no official homeland, and living outside the fringes of society, they manage to retain their distinct culture? Despite some trepidation (will I be welcomed, or shunned as an outsider?) I take a few deep breaths and walk down the long, dusty, derelict path…
For me, the Gypsies’ enigmatic history and traditions are shrouded in colourful, legendary folklore, that feed my love of mystery. Yet I’m all too aware their ‘romantic’ image may be far removed from reality – another reason why I feel nervous as I wander into the village alone.
I needn’t have worried about being welcomed. Fascinated by the presence of a stranger (we are miles away from any town, and tourists certainly don’t venture into these parts) the isolated Romany villagers wave me over immediately. Bonding over emphatic gesturing, huge smiles, and the odd word based on Slavic-Italian, we soon feel like old chums (well, almost). And as they notice my camera, they urge me to take photos of them – I’ve been dreaming of capturing their lives on camera, and to be asked, feels a huge privilege. Photos are incredibly rare here, since nobody owns a camera – and so I’ve promised to send copies to my new friends.
Relishing the opportunity to show off their elaborate clothes, they proudly posed for me from every angle – amused that I’m entertained by this. I feel in awe, and honoured, to have a rare glimpse into this secluded, private society.
From the Indian-inspired spiral columns, to the wonderfully kitsch plastic lemon trees in the corner of the room – every aspect of the home seems an attempt to display their status. I love the plastic pink heart on the ceiling!
Mala brings me a cup of syrupy black coffee so bitter it makes my eyes water. Then she ushers in her son, daughter, mother and husband, and asks me to take some valuable portraits. Delighted with the chance, I snap away.
Mala suddenly disappears, then re-emerges from her bedroom, with armfuls of vivid clothes, insisting I try them on.
Shall I…? What the hell! I’m game for a laugh. It’s not everyday you get invited in for coffee in an obscure Gypsy village, in deepest darkest Romania, and told to put on their clothes!
On a previous trip to Rajasthan, India, I was startled by the similarities between the local Rajasthani women, and Romany Gypsies I’d seen in Europe. The elaborate, flowered skirts, glittering jewellery, jingling bangles, and plastic flowers seemed almost identical.
Linguistic evidence suggests they did indeed originate from the Rajasthani people in the 11th Century, with the Romany language being a type of Indian ‘hybrid’.
Why they left in the first place however, seems to remain a mystery. Now, sitting in Mala’s house, taking photos of her family, their inheritance seems clear to me in their faces, clothing and architecture – despite their ancestors having left India so many centuries ago.
As with the ‘caste system’ in India, Romany Gypsies have a very strict social hierarchy. Before being welcomed by my new friends, I’d driven through another gypsy village which was in stark contrast to this Tinkers’ one.
There, naked children ran barefoot through the streets and people lived in dilapidated shacks resembling shanty towns.
Pot-bellied men sat on the steps gambling and drinking, and to me, there seemed a dark, threatening atmosphere. This time – I was not getting out of the car.
But apart from the little boy on the right, giving me *the finger*, I was welcomed with genuine delight, hospitality and warmth. What a thrilling, yet humbling experience, in bridging socially imposed barriers, and in cross-cultural kinship. I wonder where my next coffee invitation will lead me to.