house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Traveller Asks

“Can I have some money?”

The question comes from a well dressed girl about ten years old. We stop at the supermarket on Sunday morning and find her standing by the van, pointing vaguely to my pocket. She looks clean and bright-eyed. No missing limbs, no apparent illness, no justification. Her skin is brown, but why would that explain or excuse the begging?

Perhaps I stop and stare a little. “Any money, a little coin, spare change, something?” she expands on the subject, helpfully. She is small but grim and determined, and acts as if we owed her a debt. Moona waves me into the shop (must be quick, he suffers from a very short-fuse when placed in the vicinity of supermarkets) and starts chatting to the girl. She seems surprised but stays, with a sigh and a look on her face that reads clearly “Darn, I have to earn this buck”. Across the car park a woman pushing a pram (her mother?) prawls the perimeter and makes a beeline for any car or person that moves.

We don't see too much of this around these parts. Yes we see travellers, mainly at fairs and country markets, running rusty rides and shabby shows, or trying to sell truly apalling souvenirs. But there isn't much begging and there isn't much stealing we hear about. Meeting this girl a novelty, but her attitude, and mine, is not. What shocks me is how easily we fell into fixed formulas. Hers seemed to be “I am a gypsy therefore entitled to your spare change”; mine was “gypsy equals beggar, end of story". But should it be?

Moona tried to find out. He asked why she begged and she shrugged. He asked if begging made her feel bad, or perhaps embarrassed? Another shrug. He asked what she would do with the money. That was easy, answered with a nod of the head: buy food. He asked what her parents thought about it.

This produced a surprising reaction. The girl pointed to a van and asked Moona if he wanted to buy it. It was her dad's van and it was for sale. It looked good. Leaning against it was dad himself, smoking a cigarette, acting cool. My reaction? Anything but cool.

How could he stand and roll his fag while his family begged in the parking lot? No, it's worse: how could he send them out to beg while he enjoyed a quiet Sunday morning smoke?

I read about travelling folk and the question continues to puzzle me. On the one hand there's this romantic picture we like to have, of small groups of happy people dancing, reading the future, playing haunting music by the fire, next to beautiful hand-carved caravans drawn by wild horses. Why else would I persist in calling them 'travellers' rather than any other of their many names, Roma, Romani, gitanes, gypsies?

But this idyll flies in the fiery face of history. Nomads from India and slaves until the middle of the 19th century, Romanies never integrated and were never accepted by the peoples of Europe, who did however gain a grudging respect for their artisan skills, especially metal working and weaponry.

They were surrounded in mystery, which bred bizarre stories (here summarised by Ian Hancock): “they were thought to be survivors of a prehistoric race, Druids, Nubians, dwellers emerging from the hollow Earth, visitors from space, or simply a population recruited from the fringes of European society that artificially dyed its skin and spoke a concocted jargon for purposes of criminal activity”.

Mystery and scary stories, hence fear. Fear, hence persecution with many unpardonable, ugly faces, from bad mouthing, marginalisation and manyfold bullying to the Nazi final solution. Over the past two centuries, scientists and politicians referred to them as “the refuse of the human race” (Knox 1850), “a whole race of criminals” (Lombroso 1876), “a pest against which society must unflaggingly defend itself” (Dillmann, 1905), “lives unworthy of life” (Leibich 1863).

Lives unworthy of life. This must be the saddest phrase I've typed, and the heaviest. These four words alone, used by a few self-centered, dangerous imbeciles infected a nation and permitted the murder of one and a half million gypsies in the gas chambers of the Third Reich.

Lives unworthy of life. Perhaps we are all still suffering from the venom subtly spread by the words. Perhaps an echo of the evil phrase unconsciously envelops us as we throw coins to beggars, as we complain about petty thieves in our towns? Perhaps the full weight of it still rests on these people, the gangs who rob, illiterate children sniffing glue on street corners, parents who choose to send their families to beg, so that they don't even TRY to be something else?

Not something else entirely: not a reinvention, just a return. Perhaps more dream than possibility, to resurrect the travellers and all the corny stuff they bring to our naïve minds: a strong, spirited people, aloof but alive, nurturing its gifts? Enchanting stories, superb spirituality, bewitching music, art, the incredible craft of legendary artisans revived.

How amazing it would be if the girl begging in the car park today pulled out a little violin and played a tune? How eagerly we would reach for the purse, to repay the small pleasure.

Instead she just stands in front of the van and stretches out her hand, asks her dreary question and again, we have a coin but not an answer.


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