When I was a little girl, my father had some stock phrases he’d unroll to keep us in line. We were told to stay in the yard, or the Gypsies might steal us. We were exhorted to be good or we’d be sold to the Gypsies, and when we were rotten, my father would comment that he never should have bought his kids from the Gypsies.
Despite all the talk of Gypsies, I never saw any in New York, except at Halloween when we’d dress as Gypsies in long flowing skirts, gold hoop earrings, kerchiefs tied on our heads, our hair blackened, our cheeks sporting circles of red rouge. When we moved South, I never heard the Gypsies mentioned again. Then two years ago, I moved to Belgium, and suddenly Gypsies were real.
As part of our in processing as expats, we attended many briefings, and one of the longest ones was on security issues. We were addressed by the head of security at the American Embassy as well as a security authority from Belgium. At one point, the Belgian guy was discussing pickpockets and property crime and warning us that there was always an uptick in crime around the holidays “because of the Gypsies passing through.”
I had to stop my jaw from hitting the table. I was stunned that real Gypsies might be part of my life in Belgium, and equally amazed at the political incorrectness of attributing crime to a certain ethnic group. Years earlier I’d read about the Gypsies in an issue of National Geographic and learned they preferred to be called Roma, and that yes, even in these modern times many of them were a nomadic people, with a passion for music (especially accordions, violins) and a reputation for hard-drinking and for stealing. They often experienced persecution, the worst of it during WWII.
Occasionally, I’d see Gypsy musicians on the Metro in Brussels, but I’d forgotten about the Belgian security guys warning on holiday burglaries until last December when SEVEN houses in our neighborhood were broken into on the same day, including the house directly across the street from us. Was this the work of a band of Gypsies or was that just scapegoating? I don’t know, but afterwards we started setting our security system every time we left the house, not just when were away overnight.
In Rome last week, we saw quite a few Gypsies, and yes, the women wore the ankle-length Gypsy skirts and puffy blouses, shawls over their shoulders, kerchiefs tied on their heads. The men and children often played accordions or violins for donations, the women carried babies and begged--just like Brussels.
Our first day back in Belgium, we were preparing for “big trash” day and had placed two of the children’s outgrown bicycles on the sidewalk, hoping someone would snag them so they wouldn’t be trashed as they were in great condition. We were in the garage with the door up when a truck pulled up and man wearing a dark wool cap jumped out and loaded the bicycles into the truck.
Seeing my husband, he started speaking to him in French, asking if there was anything else. A woman came out of the truck in the trademark long flowing skirt and kerchief wrapped head and came up to me, speaking in French. She was thanking us for the bicycles, and then continued speaking rapidly to me. I don’t know much French, so I couldn’t catch all that she was saying but I understood at one point, she was asking me for clothes, telling me she had “beaucoup des enfants.”
As it turned out, I did have some clothes sorted and bagged and ready to be donated to charity or passed on to friends. I stepped into the garage to retrieve them and she follows me. My childhood fear of Gypsies bubbled up into my consciousness as well as the modern day wisdom that dictates that I never let any stranger step into my house. I motion for her to stay where she is. I have to struggle to extricate the clothes from a pile of other stuff and then lug the heavy bags of clothes to her from the opposite side of the garage. The entire time my back is to her, and she’s thanking me profusely.
Meanwhile, E has asked the man if he’d like to take our microwave and the guy doesn’t understand what a microwave is but says he’ll take it. Ours didn’t seem to be operating at full power and in a fit of pique, E had decided just to replace it, even though it wasn’t that old. We’d just returned from the store with the new microwave and at least a dozen bags of groceries and household items, which were scattered all over the garage floor next to the car’s trunk, right next to the driveway.
The man tries to follow E into the house, and E tells him to stay where he is, he’ll bring the microwave out. He gives me a look that says, “Watch him.” The guy smells of alcohol. We’re dismayed that he’s apparently drinking while driving a truck through our neighborhood.
The woman continues to speak to me in French, talking again about having “beaucoup des enfants” and asking, I think, for toys. I tell her “no toys.” Noting the deep lines in her weather worn face, I know her child-bearing years are ancient history. Does she have grandchildren or is she collecting stuff to sell or trade with others? Whatever.
The two gypsies take one last look around before driving off. I’m both pleased to have shared our excess with them and uneasy that they might now come back on a regular basis looking for donations.
When we carry all our bags into the house and unload everything, one bag is missing—a bag of small holiday gifts and gift bags that was purchased by E-Grrrl. I immediately think of the Gypsies, and I’m immediately ashamed of myself. Maybe we left the bag at the PX—but no, I explicitly remember E-Grrrl carrying the bag to the car. How could it be lost? Is it possible the missing items were in a different bag and that one was left behind? I don’t know. Seems unlikely but not impossible. E-Grrrl is very upset that her bag is missing.
As I lie in bed that night, I wonder if we not only provided bicycles and clothes but also brand new trinkets and gift bags for “beaucoup des enfants” in a settlement somewhere.
I also consider the power of suggestion, the strength of childhood fears, the origin of prejudices and stereotypes, and the uncomfortable reality of the cultural differences we encounter every day that constantly challenge us to look long and hard at our moral compasses and question all our assumptions.
Copyright 2006 Veronica McCabe Deschambault. All rights reserved. www.v-grrrl.com
November 30, 2006