She looked worried as she exclaimed, "They had to close the pub last night due to Gypsies!"
Warnings of a Gypsy wedding in a market town five minutes drive away had closed many pubs within ten miles. Communities often react in this way to Gypsies. Staying with friends on their old family farm, early one morning a phone call warned of Gypsies sweeping the area for a place to camp. Gates were hastily closed, calls went out on the telephone-tree. Perhaps we are afraid because Gypsies are marginal, very different, closer to nature, quite wild.
That's why I've always liked Gypsies, consequently, my own experience of these ancient travelling communities has been entirely different. My first encounter was in Bulgaria as I walked and hitched my way back to London from India. I'd walked through much of Afghanistan, Iran, trained across Turkey and was camping under a tarpaulin when a group of rough looking Gypsies turned up and invited me to join their party. Wow they were wild! We danced all night and at dawn they clapped when I played my flute badly. Years later, for one of my educational books, I interviewed an old Gypsy who repaired chairs with raffia seats. Living on a roadside plot his children had bought, he refused to sleep in their new house, preferring his old caravan. "I hear the fox slink past, I smell the rabbits, I hear dawn start up. This refreshes my soul. We Gitanes adore nature, that is why we travel rather than settle in towns where one is dislocated from all that is natural."
He told me that for centuries his clan had bought from Berbers in Morocco's High Atlas mountains, and walked them back to sell in French markets. "Now European regulations complicate this honest trade, so, without money to buy lorries, we repair furniture."
Whilst having my hair cut in a market town near here, I found myself chatting gaily to a huge muscular man in the next chair. We covered all sorts of subjects and I sensed he came to like me as I exposed my soul. After he rose and left, the barbers said, "You'd best be careful of him mate!" "He's a Gypsy." "He's tough, nobody can beat him in a fight." These statements were proclaimed in awe, there was respect, but also a tinge of fear, which generates hate. Yes, one popular Gypsy sport is fist-fighting, and they begin training as soon as they can walk, but I know that if I were to meet that man again on a dark night, in a dark ally, he'd throw out his big hand, tap my shoulde, greet me.
Camping in France, we regularly set up next to Gypsies, because there was always a wide space between their neat caravans and everyone else. It typically took a day for our near neighbours to warm to us, but when they did, they were charming, noninvasive, good people.
Lounging in a remote, large warm pool which issued from a spring in the Pyrenean mountainside, we found ourselves alone amidst a group of Gypsies. I have found that true Gypsies, be they in India or Europe, are like the Nandi, the Kenyan tribe I spent my youth amongst. They talk straight, they respect you for being open and honestly revealing your heart.
Those Gypsies told us how they are treated. "If there are less than four men amongst us, the Gendarmes will jump on us, beat us up with truncheons, even the women and children with us, shove us into their vans, throw us out like sacks of sand as they drive slowly through rough parts of town, leaving us like vermin for the locals to finish off." "The French hate us! They gang up on us, swarming into our encampments, attacking us." "Nobody trusts us. They tarnish us all, assuming we are thieves like some 'Tinkers' or 'Travellers'." "They rape our young women if we happen to leave them alone, so we never do." And there was more, much, much more.
Why do we despise those whose lives are not like our own? Like the Nandi in Kenya, the true Gypsy has ancient traditions, a deep respect for nature, a powerful love of family, adhering to strong codes, they are loyal friends. They are good at sussing you out. I've found they warm to those who are open, settled within themselves and straight of heart.
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