Plight of the Gypsies

Home is where they have to take you in. But for the Roma refugees who've come to St. Louis, there's no such place.

The nomadic life started out of necessity. When the Roma arrived in Europe, they didn't own property but weren't serfs, so they had no position in which to stay anywhere for any length of time. Rivers became their bathtubs, and they developed a strict taboo against contamination, or marime. (Ian Hancock, a scholar who has written extensively about his Roma heritage, remembers being taught with utter disgust that the gadje washed clothes and vegetables in the same bowl and let dogs eat off their plates and sleep in their beds.)

Gradually the travelers developed trades natural to a caravan: shoeing horses, peddling wares, performing. They were accused of shiftlessness, yet they could whisper horses, exchange currencies without a calculator, carve treasures from scrap material, turn a violin into theology. "Their music pulls your soul to cry," says Amir Hotic, adding, "Maybe it is because they don't have a set house. Maybe they are crying to be settled, crying to be recognized." He says he hired two Roma at the Marriott West, and that very day a $10,000 LCD projector went missing. The pair were suspected immediately. But management later decided the client had taken the projector with him -- and the Roma proved excellent employees.

"You hear people say they are lazy," remarks Bogomolov, "but if you look carefully, they are anything but lazy about the issues they deem important. If something is not important to them, even if it's quite within their capability, it's rather important for it not to be important. The whole philosophy is that you should not waste your energy and time and precious thought on something that is truly not an issue."

Equally misunderstood is the Roma attitude toward "duty" and "possessions" -- words that, for years, supposed experts have claimed do not exist in Romani. Exasperated by a mistake that gets picked up, repeated and philosophized every time someone writes about the Roma, Hancock finally compiled a list of 10 words for duty and 15 for "possession" from the language's various dialects. No one had bothered to check.

The Roma keep their secrets, that's the excuse; they refuse to teach gadje their language or the rituals that color their lives. Indeed, history and sociology texts are full of elaborately footnoted, utterly inaccurate explanations of gypsy culture, mischievously offered to amateur scholars who'd made pets of them. The secrecy is mainly self-protection, but it widens the wedge, making alienation not only the core of Roma identity but its curse.

Trust cancels the curse. So Avdija Huskic has been trying to teach Ron Klutho the ropes -- how to roast a pig, how to speak Romani. "To be gypsy, you don't need to be really fantastic," he said reassuringly. "You just need to be with the people all the time, have a community, eat together. Five or six people eat from one plate." Klutho got the message: Americans don't know how to share, or live in the moment, or enjoy themselves with abandon. In Huskic's words, "Gadje just eat pita; we eat the whole lamb." (It's not just metaphor: The last time Huskic roasted a lamb outdoors on a spit, neighbors yelled, "What are you doing? You killed a dog!")

In fairness, though, there is much in Roma culture to confuse an outsider. Until recently, St. Louis' only real clues came at times of death, when the gypsies' elaborate rites of mourning caught the media's attention. Back in 1935, when Queen Lily of the Mitchell tribe died, she lay in state in a tent on the grounds of the Hoffmeister Mortuary at 7814 S. Broadway, clothed in pink and red silk, with clean straw beneath her casket and a lighted gasoline stove in front of it. Six years later, another Roma chief, Gus Stevens, lay in state under a tent at a gypsy camp in Bridgeton, where 30 followers kissed his feet and face and drank whiskey in his honor, pouring a sip on the ground for the Old Man before each drink.

According to Anne Sutherland, who has written about cross-cultural medicine in the Patrin Web Journal, a repository of information on the Romani culture, "Reporters, physicians, hospital staff, social workers and police are all aware of a great happening when a gypsy becomes seriously ill and dies. When they ask what is going on, they may be told, 'A gypsy king (queen, prince) has died.' This reply is a way of satisfying reporters and providing a reasonable explanation to hospital staff and police of why the gypsies are flocking into town in large numbers.... Death is a major crisis in a gypsy family that must be dealt with in ritual."

Mourning swallows every other aspect of life; one does not wash or shave or comb one's hair, and no food is prepared during the intense grieving period. Next, all material ties with the deceased must be burned, broken or sold without profit. "After a funeral, depending on how much money you have, you go to a hotel or someone's home," says Huskic. "You put the person down, the family puts a little dirt and then everybody shovels a little, and when you leave, you can't turn back, or he will pull you down with him. After the funeral, people go directly to wash their hands. And then we eat. Some people go back and bring food to the cemetery. If the man smoked, then you smoke. If he drank, you have to spill a little into the grave and then drink.

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