The Transylvanian (Romania) road from Dracula’s Castle split into a triangle junction that contained a small park. A quaint pair of horse-drawn two-story wagons rested there. Their horses grazed lazily on the emerald green grass under the shade trees while several people lounged in the upper story of their wagons. “Roma, or what we call Gypsies,” our Romanian guide explained, are “nomadic people who traditionally live in two-story wagons. The upper story is their home while the lower story is for business.” So, we were very surprised to see what the guide had just described to us that morning had suddenly appeared.
The Roma, as they prefer to be called, emigrated in the 1300’s from India. While many remain nomadic, more and more are living in homes provided by the tolerant Romanian government. We passed a government-built neighborhood that looked like a giant hand had stamped-out hundreds of small houses set close together and enclosed by fences to keep Gypsy life separate from the rest of the Romanians. These neighborhoods fit the traditional “satra” lifestyle of the Gypsies – “living close together without privacy.” But, traditional to the Roma way, each family individualizes them to stand out in the crowd.
The few wealthy Roma own huge “mansion homes” complete with metal or clay castle-like turreted roofs. These edifices serve not only as homes but also to flaunt the wealth of the owner. The Roma live in only one or two ornate, flamboyant, and colorfully furnished rooms, leaving the remainder of rooms empty. From the outside, no one knows that most of the house is empty.
An estimated two million Roma comprise 10% of the Romanian population, although the actual Roma population is unknown, as they don’t declare their children. Children are used from a young age as beggars and pickpockets. Parents use no birth control, and the saying about them is, “if a child needs a bath, make a new one instead.” As our Tauck World Discovery Danube Riverboat tour went on a daily land excursion, we passed numerous children bathing in a drainage ditch, so we were not surprised that families of 10 – 12 children are common and that some children eventually bathe.
Roma children attend Romanian schools, which includes a free breakfast to improve attendance. Many still do not attend school, perpetuating their high rates of illiteracy and poverty. Large portions of the children in Romanian orphanages come from Roma families who can’t afford to keep them.
Roma children marry at age 13 or 14. Girls must be virgins for these arranged marriages. The girl meets with the boy’s family to see if they can marry and, if so, they live together. A Roma boy can marry any girl, but a Roma girl can only marry a Roma boy. The bride receives a gold necklace with a gold coin from the groom’s family in recognition of the marriage, and everyone celebrates with a party where the family’s homegrown wine and food is served and music, singing and dancing abound. On the other hand, to divorce, the husband says one word three times and the couple is divorced. Our Romanian guide didn’t know that word.
Since Gypsy traditional dress is unavailable in “off-the-rack” stores, the Roma make their clothes. Women wear many-layered dark-colored long skirts with many pockets. Men usually wear all black — shirt, pants, and large-brimmed hat. Sometimes there is red or colored trim on the shirt or there is no hat. When it comes time to wash the clothes, male and female clothes cannot be washed together because clothes worn below the waist are considered unclean, especially the female’s. And to wash bad luck away, rural Roma wash clothes in a flowing river.
Many of the Roma people have jobs as skilled bricklayers, copper workers, and gold sifters. Some of the top musicians in Romania are Roma, like Gheorghe Zamfir. But many also have odd jobs, including begging, cleaning restrooms, fortune telling, and street sweeping. Most Roma live below the poverty line and struggle daily to survive. They compete among each other, and the wealthier Roma do not associate with the poorer Roma. Still, they believe in getting along and being honest with each other. Their high rate of unemployment, welfare, illiteracy, and crime are some of Romania’s big problems.
The Roma have two designated seats in the Romanian Parliament. The Roma also have their own government, consisting of a king who lives in France and an emperor who has no power. Elections are held every two years among the Roma. King Cioaba sets the rules and regulations the Roma follow. While I was visiting Romania, the newspaper pictured the emperor’s release from prison and his Zorroesque departure on a shiny black horse. The Romanian government then fined him.
In World War II, the Roma and other Romanians were sent to concentration camps. Communism was rough on the Roma, as their needs were ignored and they were not recognized as a separate ethnic group.
The Roma adopt the religion of their resident country since they have no ethnic religion. They honor the Black Madonna and have a small alter with the Black Madonna at the entrance of their dwelling. The Black Madonna is an image of Mary that has darkened through the centuries and is associated with miracles.
One encounter with a Roma came after we had visited a museum in Bucharest. A dark-skinned Roma lady dressed in colorful headscarf, shawl, dark multi-layered skirt, and bright blue blouse, awaited us at the exit. She granted us permission to photograph her up close. We took several different poses and gave her a tip. This was such a pleasant surprise because it is known that Roma do not allow personal photos.
As we were leaving Transylvania, we saw a man milking one of 20 cows in a roadside pasture. He had just walked up to that free-standing, unsecured cow that was eating grass and started milking it. In all of my years associated with the dairy business, I had never seen anything like this. What I didn’t know was whether the man owned the cows or just needed some milk.