** I want to first start off by apologizing for using the word “gypsy” in the title of this post. It is extraordinarily offensive and problematic, which I’m going to talk about here.
I, like many, had heard the word “gypsy” a number of times – in movies, books, television, out in the regular world. I particularly remember becoming aware of it when I read Stephen King’s Thinner, in which a man is cursed by a roving band of “gypsies.” I didn’t understand much about the word or what it meant but I was aware of the romanticized notions of the wandering, traveling gypsy, never to be tied down to anyone one place. Regrettably, I’m sure that I used it at some point in describing how I had moved around for awhile, living out of a couple of large suitcases and never feeling settled.
I became more cognizant of the word and it’s implications, as well as a becoming more educated about who these people were, during my time living in Prague. The Roma (a more proper and less offensive term) could be found all over the Czech Republic and I witnessed, first hand and many times, the mistreatment and prejudice that they endured. I’m still surprised to think back on how many otherwise open-minded, socially aware and educated people I knew who became anything but when the topic of the Roma came up.
Though the focal point of this site, and this project, is viewing privilege and freedom of mobility through the concept of the flâneur, I feel that the Roma are an especially important group of people to bring up in this conversation. I will not go into a lengthy explanation of their history and the history of human rights violations against them (though I will list some resources and sites at the end of this post), so very briefly: The Roma are a community that originated in India (not Romania, as their name might imply and many people believe) some 1400-1500 years ago. They traveled and migrated all over Europe and as times changed, attempted to settle into various communities across the continent but have never been welcomed. Many Roma are considered “stateless” as countries have put rules into place to prevent “undesirable” groups from claiming citizenship – such as the infamous “Jus sanguinis” or, the rallying Nazi cry “blood and soil” meaning you can claim citizenship “by blood”. (If you’re mother is German, then you are German, for example.) This is a very simplified explanation and it’s problematic for many reasons.
During World War II, Roma are the lesser known victims of the holocaust – it’s believed that about a quarter of the entire Roma population of Europe was slaughtered during World War II (a number that ranges from around 200,000 to 300,000 or more.) There were concentration camps specifically for Roma and in many countries there are governments that continue to deny acknowledgement of these atrocities against Roma. Roma living in Europe today are heavily discriminated against, chased out of their homes, denied basic human rights, denied rights to vote and statehood, and there have been cases (not so long ago) of villagers burning Roma homes as they sleep. Have you ever heard of or used the term “gypped”? It comes from the word “gypsy”. If you still use this word, please stop, just as you wouldn’t use the phrase “indian giver” (I hope). Here is a short article on NPR about the usage and history of this word and why it’s offensive.
I don’t mean to gloss over the Roma history here but there’s a problematic piece that I want to get to.
Having worked in the yoga industry (as a teacher) I became increasingly uncomfortable with various forms of cultural appropriation that I was seeing. When I followed more yoga teachers on social media, I saw a flood of white women in expensive yoga pants donning Native American accessories (headbands and feathers, tribal-like makeup for festivals, etc). Though this is not at all exclusive to yoga teachers it just seems to be where I see the highest concentration of a “bohemian” lifestyle and bragging about “wandering gypsy” ways. There seems to be a notion that “gypsies” are a people who just like to travel for leisure and stay in cozy Airbnb’s across Europe and the Americas (and India, of course). There also seems to be a misconception that “gypsies” are a happy-go-lucky people who are welcomed and loved wherever they go. Hopefully, if this is a new concept to you, you are beginning to understand that the Roma are NOT welcomed wherever they go.
I think it’s important to understand and keep in mind that, as privileged “westerners” (particularly white westerners) we have a very different experience when we decide to pick up and travel to other countries. Though I know that not everyone in a “Western” country can do it, typically there is only one hurdle (financial). I also understand that it can feel scary to some to deal with airports, missed flights, jet lag, being in a foreign country – but I believe this is more about “going outside your comfort zone” than it is being “brave”, “adventurous”, and all the other words we like to ascribe to ourselves.
I’ve seen people who’ve taken off to travel across Europe for a year (or any other continent) speak about a mythicized ability to “just pick up and go”, that finding their way in these “foreign lands” is just “something they’ve always done” (and by the way, isn’t it amazing if someone travels with them and is able to keep pace with them?)
My intention is not to shame anyone but I do want us to think about how we frame these experiences. I’d like us (holders of “western” passports) to understand that, though it may feel a little scary at times, it’s actually quite easy to cross borders, to find somewhere to stay, to travel from one country to another. Current politics aside, we are generally quite welcome wherever we go. (We spend money, after all!) In fact, thanks to our fondness for staying in “quaint”, “cozy”, “charming” Airbnb’s across Europe, we are helping to drive up rent and contributing to housing crises in cities like Berlin. (Berlin has recently instituted a ban on long-term and whole-apartment Airbnb rentals. Other cities are expected to follow.) And then some come back telling stories of “almost having their wallet/purse/backpack stolen by ‘gypsies'”. (For what it’s worth, I lived in Prague for a full three years. I saw Roma people being treated horribly on the trams, buses, in squares, etc but I never had anything stolen.)
And I would very much like for people – particularly white women who have romanticized the notion – to stop referring to themselves as having a “gypsy soul” or being a “gypsy wanderer” or having a “gypsy heart” (and on and on).
So. I am certainly not saying that we shouldn’t travel. I think travel is an valuable experience and an important one to have if you keep an awareness of how your experience differs from others who are less privileged. Traveling can be eye-opening and teach you a lot about yourself and the world, but I think there is less opportunity to learn if you go into calling yourself a “wandering gypsy”. Living in Prague was an incredible experience and having truly lived in another culture where I was forced to go through the more menial, exhaustive processes of life that you don’t deal with when you’re just passing through for a few weeks. Registering at the foreign police is a notorious experience that sucks less if you’re a “westerner” but is trying all the same. Navigating the process of getting a mobile phone when you have a visa but not permanent residence is mildly annoying. Don’t get me started on retrieving mail and packages at the post office…! Then there’s learning the language – something that, as a “westerner” you can actually get away with not doing though I was excited to learn a new language by immersion. Even though these things are exhausting, they are still do-able and I know that help is only ever a phone call away and I could always go “home”. Given a full three years in Prague, I think that I learned and came to understand more about how much freedom of movement I have and my privilege during the month I spent in Berlin this past Summer.
List of resources & information about the Roma and the word “Gypsy”:
Romea.cz: website dedicated to news, education, and information on the Roma in the Czech Republic (in English and Czech – this link goes to the English version)
Roma, Gypsies, and Travelers: Guardian article highlighting discrimination against Roma people