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I have only seen Roma, or gypsy, people once in my life. I remember strolling in the town square of a small city in Bulgaria, wrapped in layers of jackets and fleeces to shield myself from the Eastern European cold. It was after dusk, in the dark night, when the market had cleared out and the sellers had gone home. Only the desperate owners of the local bars and restaurants were left, impatiently pacing back and forth in front of their empty shops.

A few ragged, unsupervised children were playing in the square, and I didn’t see any parents around. The eldest couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, and one of the little ones looked like she could have been 6 or 7, but there they were braving the cold without a thought to safety, or adult reprehension. My first feelings tended toward pity, empathy – they were poor kids in the cold, after all – but then as I walked closer my warm feelings evaporated and left something more akin to fear.

First, they weren’t playing, they were rough housing, but even the word ‘rough housing’ seems too flippant a word to accurately describe what they were actually doing to each other. They yelled and shrieked on the top of their lungs, and one of them round-housed into the sides of a little one with full force, laughing as he did it. The little one barely winced and began to claw back furiously without a tear in his eyes. I could not understand it. I have seen kids their age or older collapse onto the floor and whine for hours if someone stepped on their toes, but these kids seemed impervious to pain. Their wide, wild dark eyes did not betray an ounce of fear, nor any intruding thought of propriety or manners or deference to elders. And that’s what frightened me. Instinctually I knew every human had to have experienced it, but when we finally briefly exchanged glances – no, I knew they did not fear. And as I looked at them and them at me for that brief second before I cast my eyes downward, they, as well as I, knew instinctually the weaker of the two.

Gypsy

A fortnight before Christmas Gypsies were everywhere:
Vans were drawn up on wastes, women trailed to the fair.
“My gentleman,” said one, “you’ve got a lucky face.”
“And you’ve a luckier,” I thought, “if such a grace
And impudence in rags are lucky.” “Give a penny
For the poor baby’s sake.” “Indeed I have not any
Unless you can give change for a sovereign*, my dear.”
“Then just half a pipeful of tobacco can you spare?”
I gave it. With that much victory she laughed content.
I should have given more, but off and away she went
With her baby and her pink sham flowers to rejoin
The rest before I could translate to its proper coin
Gratitude for her grace. And I paid nothing then,
As I pay nothing now with the dipping of my pen
For her brother’s music when he drummed the tambourine
And stamped his feet, which made the workmen passing grin,
While his mouth-organ changed to a rascally Bacchanal dance
“Over the hills and far away.” This and his glance
Outlasted all the fair, farmer, and auctioneer,
Cheap-jack, balloon-man, drover with crooked stick, and steer,
Pig, turkey, goose, and duck, Christmas corpses to be.
Not even the kneeling ox had eyes like the Romany.
That night he peopled for me the hollow wooded land,
More dark and wild than stormiest heavens, that I searched and scanned
Like a ghost new-arrived. The gradations of the dark
Were like an underworld of death, but for the spark
In the Gypsy boy’s black eyes as he played and stamped his tune,
“Over the hills and far away,” and a crescent moon.

* sovereign = british coin because they had the face of the king on the coin, therefore, ‘sovereign’.

 Edward Thomas, 1918

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