Romanian Gypsies

By Peter van Beek

A mix of old and new technology.  Horse power on modern running gear.  Photo by Peter van Beek.  Click the image to view the photo album.

Peter van Beek has documented the difficult life of nomads in a modernizing Europe.  Fear, stereotypes, and unfamiliarity dominate their way of life and place them into a partially self-imposed, marginalized portion of society.  Although there is terrible poverty, he documents family life and survival of these remarkable people.

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Simple shelter as used by our ancestors since the beginning of time.

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It isn’t easy being a nomad in a modern technological world. There is easy place for this lifestyle.

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The world has changed but many traditions have not.

 

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There are certainly exceptions to nomadism. Many Romany cling to their traditions and morph them into a new lifestyle. All of our people have done this.

But it isn’t all oppressive poverty “By collecting and selling iron they get very rich and build their own village with huge palaces where they started living.”  While settling down, the community keeps it’s own unique sense of style.

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Hard work and some flexibility can make assimilation slightly easier.

Palace

Ethnic identity shows in this vernacular style.

Kalderash

Beautiful young women with a foot in both worlds.

“Many Kaldarash people (the coppersmiths) still wear colorful clothes, living in a beautiful traditional way.  In some villages, time seems to stand still.”

From Peter van Beek’s website:

“The only nomadic gypsies in Europe live in Romania, the country that joined the European Union in 2007. Living a hard life in Romania these semi-nomadic people hold on to traditions and rituals. Amongst them are story-and fortunetellers, musicians and coppersmiths. Despite a law against nomadic life these gypsies still live in their harsh and remarkable way.”

Images found at Peter Van Beek Photography.  Check out his beautiful work and consider buying his book about the Roma:

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Campsite Life

Scenes of life on the road and around the campsites.

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October 1951: Mrs Robert Matthew, an MP’s wife, campaigning at a gypsy encampment.

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Kids at the campsite.

landing

A classic image of Traveller children.

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Modern gypsies (Romany) in their simple accommodation.

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I really love these little bender tents.

Family Life

A fine caravan for a successful traveller.

This is part of a series of images, mostly Romany, Irish, and Scottish Travellers collected from around the internet.  Many of these historic images found on the web are without citation.  When a clear link to a source is found, I try to include it.  If a source is known, please pass it on and I will gladly include it or remove it if necessary.

Scottish Highland Travellers…

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Perthshire.

I really love these family photos generally taken in front of the wagon.

Scottish Travellers is a loose term that covers many diverse peoples in Scotland and even beyond.  Here, I’m primarily looking at the indigenous folk who seem to be descend from an in situ population of itinerant craftsmen and laborers.

Edited from Wikipedia:

Scottish Travellers, or the people termed loosely Gypsies and Tinkers in Scotland, consist of a number of diverse, unrelated communities, with groups speaking a variety of different languages and holding to distinct customs, histories, and traditions. There are three distinct communities that identify themselves as Gypsies or Travellers in Scotland: Indigenous Highland Travellers; Funfair Travellers, or Showmen; Romanichals (a subgroup of the Romani people) and Lowland Gypsies.

Indigenous Highland Travellers – In Scottish Gaelic they are known as the “Ceàrdannan” (the Craftsmen), or less controversially, “luchd siubhail” (people of travel) for travellers in general. Poetically known as the “Summer Walkers”, Highland Travellers are a distinct ethnic group and may be referred to as “traivellers”, “traivellin fowk'”, in Scots, “tinkers”, originating from the Gaelic “tinceard” or (tinsmith) or “Black Tinkers”.  Mistakenly, the settled Scottish population may call all travelling and Romani groups tinkers, which is usually regarded as pejorative, and contemptuously as “tinks” or “tinkies”. Highland Travellers are closely tied to the native Highlands, and many traveller families carry clan names like Macfie, Stewart, MacDonald, Cameron, Williamson, and Macmillan. They follow a nomadic or settled lifestyle; passing from village to village and are more strongly identified with the native Gaelic speaking population. Continuing their nomadic life, they would pitch their bow-tents on rough ground on the edge of the village and earn money there as tinsmiths, hawkers, horse dealers or pearlfishermen. Many found seasonal employment on farms, e.g. at the berry picking or during harvest.  Since the 1950s, however, the majority of Highland Travellers have settled down into organized campsites or regular houses.

Origins and customs
The Highland Traveller community has a long history in Scotland going back, at least in record, to the 12th century as a form of employment and one of the first records of that name states a “James the Tinker” held land in the town of Perth from 1165-1214 and share a similar heritage, although are distinct from the Irish Travellers.  As with their Irish counterparts, there are several theories regarding the origin of Scottish Highland travellers, one being they are descended from the Picts, excommunicated clergy, or exiles from the pre-Norman-Invasion.  Highland travellers are distinct both culturally and linguistically from other Gypsy groups like the Romani, including the Romanichal, Lowland Scottish Travellers, Eastern European Romani, and Welsh Kale groups. Several other Continental European groups are related to the Scottish Highland Travellers, and share similarities to other non-Romany groups across Europe, namely the Yeniches, Woonwagenbewoners in Holland, and Landfahrer in Germany. As with Norwegian and Swedish Travellers, Highland travellers origins may be more complex and difficult to ascertain and left no written records of their own. As an indigenous group Highland Travellers have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture.  Travellers’ outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance. It is estimated that only 2,000 Scottish travellers continue to lead their traditional lifestyle on the roads.

Tents and the Vardo Life; What is a Bender?

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The bender tent provides shelter from the damp while keeping the living space outdoors.

Travellers in Europe and Britain have always been associated with a style tent called a bender.  This comes from the construction technique of cutting saplings and bending them into a dome, elongated dome, or half cylinder shape,  These frameworks were then covered with tarps and made watertight in the temperate damp.  The origins of this design are lost in the mists of time and are believed by archaeologists to be one of the earliest style of recognizable tent structure used by humans.

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This size bender can more than double the living space of a vardo in a matter of minutes.

Even after a certain level of affluence allowed some Romany and other Travelling folk to own living wagons, the bender continued (and continues) to be a way to extend the living space without the need for a lot more gear.

In England, Gypsy women often used their homes for fortune-telling, especially around the Gadjo (non-Gypsy) vacation centers. Image, early 20th century. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

The fact that a tent becomes the subject for a Blackpool post card shows the ongoing fascination with “Gypsy Culture,” especially in the British Isles where Travellers are simultaneously suspect and romanticized.

Fortune Teller

The front or vestibule provides a place to do business in relative privacy. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

If you have family that me be Romany, Traveller, or Fairground folk in Britain or just want to learn more, check out the Romany & Traveller Family History Society at http://rtfhs.org.uk/.

Community of Wanderers

Nomads are not loners.  In fact, humans do not do well alone in any setting.  We have always been communal people, depending upon one another for help and support.  Many hands make light work and it is essential to be near others you can depend on.

1930sI have been collecting images of Traveller communities for many years and I really enjoy the gritty, homespun feel of the old encampments with peeling paint and makeshift tarpaulin shelters.  I’m sure this image was not welcome in settled communities around Europe and the shiftless nature of these wanderers led to many suspicions, both unfounded and real.

4203n Woonwagenkamp, een draaiorgel komt langsThese are not the rolling home of the wealthy showmen of idle rich but the best compromise for families destined to live on the road.

FamilyVardoThe vardos bear many differences but within fairly tight physical contraints of size, weight, needs, and technology.  It’s important to remember as well that historic travellers of most varieties didn’t design or build their own accommodations but often modified or improved that which they acquired.

Dutch1940Even though they show few relevant details of the caravans themselves these are some of my favorite images; they give us a glimpse of the people who called them home.

Although Traveller families lived (and live) on the margins of “normal” society they were (are) more like their neighbors than not.

I hope you enjoy the photos as we head into the season of Thanksgiving here in North America and give thanks for what we have.

We are at our best and worst in groups, whether that is family or friends.  Humans are social animals.

Romani in Switzerland ca. 1890?

As usual with internet information, captions and data are suspect at best.  However, this is a great image of Romani on the road so let’s just go with it.  At first glance, it looks almost like a scene from the American west in the 19th century.  It reminds me of early sheep camp images from New Mexico.  I like the stove set up.

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Romani in Switzerland ca. 1890?

Another Look

Here’s another look at an image I posted quite a while ago.  I really like this photo.  These Scottish Travellers give a glimpse of some less-than-stereotypical living waggons (sic).  Very few wanderers could afford the classic Dunton Reading wagon but made do with more affordable accommodations; possibly even owner-built.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. Click image for link.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. Click HERE for the source.

All three of the caravans pictured have mollycrofts for light and air but are of a pretty simple variety.  I am struck by the one on the right mostly by how plain it is (plank siding without exposed ribs) and it’s very small proportions.  I suspect there were many more of this variety than the elite, custom-built wagons on the roads in Britain in the heyday.

Home is Where the Hearth Is

…and the Vardo Will be Close by.

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Somebody hates to be left out.

Some important facts about caravan living before the ultra-modern RVs came along that may help people understand some of the choices I have made about my own wagon:

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At the most basic level, life revolves around food and shelter.

  • The caravan is the hub around which camp is built, but most “living” actually takes place outside in the wide world.  Sometimes this means tents or other temporary structures provide added protection from the elements.  Prior to the second world war, caravan Travellers in Europe often slept outdoors, under the caravan when necessary while the kids were corralled inside.  This makes a lot a sense as adults stay up later, and kids can wander off.
  • Cooking is done outdoors, over a fire.  The stove, when there is one, is for heat and drying.  The hearth is the focus of family life, just as it has been for a million years.  That is where people congregate, music and stories happen there, and it is provides comfort and cheer.

Hearth and home has a real meaning.

  • There is no water closet or toilet inside the caravan.  That is considered by connoisseurs to be repugnant in such a small space.  Needing to defecate in such a small space is a modern, and to some, a filthy idea.  However, this is one of the most common criticisms I hear about mine or other traditional wagons; seemingly from folks with little travel or camping experience.
J. Lequesca's sheep graze in Jordan Valley, Oregon.

J. Lequesca’s sheep graze in Jordan Valley, Oregon.

  • A consistent anthropological observation about nomads is the strict rules of hygiene and cleanliness.  Working and wandering outdoors can be a dirty business so strict rules are adhered to.  Some of these reach the level of taboos and can be traced back over at least a thousand years.  Living on the road can make one appreciate this need.Family

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    A happy family from the road.

  • The fancy wagons of 19th century Britain are the exception, not the rule.  Functional but sometimes homely carts and wagons have likely served as the home base for nomads of various types since 500 B.C. or before.  They came to their peak of perfection in Britain in the 19th century before morphing into the RVs we see today.
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A Traveller in southwest England. This simple accommodation is much cheaper and more readily built from cheap or found materials than the fancy production models.

Then as today, a conscientious traveller uses a fire pan to prevent scorching the earth by the roadside.  Mine is an old plow disk.

And finally, above are a few examples of outside extensions added to late 19th century caravans across Britain exhibiting the functionality of canvas to extend the living space in less-than-perfect weather.

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You never quite know where the day might end.

 

Bender Tent

A Traveller’s (sic) Tuesday.  Just a glimpse into life in a bender tent.  Despite the glamorous view of life on the road depicted by the romantic English Gypsy Caravans, this is how most Roma lived in 19th Century Britain.

Ralph_Headley_CharltonGypsies, Camped on the Beach, near South Shields, Ralph Hedley Charlton, painted 1876.