Gypsy (Romani) Encounters, 1929, by Walter Starkie

Today the word “Roma” is preferred to “Gypsy”, which is often considered to have negative connotations, but no such distinctions were current in 1929 when the following excerpts were published. For more on Gypsy vs. Roma, click

Walter Starkie

Wikipedia says Walter Starkie (1894-1976) “was was an Irish scholar, Hispanist, author and musician.Known as a translator of Spanish literature, and as a leading authority on the Romani people (Gypsies). He spoke the Romani language fluently….He was the President of the Gypsy Lore Society from 1962 to 1973.” He was a first-rate classicist, linguist, theatre director and violinist. “His violin teacher was….a master who had been taught by Camillo Sivori, the only pupil of Niccolo Paganini.

In Italy, [1919, while playing for British troops – DB], he befriended five Hungarian Gypsy prisoners of war. pp 3-4: “…after a few minutes the spokesman asked me if I could do them a favour….they belonged to the musician class of Romanies. Could I….give them some pieces of wood –any old Woodbine cigarette packing cases would do?…’we shall make violins out of them and then bashavav.’ We are Hungarian Gypsies dying for want of music, and our blood runs cold for lack of a lassu and a friss to make us dream of the Puszta.”

Puszta — Hungarian prairie.

“Then I remembered that among Gypsies the word bashavav, to play the fiddle, has a magic connotation, for it means the dance of life, the expression of the slow, sad lassu and the quick, rhythmic friss that lead to the wild csárdás.”

Sáta/Ózd Hungarian Gypsy band. lassu, friss, csárdás.
Found here:

“A Hungarian Gypsy prisoner will die of melancholy in gaol unless he is given wood to make himself a fiddle. I gave them the wood and took leave of them…Ten days later….I went to see the five Gypsies, and to my surprise I found out they had fashioned violins and bows, and they were playing away like demons. So contagious was their music that the stolid British soldiers became infected with Gypsy rhythms and began to dance like Dervishes. In the end the colonel had to give orders to use the Gypsy players as a dance orchestra.”

The Invitation

pp 4-5: “In the intervals of feverish fiddling they would say to me: ‘Why don’t you come to Hungary, the country of Mulatni*? You are a violinist and every door will be open to you once you play a Magyar tune. No need for you, Signore, to bring money or food: you can wander over the length and breadth of the Puszta, living on music alone.’ “

*For a definition of Mulatni, see pp. 12-14, Balaton, Hungary. Karoly Arpád

To one of them, Farkas, he became a blood brother and he swore that he would someday visit Farkas in Hungary and mix with the Gypsy’s tribe. That oath would affect the course of his life.

“Then one who came from Transylvania said to me: ‘You must come to Transylvania, land of mountains and forests, where the fiddle originated. We Gypsies from Koloszvár know the secrets of the violin and how it came into the world.'”

The Story of the Violin’s Birth”

pp 5-6: “The story is told in Transylvania, where every Gypsy believes the violin has a miraculous origin. Once upon a time there lived in one of the villages of Transylvania a girl whom all the peasants thought bewitched because no man would ask her in marriage in spite of her great beauty and rich dowry. She herself was in love with a farmer, but he would never cast a look her way, though she sighed for him from noon to eve. At last, finding all her efforts fruitless, she prayed to the Devil, and he said he would give her a magic instrument which would bring the man to her feet. ‘But, first of all,’ said he, ‘you must give me your father, your mother, and your four brothers.’ The girl was bewitched, as I said before, and she gave them all up without a murmur. Then the Devil out of the body of the father made an instrument, and out of the white hair of the mother’s head he fashioned the bow, and out of the four brothers he made the strings and strung them across the fiddle. ‘Now off with you’, said he, and play that fiddle into yon youth’s ear and he’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.’

“When the girl played, the young man followed her with his eyes set on her as in a trance. And she took his arm and both were wending their way home full of joy when suddenly the Devil appeared in their path and said: ‘Now is the time for me to collect my dues: both of you have listened to the Devil’s music and you must come off with me to Hell.’ And off they went. As for the violin, it lay on the ground in the forest until a ragged Gypsy happened to pass their way, and he found it. And he, stranger, is playing it yet through the world, and because it is the Devil’s instrument men and women go daft when they hear it, and the Gypsy alone knows its secret.”

Raggle Taggle

In 1929, Starkie decided to take a break from teaching at Trinity College and directing the Abbey Theatre, both in Dublin, to visit his blood brother in Hungary, and roam the countryside as a vagabond, living among the peasants on what money he could earn with his fiddle....”He published (1933) accounts of his experiences following the trail of the Gypsies in Raggle Taggle, subtitled “Adventures with a fiddle in Hungary and Roumania”….His observations of Gypsy life, while more anecdotal than scholarly, provide insights into these nomadic people….

Encounters in Hungary

Balaton, Hungary. Karoly Arpád.

pp 12-14: “You know, my dear brother,” said Karoly the Gypsy to me, “there is a word in Hungarian called mulatni which means to enjoy oneself with Gypsies; this evening you will have some mulatni to make your sluggish northern blood run faster.” We were seated in the shade of a cafe garden in the little town of Siófok. A few yards away stretched the blue waters of Lake Balaton glittering here and there under the fierce August sun….The cool waters were an oasis to the footsore traveler. Lake Balaton is called the Hungarian Sea and the Magyar feels immensely proud of its broad expanse….At the town of Siófok I determined to to halt and rest for a day or two. And so later in the evening I found myself seated with my Gypsy friend Karoly Arpád, the leader or Primás of the Gypsy orchestra in the open-air cafe.

It is the largest lake in Central Europe, and one of the region’s foremost tourist destinations.

Karoly Arpád is one of the well-known Gypsy violinists of Hungary and has played in Paris and in London. In the winter months he plays in a big restaurant in the town of Szeged, but in the summer months he migrates with his band to the numerous little watering-places studded on the shores of Lake Balaton. With Arpád were six other Gypsies all of very different type but universally swarthy in complexion: One came from Odessa and had the high cheek-bones of the Mongolian; another came from Jugo-Slavia, but the most interesting among them was a Roumanian Gypsy cellist called Zsiska.

Zsiska, who was even swarthier than the rest, fascinated me by his mobile expression; his skin was of that beautiful copper colour that we see among negroes: his teeth were brilliantly white and his hair was black and curly….He had spent all his money on beautifying himself and he had the most roving eye I had ever seen. Not a girl would pass by but he would preen himself and strut about like Chanticleer. When playing his ‘cello in the band he would lard on the expression and cast such languishing glances at some fair-haired maiden sitting at a table with her mamma, that the girl would blush and try to conceal her confusion from her strict parent.

In the cool of the evening I went bathing with Zsiska, but it was an embarrassing experience for me. When I go down to the strand I go for the purpose of bathing and swimming; not so Zsiska. For him bathing was an excuse for flirtation and legitimate promiscuity with the opposite sex. The atmosphere for him was charged with the mystery of woman’s presence, hand pressing, whispered temptations, appointments for the night hours, promises of sensual joys to come…”

A Vagabond in Budapest

pp 50-55: “…I went….to the open-air restaurant– a rough but characteristic centre for this poor district. It consisted of a courtyard half-roofed over and half under thick trailing vines. At the back of the vine pergola was a small stage for the Gypsy orchestra, which was also roofed over….the Gypsy band…began their performance. It was not a royal orchestra, for it only consisted of fiddle, drum, and piano. The violinist was a melancholy-looking Gypsy with pale face and black tousled hair. As soon as he saw me he started to play to me as the stranger. His colleague who played the drums was a singer and when he sang, for some unaccountable reason, he would put on a tall hat…at the end of each series of songs he would pass it around to be filled with money by the public.”

“After he played to me I took out my violin and started to play some Russian melodies, such as the well-known ‘Red Sarafan.’ As soon as I started he said to me ‘Oh my wife, she is a Russian. You must play them for her.’ He then persuaded me to go up on the stage and play with his companions. At the end of every piece he would demand beer, and the waiter would bring it and they filled my glass, and I was amazed at their lordly liberality.

“At the end of the evening, however, the waiter handed me the entire bill and I realized I had been the host. It was my last financial show, for not a penny did it leave me to get back to my room, which was miles away on the other side of the city.”

The Gypsy violinist, however, had a proposition. He wanted me to meet his wife and play the Russian melodies for her, and I would go back to his rooms, and he would give me a bed. Feeling weary I accepted his invitation and we set out for his home, which was in a courtyard near near the house of my friends, the mother and her daughter, whom we accompanied to their door.

When we arrived at the Gypsy’s house there were no lights in the rooms and he cursed roundly, saying that his wife must have gone out. She was, however asleep on the bed, and her husband, when he found her, awoke her brutally and introduced her to me.

She was a most striking looking woman. She was dark-skinned with beautiful features and with a certain harmony in her lithe body. Her face was oval-shaped and her eyes were deeply set. In her movements she was a panther, and every action was brusque as though she had always been driven since childhood to seize an impulse. In her relations with her husband she was surprisingly submissive, for he seemed to take malicious pleasure in brutalizing her. He would continually taunt her, and she would maintain a dogged silence for a time and then suddenly her eyes would blaze and she would rap out viperish words at him.

To me she was courteous and gentle, and she conversed in queer broken French which was very charming to hear from her gutteral, low voice. She came from the south of Russia, near Kiev, and was a dancing-girl. As she spoke tears began to trickle down her cheeks and almost unconsciously she began to sing Russian Gypsy songs in a plaintive voice that had enough metallic quality in it to remind me of the eternal chanting Gypsy.

The room was dark and the one candle with its fitful light deepened the shadows around the girl as she sang. It is curious how emotion gathers force and momentum out of itself. The girl began in a low voice, but gradually she increased its volume as she became more and more transported by the music….

Her husband seized his violin and started to play a mad gopak and the girl then followed the movements faster and faster. She was now a completely transformed woman, and there was an air of fierceness about her, which riled her husband, for he suddenly stopped playing and began taunting her again. As soon as the music stopped she resumed her mask of indifference.

Soon afterwards they went to bed in an adjoining room and let me curl up for the night on a sofa in a corner….All of a sudden I awoke and found myself standing on a cold floor. Where was I? All was dark around me….I hit my foot against a chair, which rattled on the floor.

There was a shout from the other side of the room and a pair of iron hands seized me by the neck….Being a sufferer from somnambulism I had walked in my sleep into my host’s bedroom….the Gypsy would accept no explanation: he cursed me and and vowed I had stolen into the room to seize his wife while her husband was asleep….Soon there was pandemonium….Throngs of people came in to see what kind of murder had been committed….At last an idea came into my mind. I took up a violin that was on the table and handed it to the enraged Gypsy. At first he turned on me in a fury, but then suddenly something seemed to break within him and he started to play on the instrument. Then everything calmed down to normal: The Russian girl covered herself with a sheet, for she was all but nude; the murmuring neighbours began to sing and the hectic night finished in tranquil serenity.”

Budapest’s Island of Joy; Magyari Imre

pp 56 – 59: “In the Danube at Budapest there is an island full of wooded glades, where the population of the city loves to disport itself. As you approach it in a little boat you hear the discordant sounds of countless jazz orchestras, the lilt of Viennese waltzes, the chatter and shouts of countless trippers. This is Margaret’s Island, the Coney Island of the Magyars, a miniature and refined Coney Island with beautiful promenades through woods to mitigate the promiscuity of cafés, restaurants, bath-houses, slot machines, and bars….

After a time I came to a restaurant with tables set out invitingly under trees, near flower beds and flashing fountains. This was the celebrated Marcus restaurant, the best in Budapest. It is here that Magyari Imre, a Gypsy Violin King, performs every evening, to hosts of admirers. Magyari Imre is a name to conjure with in Hungary, for he belongs to a famous old family of Gypsy minstrels. He is known all over Europe, and nobody visits Budapest without going to hear him play. He can tell you all the international gossip of the day: whether there is going to be a revolt in Yugo-Slavia, or a change of government in Germany, or a financial crisis in Wall Street. People still tell you in Budapest of the scenes that took place when his father died: How the streets of Debrecen were crowded with pilgrims from all Hungary who came to play in the funeral procession….

Magyari Imre is a strange-looking person. He is enormously fat and carries his enormous bulk on puny legs. His face is pale and dark like the typical Gypsy, and his bright eyes pierce through the enveloping masses of fat as though they were gimlets. As he plays he walks along the balcony, and during a pause on a note he conducts a conversation here and there with habitués of the restaurant. Sometimes he walks far away from his accompanying orchestra, then one by one they creep up silently behind him to support the harmony. No restaurant player in Hungary is the equal with Magyari Imre for brilliance and style. His rapidity of execution is remarkable for one so weighed down with adipose tissue, and as a player he is as vigorous as a young steed racing over the plains without the slightest trace of effort. After finishing some hair-raising csárdás he sat beside me mopping his brow, rising up every instant to acknowledge the storm of plaudits from the crowds seated on the verandah, or in the illuminated garden beneath….Outwardly, he is a fat, prosperous bourgeois, who plays in the smartest restaurant of Budapest at a large salary and drives home at night in a sedan car to his luxurious villa. I can imagine that villa. It would be furnished in the most conventional style, as though the little man had taken the greatest pains to banish anything which would recall the exotic tradition of the Tzigan. I am sure that Magyari Imre is proud of the transformation that has taken place in so many of the Hungarian Gypsies who have become settled citizens of the country. He feels no mania for wandering through the world from Transylvania to Timbuctoo. “Only the third-class Gypsy players go abroad.” he said to me; “it is a confession of their weakness: when they cannot find an audience in Hungary, they go to London. I have gone abroad to Paris and to London, but only for a short engagement, and I was always eager to return here, to Margaret’s Island, where the great old Gypsy King, Bihari, used to perform.”

….When I asked him about nomadic Gypsies who wander about the country, he seemed to be slightly offended. “No greater insult could be given to one of the musician Gypsies than to confuse them with one of the nomadic tribes which infest the country. As for the Romany language, it is only spoken by the wanderers and generally not understood by the civilized Gypsies. I myself understand a little, but my knowledge, such as it is, was picked up from some tramps in my home town of Debrecen.”

He went on to tell me of his education at the Conservatorium, but he admitted that among Gypsies, however trained they must be in Western music, the great inspiration of their lives is the bulk of traditional Gypsy airs, handed down from father to son. “When the child can walk,” he said, “the father puts a tiny fiddle in his hand and makes him mimic the players in the orchestra, for there is a great mass of unwritten music which is played by the Gypsy violinists, and among them there are many that are never played except among Gypsies themselves.” I was surprised to find that he was less chauvinistic than the other Gypsies when he agreed with me that they had created very little music. “I agree” he said “with Bela Bartok when he says that the Gypsy transforms and even deforms Maygar music, but I hold that today there would be no Hungarian music at all if the Gypsies had not for hundreds of years preserved it by their playing. And is it not obvious that in the course of time melodies should change in accordance with the idiosyncrasies of each player?”…….

The Funeral of a Gypsy Primás

pp 138 – 142: “Old Racz had been for many years a respected Primás or leader of a gypsy orchestra on the Hungarian Puszta, and few of the villages that lie on the roads between Debrecen and Mezökövesd failed to welcome the visits of the strange little old man with the fiddle in the canvas bag. No rollicking fair was alive without the music of Racz, and the girls would wait on their doorstep, aye, or else follow him up the streets when he would appear with his ragged band.

Puszta, in green

But for weeks old Racz had been very sick, and it was heartrending to watch him trying to coax a tune out of the fiddle when he hardly had the strength to lift his bow. He would sit outside of his small house shivering and not a word could I get from him except—“I am dying, I am dying,” which he would say time after time. One morning when I arrived at the house I heard from afar a confused wail that rose and fell like the moan of a storm. When I entered I found chaos: the daughters were lying on the ground shrieking their woe and tearing their hair. The men members of the family were standing by in a corner in a silent group: each of them had a glass in his hand and they were drinking reci or brandy. In a corner on the bed lay a figure, whose features seemed to be carved in white marble, and at his head were two candles whose sputtering light threw strange tessellated shadows across the coverlet. So this was a “wake,” in honour of the dead, and my mind involuntarily went back to former days in the West of Ireland when I had heard the women “keen” the corpse of an old peasant I had known. In Hungary among the Gypsies, grief was more unrestrained than it was in Ireland: the women would start up and apostrophize the corpse, crying out “Why did you leave us? Why did Death carry you away, when you should have been our protection?” Then came a pause as if the women were waiting for the corpse to answer. When no answer came, then the shrieks of anguish would commence again. One woman in the corner began to sing in a hallucinated voice a wild song of Death and then everyone listened together in silence. The scene had recalled another one I had seen in Sardinia, in the house of a peasant, when the mourners became so excited that they translated their grief into rhythm and danced around the corpse madly for a certain time. Then when the dance finished the lamentations ceased. On this occasion in Hungary the exit of Death was more impressive. The son of the old man asked me to go to the funeral next day, and punctually I arrived at the house carrying with me my violin, for so I had been ordered.

What was my surprise to find a great crowd gathered outside. All the Gypsy musicians of the town and the surrounding villages were carrying their instruments: here I saw violinists of every description—some with beautiful fiddles with white bows tipped with silver: others from the humble hamlets with ragged, weather-beaten instruments whose varnish had been worn off, and with bows of rough, black horsehair. There were violincellists carrying on their backs their heavy instruments, looking like snails with their houses on their backs. I saw cimbalom players, flautists, trombones, clarinettists, bagpipers, and all the rest of the motley crew. The day was grey and threatening as though the sky wished to point the moral of death.

Suddenly the procession started off from the house, and following the hearse came the long trail of musicians, At the head was the son with his fiddle.

As if by sudden accord the music started. It was a passionately sad lassu that I had often heard played by Magyari Imre at Budapest. Everyone joined in the performance as they walked slowly in the procession. The fiddles went in line, then the violincellos, which were fixed in some way by straps to the necks of their players. Slowly the procession wended its way through the town and dense crowds stood silently by to let us pass. The chief mourner, at the head of the procession, gave the lead to all the rest and the melodies that were played were those that the old man had always preferred.

As I walked along I could not believe I was in twentieth century Europe in the age of motor cars, aeroplanes, and sky-scrapers. Here was a scene that brought me back to the Middle Ages when the Troubadours and Jongleurs flourished. I had seen a similar scene in Ireland once when all the pipers piped the body of Arthur Darley–the noblest of Irish fiddlers–to its last resting-place. Here was a far nobler conception than our funerals, where respectable Death is squalid and intolerably shoddy. The musicians by paying such a dignified tribute to one of their number gave glory to the noble calling of the Hungarian Gypsy minstrel who preserves for the peasant the latter’s own Magyar music.

On moved the funeral through the maze of streets yet the music never ceased. Sometimes the procession seemed to lag as though worn out by its sad thoughts; the pauses in the music then held all in suspense and involuntarily I would cease breathing; then at other moments when the violins quickened their pace the men would press forward under the impetus of the rhythm. As we approached the churchyard the harmony redoubled. I could see that some of the players were nearly fainting with exhaustion, especially the ‘cello players with their ungainly instruments, but not once did they slacken their efforts: they gripped their strings with their bows, wiping away now and then drops of perspiration that rolled down their streaming faces. At the graveside everyone stood around the grave and within the circle stood the son of the dead man. As the men lowered the coffin into the grave he played the last lament over his father. He was a slight young man, sallow-complexioned and with tousled black hair. So possessed was he by his sorrow that as he played the lassu he swayed his body, and I saw the tears trickle down his violin. At one moment, in the paroxysm of sorrow that seemed to pass all bounds as he found expression in his music, I thought he was going to toss himself, fiddle and all, into the open grave. The music surged in a great ocean of harmony and the vibrating note of the solo fiddle resembled a candle in the wind, blowing this way and that. Sometimes the surging waves of music swayed this way, threatening to engulf us all in its flood, then it would recede and pause in its course. The solo violinist, however, did not pause for long: on he would dash again with restless short bow strokes and repeat for the hundredth time the theme, as though he wished to burn it into our hearts. Why should this lassu ever end? Grief increases by its own luxuriance, and when there are no limiting words, music leads us into a world where there is no end and our spirits wander unfettered.

“And now you can understand,” said the dead man’s son to me s we walked back from the graveyard, “why we Gypsies worship Death, and why our most solemn oath is ‘Ap i mulende’ or ‘By Death.’ “

Encounters in Romania

Two Gypsy Girls

pp 185 – 187 [In Huedin] “I stumbled against two strange girls who were resting in the shadow of the hotel. They were both barefoot and in rags: indeed it would not be incorrect to say they were all but naked, for the rags they wore displayed more of their forms than they concealed. They were both as dark as mahogany, and one of them had thick lips like a negress. At first they were shy and sullen when I spoke to them and they tried to slink away. However as soon as I gave them a few coins they became lively and irresponsible Gypsy girls ready for any mischief. They had come to Huedin from a small village near Almás and were trying to do some begging or stealing at the fair so as to bring something back to their own tribe.

It is curious what contrast those Gypsy girls present to the peasant girl of the country: the latter is invariably subdued and modest even to excess in the presence of strangers. Unless she is with girls of her own age she does not raise her voice: not so with those Gypsy girls; they were full of boisterous, animal spirits. They skipped about the street, they climbed up lamp posts, they chased one another like cats, they used to come up to me and look at me in a strange quizzical way and then burst out into loud laughter. They were not beautiful and I am sure Cervantes would have hesitated to call either of them his Gypsy maiden, but they were as gay as crickets and their laughter was contagious. As for female modesty, there was not a sign of it; the younger one felt some insect pricking her, so she lifted her rags and scratched her groin unconcernedly — a few minutes later she showed me a mark on her left nipple, where she said she had been bitten. I found that certain words of the Gypsy language were familiar to them, such as bashavav, mol, and especially lubnyi. As far as I could infer, both of them considered that to be a lubnyi, or whore, was the most satisfactory occupation for one of their sex. It was difficult to know what to do for their entertainment. They were so ragged and so nomadic in their appearance that I feared they might make me too conspicuous in the “Tigris” Hotel, [where he was staying – DB] which does not cater exclusively to Gypsies; besides, one never knew what might happen if those Gypsy girls got into the rhythmic exaltation of drunkenness; so I brought them to one of the booths where trinkets and cheap brooches were for sale and asked them to choose.

Nothing could have raised their spirits so high. With shouts of glee they fingered the tray full of rings and bracelets: they slipped one after another on their fingers; they fastened brooches on their smocks, and I felt it would be necessary to buy up the whole shop for them. Finally I asserted my will and paid for two rings and two brooches. The woman who owned the booth did not see the humour of the situation and looked most reprovingly at me as I walked off with my two companions. She had kept an eagle eye fixed on those Mercurial maidens, for fear some of her rings might be spirited away.

Sure enough, hardly had we reached the end of the street, when the younger one, with a smirk, pulled out three rings, four brooches, and a bangle from between her breasts. I was amazed at such skill in stealing a pastesas, or with the fingers, for I had been particularly careful to watch their nimble fingers as they fondled the trinkets and had not seen anything suspicious. I must have looked perplexed, for they both laughed uproariously and danced around me. The more I looked at them, the more they began to take shape in my mind as goblins. If I saw them under the light of the moon I should shiver with fear to be near them, for I am sure they would be followed by a Vila or fairy playing on the flute. Even their grotesque ugliness fascinated me, for it seemed to bring them close to the earth. They must have come from the fastnesses of the Transylvanian mountains where we meet the Oameni micuti, the little men who blow their horns in the distant realms of elfland, or else from that hollow where the Devil holds his school and teaches magic to the ten scholars. Civilization had not produced any effect on those two strays: they could not write or read, life to them was simply a nomadic existence: here today, there tomorrow. “Where the sun is shining let us play merrily without a thought of the morrow; as for food, the Lord will provide from the superabundance of the rich; as for drink, are there not myriads of springs of fresh water in Transylvania? And occasionally a charitable busnó who may give us wine or buy us dainties.” But when the winter comes then will life bear down upon them like an avenging host, for their hovels and underground dens will not give heat to their wasted bodies.

Cervantes was right when he said that Gypsies were the kings of the fields and prairies, forest, mountains, springs and rivers; for their steeled limbs the hard ground is as soft as eider down and their rude skin is like a cloak of defense or a coat of armour. But he forgot the winter when the Gypsy perforce has to cease his roving and shut himself up in his hovel.”

Among the Gypsies of Cluj

pp 218 – 220 “In the morning down one side of the square we discover a fruit and flower market full of life and colour. Such chattering of women I have never heard; every one of the sellers was a Gypsy, and a study worthy of Jacques Callot. Some of them were as ugly as sin, with screwed-up wrinkled faces, but there was always the merry sparkling eye to beckon you on. One great fat Gypsy woman called Rosa fascinated me by her size. She was selling some fruit to some ladies and at the same time arguing violently with a group of street arabs who were standing by. After buying some flowers from her and saying a few words of Romany she became very talkative. She told me that she and some of her sisters worked in the market place, and the rest of the family were wooden-spoon makers living on the outskirts of the city in a place called the “Street of the Spoons.” In Cluj there are two groups of Gypsies–the musicians, who are exclusive and live together, and the humble working Gypsies, who are not far removed from nomads. She also told me that one of the commonest professions for Gypsy women here was to be a mason. “Two of my sisters are masons,” she said, “and you should see them carry the weights on their shoulders.” Before I left her she made me promise that I would go to visit the “Street of Spoons” and hear her mother tell my fortune: “She is a gule romni and you will hear wonderful stories from her.”

Later on in the day I visited some of the hovels inhabited by the Gypsy artisans who lived in another part of the city. It was sundown and all the families were at home; as we approached we were greeted by a chorus of screaming children and barking dogs. A crowd of about thirty gathered around me and began asking embarrassing questions in Roumanian and Hungarian. When I spoke Romany, some of the girls came up and started to make obscene jokes in the real Gypsy manner. I heard as in a haze all the words such as lubnyi, minch and car with their usual embellishments. “Come here, pretty gentleman,” said a rollicking girl, “I want to put my arms around you and sleep the whole night with you.” “Nay, girl,” replied another, “he would not let you sleep; look at his eyes: he’s as fresh as a young bull.” They all gave me the impression of being irresponsible children of the earth. Near them was a group of men playing cards and I determined to take a photograph. As soon as the women saw me take out a camera there was a shout of glee and many tried to get into the picture.

The effect was very different on the card-players: two of them cursed roundly and turned their backs. One of them suddenly jumped up and rushed at me. Before I could get out of the way he had struck me a resounding blow on the side of the head. Though I was taken by surprise I immediately grappled with the furious fellow, who seemed to be posessed by a hundred devils. Luckily his companion in a twinkle of an eye caught him by both arms and held him back, otherwise I should have had a bad time, for wrestling with infuriated Gypsies is not my profession. I again remembered the words of advise given to me by the Gypsy connoisseur– “No matter what insults the Gypsy inflicts upon you, never answer back: if they hit you, turn the other cheek.” The friends of my aggressor apologized to me and explained that he had been losing at cards and my arrival with the camera had seemed to him to bring bad luck. “You know” they said “that instrument has the evil eye.” To show that there was no ill feeling, I asked the men and some of the women to have a drink of palinka in a tavern nearby. Instead of rough looks there were only smiles and, as usual, the Bacchanalian element soon dominated every other emotion.”

The “Street of the Spoons”, Cluj

pp 241 – 247: “One morning as I was strolling through the flower-market in Cluj, the monumental Rosa seized me by the arm and shouted in my ear “Come on, sir, you must come and visit us in the ‘Street of the Spoons’: we’re going to have a marriage and you’re invited.” I accepted the invitation with alacrity, and then Rosa in her usual voice loosened the floodgates of bantering obscenity, and her mountainous breast heaved with merriment as I attempted to parry her witty epigrams, and she twisted herself into grotesque shapes as the tears of laughter streamed down her puffy red face. Some other Gypsies came up and joined the group of laughter, holding up both its sides. All of them repeated Rosa’s invitation and informed me that a Gypsy wedding is a unique opportunity for spreeing and that one should never refuse an invitation to a Gypsy wedding.

That evening at six o’clock I set out to visit the Gypsies. At that hour the sun was sinking and all the country around Cluj was bathed in a crimson light which made the houses look like fairy palaces of the Arabian Nights. Outside the city in the calm of the evening there was a hush as though nature was gazing in awe at the majestic death of the sun; the sky with its red clouds resembling a blazing Walhalla, and even the birds that shortly before were singing merrily now hushed their voices as the grey shadow of dusk stole over the scene. The “Street of the Spoons” straggles up a hill in a zigzag, as though it was firmly determined not to fit into any orderly mosaic of town streets. With its pathetic rough wooden houses it mad me think of the most dilapidated negro quarters of New Orleans.

The houses were of wood, but the wood had been collected anywhere and anyhow: trunks of trees joined on to pieces of packing-cases; all the remnants of the dust-heap gathered together. There was no symmetry in construction and every house seemed to say to its neighbour: “I am a Gypsy house and I shall be independent: if your beams bulge one way, mine shall bulge the other way: if your roof tilts one way, mine shall tilt another.”

“An ideal street for an artist,” thought I, and why not call the picture “the Town-planner’s Nightmare”?

At this hour of the evening the street was thronged with men, women and children. The Gypsies return from their work at five o’clock, which seems early, but. as one told me, they get up at 4:30 a.m. and remain away the whole day. On another occasion when I visited this street at three-thirty in the afternoon I found not a soul in any of the houses, for everyone was away at work. But now at six o’clock the life of the community was in full swing. Crowds of scantily-clad children followed me, making rude remarks and pointing at the fiddle I was carrying. Evry house was open, and the women were cooking the family dinners outside, all but on the road, and were stirring gret pots hanging over the fires.

Around the fires stood men and women chatting: here and there I heard girls sing, and in one corner I saw one Gypsy fumbling his flute. In front of nearly every house a fire was lit on the ground and in the deepening gloom of the evening these fires seemed to have been kindled from falling sparks of the dying sun. The lighting of such fires in front of their houses means more to the wandering folk than mere material heat: it is a tradition handed down from the old days of fire worship, and as I gazed on the scene I thought of the Gypsy poem quoted by Borrow in “The Zincali”:

"Bus de gres chabalas orchiris man diqué a yes chiro purelar sistilias sata rujias, y or sisli carjibal diñando trutas discancas."

"More than a hundred lovely daughters I see produced at one time, fiery as roses: in one moment they expire gracefully circumvolving."

Opposite one house I saw an old man crouching alone over his fire. He was of commanding stature and was clad in a long white garment. His complexion was as dark as that of a Hindoo and it seemed all the more swarthy on account of the snow-white hair and venerable beard. As he crouched over the fire he kept muttering to himself as though he was trying to draw magic spells from the flames that lit up his features. Further up the street I came upon the one tavern of the community. At this hour it was crammed full of Gypsies drinking. When I entered I was nearly suffocated by the fumes of tobacco and deafened by the shouts of the revellers. In a corner I found a Gypsy from Huedin called Lajos: he had come here the previous day and there he was with his fiddle under his arm. Lajos was pleased to see me, for he had not yet mat anyone who would pay for his drink and his thirst was Gargantuan. I had taken the precaution to bring my purse with me on this trip, for I knew that loose money is a boon at a Gypsy feast, so I was able to stand a few rounds. Then fiddles were pulled out and Lajos and I played to one another. Soon we were both intoxicated on rhythm and I had forgotten all about Rosa nad her invitation, when a tiny mahogany-coloured child came up to me and whispered the word “Rosa” in my ear. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I could escape from Lajos, for he had reached the happy, dreamy state of intoxication and clung to me as a brother. The tiny tot led me out of the café and along the street to Rosa’s house, where I found all the family assembled behind the house around a huge cauldron of steaming tomato soup. Rosa was stirring the soup with a ladle and in the light of the fire she looked like a priestess of some Oriental rite: she was wearing an astrakhan cap which was shaped like a wizard’s conical hat. Her complexion was olive, and her eyes had the glint of opals; her black hair was tousled and the rebellious tresses seemed to writhe like the serpent locks of a Medusa. Around her played innumerable brats of all ages and in the background sat another girl holding in her arms the latest born. This child was sucking at the distended breast which the mother held out for it; Gypsy women are never ashamed of exposing their naked breasts to the gaze of strangers.

Rosa is not the mother of the family, the “dai“: she is only one of the elder daughters, but she rules all the rest, and one of the men informed me that the inhabitants of the whole street called her the Queen of the Roms. She straightaway introduced me to her old mother, a wizened hag who had a great reputation as a gule romni or magician. I had hardly been talking to her for a few minutes when she cried out for a coin to cross my palm. “Ah but mister you have a wonderful palm: look you here! I see you have been thinking of your mistress: she has fair hair and she will be yours in a month, but you will need my help for the first night. I can tell you whether she is a virgin or no and I’ll prepare her for you and she’ll kill you with exhaustion unless you drink my brew which even the stoutest husbands need on the first night when his young bride feels the desire for twins coming upon her.”

Rosa’s mother then stopped to calculate the effect her words had produced on me, and she started to whine for a twenty-lei note to enable her to delve into the recesses of her magic, but I had given her one before and I was not eager to hear any more of her dukkerin.

Rosa rescued me and made me sit down by the others to partake of their supper. I sat beside Mara, a very beautiful sister of Rosa, about nineteen years of age. There was something far more exotic about Mara than any of the others: All their grossness seemed to have dropped from her as though as though snake-wise she had sloughed it off. In contrast to Rosa she was as slender as a drooping flower and her masses of black hair were a frame to the perfect beauty of her face. Her eyes were large and luminous and her eyebrows strongly pencilled: her complexion had that golden pallor we associate with Andalusian Carmens, but there was no trace of coquettishness in her expression. She wore haughtiness and indifference as a mask to conceal intense sadness.

“Poor Mara.” the mother said to me, “she is condemned, no doctor in the world can cure her, for it is her lungs that are ailing: she may be taken any day from us, the doctor says.”

The girl said nothing, for she was the picture of mute resignation to her fate. Every now and then her whole frame quivered and she began to cough violently. With Gypsies it is impossible to linger on sad thoughts and the next moment a coarse sally from Rosa made the whole company roar with laughter. Mara and her fate were forgotten, but I could not get the picture of the sad girl out of my mind as she rocked herself to and fro in front of the fire.

Though the Gypsies in the “Street of the Spoons” live in houses they spend all their time out of doors and only use them in winter time when there is rain and snow. They are sedentary Gypsies, but they still preserve many traits of the nomadic Gypsies who live in tents and wander through the land. The houses are little better than tents to sleep in, and in most cases there were no beds in the rooms, but the people lay on rugs and skins on the bare ground. All their meals they take outside beside the characteristic Gypsy fire. As I looked up the street I saw fires outside every Gypsy house and groups of Gypsies in white around them. The effect was weird, as though I had suddenly been transported into one of the fire-worshipping tribes of the Far East. I felt that this community of Gypsies was living on the fringe of Western civilization as pariahs. The “Street of the Spoons” was driven outside the city of Cluj as though none of its inhabitants had the right to live within the city walls. It was called the “Street of the Spoons” owing to the principal profession of the Gypsy community, which consisted in carving wooden spoons from the wood they collected in the forest. Rosa told me that her family were engaged in many odd employments such as flower-selling, sieve-making, comb-making, as well as the wooden-spoon industry. In the autumn many of them worked as agricultural labourers, in spite of the well-known Gypsy dislike for work on the land. In all work the women are more active than the men, and it is no uncommon sight to see a woman carrying hods of cement on her shoulders up ladders while her husband lies basking in the sun.

I tried to awaken in Rosa reminiscences of the real nomadic life of the Gypsy race and I said to her: “You are false to the race of the Roma, for you live in a house in one fixed spot whereas the Gypsies are the kings of nature and should forever wander towards the distant horizon, sleeping on the hard rocks and listening to the rumbling thunder as sweet music.” But she replied: ” Those wandering Roms are savages who degrade the name ‘Rom’ in the world. They live in tents and wander about the country stealing and attacking strangers and there is nothing good in them. Why, we have the greatest scorn for them. Thanks be to God that we have become civilized citizens.” Rosa was quite certain the she was a worthy member of the state, and she satisfied her Gypsy conscience by the many superstitions which she in common with the rest of the Gypsy community carried out religiously.

Nomad Gypsies

pp. 283 – 288: “I had left Sibiu in the morning and found myself wandering along the dusty road towards the town of Făgăraș which was to be my next halting-place. I met many peasants along the road and stopped here and there to have a chat with them, but never a Gypsy did I see. I knew that nomadic bands of Gypsies had been seen in some of the villages, but the peasants did not enlighten me. They merely frowned when I mentioned the word tzigan and cursed under their breath.

The peasant does not like the tzigan except when he is under the spell of the latter’s rhythm. When there are nomad bands about he is uneasy: he sees that his children are locked up safely in the cottage and he keeps a sharp lookout for any missing hen or duck.

…Where are those Gypsies? They are the most elusive people in the world: here today, there tomorrow, they vanish as suddenly as they come, leaving not a trace behind them. The country people know when they will appear again in their district, for the Gypsy nomad always follows the same circular route and it is possible to tell by calculation when he will appear again.

At various villages such as Porumbac I stopped for refreshment and rest, for the heat was infernal. At last in the evening when near Arpas I saw a crowd of people in the distance. When I came near them I found it was a Gypsy camp with tents, horses, carts, and about thirty Gypsies. They were a motley crew and looked like a a savage tribe from Africa. Some of them were seated around fires over which they were cooking the stew.

Iernut, near Porumbac & Arpas, Mureș County.
Mureș River runs through Mureș County.

The sight was a striking one: the sun was setting, and its rays lit up the scene in red; at the side were the blue Carpathian mountains and all around were the fields full of corn and maize. The carts were drawn up in the background and the horses and donkeys were browsing contentedly. The men were mostly tall and dressed in dirty white tunics and tight-fitting trousers. Some of them wore over the tunic a short leather coat with fur on the inside, which, I imagine, was of service to them when they were up in the mountains. Most of them wore broad-brimmed sombreros which gave them the air of Spanish Gypsies, but there were a few who had the characteristic astrakhan caps. Without exception they wore their hair very long and some had in addition matted beards which gave them the appearance of wild men of Borneo.

The men were decidedly more handsome than the women, and more affable. The latter were small and wizened. They all wore traces of the wandering life and the burdens that make women age before their time. Among the wandering tribes a woman of twenty-eight is already old and her skin is like tanned leather. She has to endure a double strain, for in addition to organizing the economic life of the tents she is in a continual state of pregnancy. There seemed to be countless small children about: here and there they hopped and jumped as merry as crickets — queer, dark-eyed little goblins without a stitch of clothes on them. They rolled about in the dust, they chased one another round the tents and became so boisterous that it was hard to distinguish them from the lean dogs of the tribe. By a curious tradition the Gypsies never put any clothes on their children until they reach the age of about ten years.

The women had not the slightest trace of what we call decency: several of them were naked down to their waist and were busy giving suck to avid infants. Two others seated in front of a tent were attentive to a different task: each had a small girl’s head in her lap and the operation consisted in snapping the live stock that haunt the hair of Gypsies.

One of the queerest personages that greeted me was a little old man dressed in a long baggy white tunic with huge sleeves who was squatting in front of a tent. His white beard gave him a venerable aspect, but he had the wildest eyes I have ever seen. When I approached the band he got up and hobbled over to me. When I spoke he did not seem to hear me, and I had to shout to him in Romany. Then he began to apostrophize me in a high falsetto voice that became a shriek. A few other men came up and asked me what I wanted and led me over to one of the tents where I was addressed by the chief of the tribe.

The Gypsies are supposed traditionally to choose as chief the handsomest and strongest man of the tribe; this certainly was the case with these folk, for I have rarely seen a finer specimen. He was about six feet two in height and very swarthy in complexion. His hair was very long and curly, forming a frame to his face. There was no mean craftiness about that countenance: the nose was aquiline, the mouth firm and determined. When he looked at me his gaze seemed to plumb the depths of my mind. In costume he resembled the others except that his tunic was embroidered and in his hands he held a staff which, I was told, is a symbol of authorities among the Gypsies.

When I spoke to him in Romany he became friendly to me, but without losing that cold dignity which was his chief characteristic. He told me that his band were copper-workers and wandered around the country mending pots and pans of the peasant or else performing various other jobs. He had roamed throughout Romania, Transylvania, and Hungary, even so far as Yugoslavia and Poland.

The tent of the chief was not luxurious, but had a certain air of comfort about it. On the ground was a mat woven of many colours in the Roumanian pattern and along the sides were various cushions and rough couches on which the family slept. I sat on one of them, but the chief and his companions squatted on the ground in that uncomfortable posture which no amount of Gypsy-wandering has taught me to adopt. There is no doubt that the Gypsies are Nature’s gentlemen. There is a courtesy in their manners that modern people would do well to imitate. The chief showed not the least curiosity in his conversation with me, for he seemed to think it perfectly natural that I should wander about Transylvania and Roumania with a violin and a rucksack. He corrected me several times when I used a wrong word in Romany and asked me many questions about the Gypsies in England. Though he had never been to London he had met Gypsies who had traveled to England on their way to America. As for life in Roumania, he told me that in the summer there were no difficulties for Gypsies as Nature was kind and the days were long, but in winter their lot was grievous. Most members of the tribe then did odd jobs in the villages and towns or else manufactured wooden spoons.

It remains to be seen how the influx of modern life into the Roumanian countryside will affect the livelihood of those copper-working Gypsies. They had always been able to earn their bread as long as the peasant needed to refashion his old-fashioned pots and pans, but nowadays with the advance of industrialism and mass-production it costs less to buy a pan at Woolworths than to get an old one repaired. For the present “Woolworths” is an unknown quantity in the Transylvania wilds and the Calderari may continue to prosper.

After we had conversed for some time the chief called to his womenfolk and a bright-eyed young girl brought in a bottle of palinka or as the chief called it –reci. Taking up a goblet that stood in a corner he poured some into it and drank it to my health then handed it to me. The liquid looked like water, but when I tasted it I felt as though streams of molten fire were flowing within me. It was all that I could do to swallow the flaming draught and for a long time afterwards I suffered burning pangs. It struck me as curious that my host drank to my health before he handed me the cup, but I can imagine that such a custom must have been obligatory in the old days when a host would want to prove that he had not put drao or poison in his guest’s drink. The cup which was made of chased silver reminded me of the goblets I had seen at a Gypsy marriage at Cluj.

Later on the chief introduced me to his wife the Ranyi of the tribe. She was a youngish woman, with pale complexion and intensely black hair and eyebrows. She wore a dress covered with coloured braid; around her neck were many strings of beads and a chain of gold coins; she had on large ear-rings of filigree work, gold bangles on her arms, and her fingers were covered with rings. Though she made me think of a heroine of Arabian Nights, she was not the haughty, passionate Gypsy so often described by Borrow in his Spanish ramblings. Her eyes did not flash fire and there was nothing sinister about her. In appearance she was the submissive wife of the harem, at the beck and call of her lord, who could at any moment condemn her to be thrown into the Bosporus like the girl-wife of Turkish tales. When she spoke she seemed in perpetual trepidation as though her words might anger the chief. She generally sat beside us, absolutely motionless, looking like an idol, smoking long cigarettes. Her face had not yet begun to wrinkle under the stress of wandering life and her hands were still white. Around her played several little children, but she payed no attention to them.

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