Obvious Lies (Gypsies)

I remember it like it was, well, maybe a year ago. I was on my way to the children’s section at Borders and Noble when I spotted Isabella Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey‘s bright yellow cover, beckoning to me from a nearby table. My parents claim I was in middle school; I think it was highschool. Either way, the book went home with me: my first ethnography.

As an American–and a clueless teenager–I knew virtually nothing about Gypsies. I didn’t know that Europeans view them negatively, as tramps and thieves. I held romantic American notions of free-spirited musical wanderers, sculpted by the Renaissance Faire and Disney’s The Hunchback of Nortre Dame.

Wait a minute, when did that shade of purple become popularly affordable?
Disney’s Esmeralda

You might have guessed that I really liked Esmeralda*, even though I thought the movie overall was all wrong for its target market.

*To be frank, kid-me didn’t differentiate much between different sorts of medium-toned people.

So I was really interested in Gypsies.

Short pause for terminology discussion: Yes, I am well aware of the terms Rom/Roma/Romani, which were discussed in the book. While I am perfectly happy to call anyone by whatever name they prefer, I really dislike euphemistic treadmills, because they end up as ways for snobbish people to signal their superiority over the hoi polloi who don’t yet know the newest words, and then the old terms become ways for other people to signal dislike of the group. I don’t like getting pressured into signaling one of these two things, and dispute that anyone has the right to force others into this dichotomy. “Gypsy” is not used as an insult or ethnic slur in the US, and it is the name which most Americans are familiar with; “Romani,” by contrast, is largely unknown. Therefore I use Gypsy, though I mean no insult.

Anyway, as you might expect, the ethnography did its best to cast its subject matter in a positive light–anthropologists feel an ethical obligation not to negatively impact the people who were nice enough to give them interviews and let them live in their homes and tell them about their culture, after all.

I have not revisited the book in years, so I don’t feel entitled to make many claims about its quality. Obviously teen-me liked it, but teen-me didn’t have much to compare it to. If you want to learn about the Gypsies, its probably as good a starting point as any, so long as you keep in mind that anthropologists tend to wear rose-tinted glasses.

One thing I remember well, though, was the author’s explanation for why Gypsy yards are so full of trash: Gypsies have strong notions of purity, and abhor touching anything unclean–including other people’s trash.

I was recently thinking back on this (not coincidentally, while cleaning up some trash that had gotten scattered down my street,) and realized, “Wait a minute! Everyone thinks trash is dirty! No one likes touching it! But you do it anyway, because otherwise your yard ends up full of trash.” Obviously I wash my hands after handling trash; so can everyone else. In retrospect, it seems so obvious.

So often we claim deep cultural significance for completely ordinary things. Trash ends up in people’s yards because they don’t bother to pick it up.

I confess: I felt like I’d been lied to–and like an idiot taking so long to notice.

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