Gypsies – Who are they and where did they come from?

When researching the mysterious Gypsy culture to feature in my next novel, I discovered an abundance of misconceptions, and little-known history of one of the world’s most misunderstood and maligned ethnic groups. For about a thousand years the Gypsy diaspora spider-webbed across Europe and their global population is now estimated to be about ten to twelve million.

What I presumed about ‘Gypsy Tribes’ roaming in colorfully painted bow-top caravans, foot-loose and fancy-free, seemed to have evolved over time to be somewhat stereotypical, romanticized, fictionalized, and at most contrived. So I decided to explore the history of Gypsy culture and correct my delusions.

For centuries, the Roma ethic groups have been enslaved, persecuted and exiled—longer than most minorities—having no terra firma homeland, government representation, or even a common language.

Firstly, referring to the multi-national ethnic groups as Gypsies is considered non-PC by present standards, confirmed to me by foremost authority on the Roma, Professor Ian Hancock, who advised the correct term is Romani. In this piece I interchange both terms to make my point.

Romani scholar and advocate, Ian Hancock, Ph.D., is professor of linguistics at the University of Texas, Austin who states; “Gypsies were fictional, Romanies are actual people…” His comment prompted by his daughter’s teacher, who threatened to ‘sell a naughty school boy to the Gypsies’, thus insulting the child who herself is Roma.

Professor Hancock, authority on Romani Studies, and ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, finds that Romani, as a multi-national ethnic group, are disadvantaged in a non-Roma gadze world because of the lack of a common language. He made the salient point when addressing the First World Congress in 1971 in his own Romani language; “To achieve the unity of our language will be the first step towards achieving our unity as a people…” He agrees with the integration of all European Romani, but feels total assimilation would result in “identity death.”

The lack of a singular common language spoken by the many transnational ethnic Romani groups hinders their communication. Most speak their host country’s language, and among themselves, converse in as many as eighty unique dialects and languages that crystallized centuries ago in Anatolia, becoming enriched with Persian and Byzantine Greek loanwords.

The history of the Romani original migrations may be speculative, not written-recorded per se, but scholars agree the gradual exodus started around the 9th century from India’s northern Punjab region over a thousand year period. The theory is supported by common chromosomal markers of Asian populations that geneticists have found in many global Gypsy cultures.

Doctor Hancock supports a possible theory that the Indic exodus and diaspora of the Dom may have begun as early as the 5th century, and over many centuries they established their deep roots in Europe. It is thought the 9th century exodus may have been a warrior caste to repel the Islamic invasion, and itinerant castes of metal artisans, puppeteers and entertainers roaming westwards, presumably along the Silk Road route.

The dark-skinned nomadic tribes of animal traders, metal smiths and musician-entertainers, were decimated over many centuries; some sold into slavery in Afghanistan, and others settling in Tabriz, Persia. About 100,000 of the westward wanderers flourished in Byzantium Constantinople. In Greece, thought to be cursed Egyptians, earned the moniker Gypsian that evolved to the term Gypsy.

Continual persecution forged the Romany’s destiny to roam, and centuries of enslavement possibly lead to their nomadic existence, able to escape in the dark of night. The sky was their tent, the earth their carpet, their illumination, the moon and the sun, and dense forest canopies their fortresses. Longtime nomadic existences, and being devoid of a cultural determination, forged a common outsider sentiment of the wanderers, and the Gypsies constant drifting migrations became the centerpiece of their rootless lives.

Around the 14th century, Gypsy tribes splintered to North Africa, mingling with the Islamic Moors who invaded Spain; the Iberian Peninsula now enriched with Moorish architecture and the Gitano Flamenco. By the time the fragmented tribes had radiated their spider-webs across Europe, they had garnered reputations as snake-charmers, circus masters, bear-baiters, camel and horse traders, blacksmiths, musicians, dancers, acrobats, puppeteers and sometime looters of treasure.

The Romani had endured centuries of slavery, especially in Romania, finally gaining their freedom after the Abolishment of Slavery in the 1860s, at which time many immigrated to Britain and the Americas.
The short-lived Romani freedom from slavery was assaulted in the late 1930s when Hitler came to power. The Nazis arrested thousands of Central European Roma; some were executed by mobile killing squads, and up to 220,000 were exterminated in concentration camps. Without a common voice, and decades devoid of advocacy, Gypsies remain among the most forgotten of all Holocaust victims, and whose war-time history has ostensibly gone unheard for nearly eight decades.

FABLES, FACTS AND FALLACIES
Elders are revered in Roma communities; the oldest often pronounced king of the Gypsies who oversees adherence to Romani purity laws of birth, marriage and death customs. When a Rom takes a bride, some as young as twelve, the groom’s family pays the ‘bride price’ to the father to reimburse his lifetime ‘investment’ in his daughter. Even in modern times these traditions prevail; the U.S. ‘bride price’ may be negotiated for about $15,000.

The Romani peoples typically prefer exterior work; construction, gardening, stone-masonry and metal forging trades, and many women may sell flowers, trinkets or tell fortunes. Their innate preference not to work inside buildings may result from past travails, not purposefully nomadic, but because they were scorned for centuries, and not allowed to settle permanently.

A case in point in England is the recent 2011 Dale Farm situation in Essex, whereby a group of about eighty Gypsy-like Travellers were evicted by the city from their caravan-dwelling pitches, as being camped in uninhabitable green belt zones. Known as Irish Travellers, the groups pitch caravans on open space so they can send their children to school. Their lifestyles echo the Gypsy culture, but ethnically may not be Romanichal Roma per se. Today there is heightened awareness with liberal media and human rights activist support, and their voices are loudly heard.
Caravan-dwelling colonies may not all consist of bone fide Roma or Irish Travellers; many disadvantaged people borrow Gypsy lifestyles without affiliation to any ethnic group, thus may be culturally adopted due to social and economic factors and not based on bloodlines within an ethnic paradigm.

MODERN ROMANI—UNTOLD STORIES

The culture of the Gypsies has long been portrayed in art, literature, music and film; mysterious, romantic, and superstitious; reinforced by such fictional images as Bizet’s Carmen and Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda. But what we are conditioned to perceive may not be true. Research paints another picture of the ethnic multi-linguistic Romani, who left us no historical tradition of writing per se, or clues linking us to their ethnocentric perspectives.

In order to improve conditions and misconceptions about Roma ethnic groups, humanitarian councils have been initiated to break the cycles of poverty and stereotyping. The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 was mandated by a 12-European nation initiative, whereby programmes would improve the socio-economic status, social inclusion of Romani minorities, and allow for a higher profile of their European organizations. Their committed goal is to close gaps between the near-twelve million Roma and the non-Roma in Central and Southeastern Europe.

Since the European Union was initiated—whereby forces joined, allowing EU member citizens to travel freely without visas—the flood gates opened for many Roma in search of better lives. Romania and Bulgaria were the last nations to enter the EU, and thus emigrants, including Romani, entered France, Italy and Spain.

Along with the undocumented emigrants came the criminals, and serious crimes lead to racial tension and prejudice for the newcomers. It was just a matter of time that the Roma got caught in the mix, often living in poverty-ridden ghettos, without sewers and running water. After government crackdowns on crime, the marginalized ethnic group again took on the mantle of ‘foreign’ pariahs. They had sought a better life, but found scorn and grinding poverty, still roving from nation to nation—still part of the voiceless invisible people without a common homeland.

When crime among the migrants escalated, governments in France and Italy (with already a half million Italian Zingari) cracked down on Romanian and Bulgarian Roma immigrants. In 2008, Italy initiated fingerprinting and identification of all Roma men, women and children, causing a national civil rights outcry.

In France, President Sarkozy ordered the expulsion of thousands of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma, and was hotly criticized that the Romani were already European citizens, free to move to countries of their choice. To expel the ethnic Central Europeans from France was illegal under EU guidelines, and as images of exiled Romany families boarded ships in Marseilles, the world was stunned that the Roma’s thousand-year exodus had not yet ended.
After research, I am more apprised of the much maligned Romani culture, and hopefully have journalistically righted some misconceptions.

Research shows that many famous personages are said to have Romani blood; Pablo Picasso, Mother Teresa, Rita Cansino Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Sir Michael Caine, Sir Roger Moore, Sir Sean Connery, Sir Charlie Chaplin, Helen Mirren, Django Rheinhardt, Yul Brynner, Elvis Presley, and someone born as William Blythe IV, who later changed his name to Bill Clinton.

Assignment: Thailand

Just one week after receiving an incredible opportunity, I was boarding an airplane to travel half way around the world with my cameras. The global news media had reported on the unprecedented flooding in Thailand, vividly documenting the devastation that had displaced millions and taken over 400 lives. Fear was soaring and countries around the world were warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

Enter the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) with a plan to ensure the rapid recovery of its crucial tourist trade. Their plan included inviting the media and travel agents from around the world to see directly what was happening in Thailand.

Our assignment? To observe Thailand’s tourist industry first-hand during its recovery from the floods and share those observations back in our own countries.

The TAT welcomed us with an unforgettable event that included magnificent floral arrangements, incredible cultural performances, and a huge array of beautifully presented foods to amaze the palate. The artistry and impeccable attention to detail were awe inspiring. Guided by the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Thai people, we were immediately transported to a whole new world.

Cosmopolitan Bangkok was bustling with activity, and contrasts of ancient vs. modern and rich vs. poor were everywhere. River boats and scooters are popular modes of transportation, and street food vendors are on virtually every corner of the city, 24 hours a day.

Modern shopping malls quench the thirst of the fashion conscious as well as the budget minded. Clothing, jewelry, scarves, crafts and more can be purchased at busy street markets day and night.
Assignment: Thailand
Traveling into Northern Thailand, we explored the country’s ancient heritage with visits to temples, handicraft villages and a hill tribe village. We rode elephants and wandered through open markets purchasing authentic wares from the locals who made them. We were pampered with restorative traditional Thai massages, explored the Golden Triangle (intersection of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) and learned about the history of Thailand’s opium trade.

Floating down the Mekong River as it carved its way through rice fields and riverside towns, we saw waterfront properties lined with dilapidated shacks that people call home, often sitting next to modern high rise buildings.

Throughout our trip, we were treated like royalty, staying in world class resorts where friendly local staff went out of their way to make us feel welcome and comfortable. From upscale restaurants to street vendors, we were taken on a delicious and spicy culinary journey to sample some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.

Buddhism is an important influence on the way Thai people think and behave. Giving alms to a monk and leaving lotus blossoms and incense for Buddha — daily practices of Thai people — were highlights of my trip.

With the floods over and the tourist industry wide open for business, Thailand offers something for everyone: beautiful beaches, treks through jungles, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, zip-lining, Thai boxing (Muay Thai), golfing, snorkeling, scuba diving and more. All with friendly local Thais who want to make sure your experience in their country is unforgettable.Assignment: Thailand

This exotic escape to Thailand was mysterious and confounding, but approachable and inviting. Thai hospitality is a genuine art, crafted by a culture that takes pride in putting people at ease! Thailand’s tropical climate, unique culture, natural wonders, and incomparable value paired with the warmth of its people made a lasting impression. I returned to the United States with a real appreciation and love for this amazing country and its people!

Thank you to V’explore Tours, the TAT, and the people of Thailand for this truly inspirational experience!

Special thanks to V’explore Tours for making this opportunity possible.

V’explore Tours offers customized and private travel experiences, specializing in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. If you truly appreciate the finest in service, cuisine, décor and ambience, V’explore Tours will help you discover the hidden gems of these countries! Their true specialty is making your vacation one to remember…affordable luxury at its best!

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Suburban Superhero

Anyone who truly knows me, such as my wife, kids, my sisters, my clergyman and my primary care physician, would know that I have an intense fascination with Superheros. From the time that I was a mere tyke, I wanted to be a Superhero. To fly, to be invisible, to be elastic, to have incredible strength, to be able to shape shift or read minds, it really didn’t matter as long as it was Superhero worthy. Superheros are the coolest; they are mighty, courageous, ethical, altruistic and well … Super. Granted they can also be conflicted, misunderstood, dark and moody, but with super human powers comes a little typical human strife. Being a Superhero carries with it a certain amount of stress. The release of the new movie, Marvel’s The Avengers, proves that I am not alone in my Superhero adulation. The assemblage of a super group of Superheros that includes; Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, and the sultry Black Widow is a Superhero geek’s dream comes true  I was ripe with anticipation as I stood in line with my fellow suburban Superhero wannabes waiting for the midnight screening of this cinematic masterpiece.

“I wish I was incredibly strong and supersonic fast that way I could keep up with my kids and all their activitiesHowever, chocolate is my kryptonite.” Karin O., Danville

 I was seven years old when I was first introduced to the wonder of comic books and the concept of a Superhero. I spent hours each day, when I wasn’t watching TV or up to no good, absorbing the mythical adventures of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, Human Flame and Thing who made up Marvel Comics the Fantastic Four. These people were average everyday scientists who were exposed to cosmic rays during a routine mission to outer space. That could happen to anyone. Well, any scientist flying in outer space, but it gave me hope. Little did I know that the Fantastic Four would be my gateway drug to a lifetime of Superhero addiction.

Marvel Comics started in 1939 as Timely Publications, and by the early 1950s had generally become known as Atlas Comics. Marvel’s modern incarnation dates from 1961, the year that the company launched Fantastic Four and other Superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others. Marvel counts among its characters such well-known properties as Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four, Wolverine, Thor and Captain America.  Most of Marvel’s fictional characters operate in a single reality known as the Marvel Universe with locations that mirror real-life cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In 2009, The Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Entertainment, Marvel Worldwide’s parent company, for a super sum of $4.24 billion.

“I would like the ability to fly. I know that’s cliché, but I travel so much for work if I could fly I would be able to make it home for every one of my daughters school and sports events.”  Mike B., 44 years old, Danville

Superman is likely the first Superhero that comes to most people’s minds whenever anyone is sitting around a dining room table discussing Superhero’s during a dinner party. Superman was unveiled in June of 1938, through Action Comics first edition. Superman escaped the destruction of his home planet, Krypton, landing on earth with his unusual attributes that included unbelievable strength, flight, x-ray vision, a large lung capacity and extraordinary hearing and eyesight. He was also bulletproof. I remember watching black and white episodes of Superman every Saturday morning on Channel 44, but because he was from outer space, I couldn’t relate. I needed hope that I could one day be a Superhero through some stroke of good fortune like radioactive exposure.

It was Peter Parker, a teenager dealing with family tragedy, who inspired this teenager to spend an entire weekend looking for a glowing spider in my attic and garage. You see, Peter was bitten by a radioactive spider that transformed him into Spiderman. Imagine having that strength, that agility, not to mention being able to shoot spider webs to catch bad guys and swing from skyscrapers. How super cool would that be?  Plus, Peter had a smokin’ hot girlfriend (Mary Jane Watson), which gave a pimple faced comic book nerd like me, er…, I mean my good friend Micky, eternal hope of a better life.

As I grew older and found my way to the YMCA weight room, the Incredible Hulk became my new Superhero idol. Hulk was cast as the emotional and impulsive alter ego of the withdrawn and reserved physicist Dr. Bruce Banner. The Hulk appears shortly after Banner is accidentally exposed to the blast of a test detonation of a gamma bomb he invented. Subsequently, Banner would involuntarily transform into the Hulk, depicted as a giant, raging, green humanoid monster, leading to extreme complications in Banner’s life. As a community college freshman/paperboy, I could certainly relate. I would often fly into an uncontrollable rage if my bike broke down or I was unexpectedly splashed by a car driving through a mud puddle while delivering my papers.

“I would’ve liked to be able to read minds. That sure would’ve helped when I was dating.”  Bob B., 65 years old, Livermore

The American military has Captain America to thank for its recruiting effort during the 1940’s. Captain American was the alter ego of Steve Rogers, a frail young man who was enhanced to the peak of human perfection by an experimental serum in order to aid the United States war effort.  Captain America wears a costume that bears an American flag motif and is armed with an indestructible shield. His creation was often depicted fighting the Axis powers of World War II and Captain America was Timely Comics’ most popular character during the wartime period.  What adolescent boy wouldn’t want to wear that patriotic costume and use that multipurpose shield as a weapon for the honor of his country? I know I did, even though technically we weren’t actually “at war” with anyone from 1980-1990. However, I would’ve totally enlisted after 9/11 had I not been too old.

“I wouldn’t mind being invisible. I could fade out when my kids are driving me nuts and also check-up on them when they don’t know I’m around.” Jeff M., 45 years old, Danville

It’s obvious that everyone wants to know who my favorite Superhero is and I’m happy to reveal this information. It’s not Mr. Incredible from the Pixar movie, The Incredibles, although I do appreciate his super strength and commitment to family. It’s not Batman or Green Hornet because they aren’t actually Superhero’s. They are simply super rich guys with some really cool toys, but not Superhero’s in the true sense of the word.  My favorite Superhero is Thor. Thor is based on the God Thor of Norse mythology.  The mighty Thor possesses “God Like” strength along with a hammer that he uses as a weapon, shield and telekinetic best friend.  His flowing blond locks and body builder physic give him the impression of invincibility, much like a professional wrestler, and yet he has chosen to protect earth from her foes, namely his half-brother, Loki.  don’t have a half-brother, but I do have two step-sisters that are mighty troublesome.  Truthfully, I have always admired Thor’s strength of character, his morality and his sense of honor. I could totally see myself doing that … if I had long rock star hair, a juiced up bod and a radical ball-busting sledgehammer.

 “I need the ability to clone myself so that I can be at all of my kids events and still work a typical 9 to 5 day. ” Zack H., 44 years old, Danville.

For those of you new to the whole Superhero worship thing, here are a few Superhero movies worthy of consideration to get you up to speed. The aforementioned The Incredibles, Sky High, Blade, Kick Ass, Zoom, Hellboy, Daredevil, Darkman, The Punisher, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, Underdog and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to name just a few of my favorites. On television, I would recommend such shows as Heroes, The Greatest America Hero, The Flash and Power Rangers.  As for comic books, you can’t go wrong with Aquaman, Wonder Woman (for chicks), Green Lantern or The Justice League.

As an adult, a husband and father living life in a suburban mecca known as Danville, I have come to realize that a Suburban Superhero is a dad who coaches youth sports, volunteers at school events and sets a good example for his kids. The notion of a Superhero subculture is idealistic, but in reality, we can all be suburban Superheros if we commit to the ideals of high integrity instilled by the Legion of Honor.  Fly to your kid’s soccer games, lift up your friend’s spirits when they’re feeling down, stand up to evil bosses and protect the weak and oppressed by volunteering your time. Suburban Superheros can save the world, one small gesture at a time.

“My Superhero power would be to freeze time. First, so I could get more accomplished in a day and second, so my kids wouldn’t grow up so fast.”  Jenny L., 39 years old, Danville

Have Our “Foraging Instincts”—GONE WILD?

Even though we may be sophisticated cologne wearers, credit card carriers, and clutchers of stylish purses (or “man bags” if you’re a guy), let’s face it—we’re still animals at heart.

For this reason, I often refer to instinctual “animal behaviors” in my work with clients. For example, I see a lot of stressed-out souls seeking tools to stop unhealthy overeating and experience more calm in their minds and bodies.
Early in my work with stressed clients, I educate them about the fight-flight-freeze responses. Fighting, fleeing, and freezing are natural reactions to stress that animals exhibit when their survival is threatened. And, since we’ve already established (perhaps hesitantly) that we’re animals too—it’s natural for our brains to choose one of these instinctual “survival behaviors,” when we’re feeling overwhelmed, afraid, angry, or sad.

For example, doesn’t it make sense that while trying to keep up with the pace of life around us, we might not make time to address (or process) our emotions? Let’s face it; answering cell phone calls, texts, faxes, and emails can become a full time job! As a result, when feeling overwhelmed with the crazy demands of our stressful work and home lives, many of us unconsciously turn to “instinctual responses” and we:

  • Fight: by angrily “acting out” our emotions and creating drama with others
  • Flee: by distracting ourselves from our emotions and staying in our heads
  • Freeze: by tensing our bodies, breathing shallowly, and suppressing our emotions

Then, with emotions lodged uncomfortably inside our bellies, many of us turn to food for comfort. Now, this brings me to another important “instinctual issue” that I want to address here: Our hunting and gathering—”foraging instincts.”

If we think back to early men and women, we’ll probably remember that they received their foods by “foraging” for them. Their food foraging efforts took time, energy, and they burned calories in the process (they also got off “their sofas” and out of their caves for fresh air and sunshine).

Now, for some of us, our evening “foraging behaviors” consist of sashaying into our kitchens while American Idol or Dancing with the Stars—is on a commercial break. Next, some of us savor a brief “Yoga stretch” while reaching into an upper cabinet to retrieve our snack foods.

Similarly, our daytime “foraging behaviors” aren’t burning much energy either—that is if we’re simply pushing a grocery cart from section to section and casually “picking our crops” out of damp bins.

Now, if we look to the animal world again, we’ll see that “foraging behaviors” are passed on from generation to generation, by watching peers and elders forage for food. In other words, the younger members learn what’s appropriate and safe to eat by observing the foraging behaviors of their elders.

In the wild, this strategy works beautifully. For example, a baby animal watches its parents gather safe, non-poisonous foods. As a result, the baby animal learns how to survive and thrive on its own.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Sadly, in today’s world, many children are watching others eat massive amounts of overly processed, salty, sugary, fattening, and addictive junk foods via the media—as well as in real time—from their parents, caregivers, and peers. Whew! For this reason, it’s no surprise that we have an escalating obesity epidemic amongst children and adults in America.

So, how can we counter “foraging instincts” that have—GONE WILD? Here are four “starter tips” to consider:

  • Walk, Walk, Walk. Whenever possible, walk to your local grocery store, or a nearby Farmers’ Market to “forage for food.” (Purchasing a folding shopping cart can be a great way “to roll” — I love mine!) And, if you have kids, bring them along for a “food foraging” or local “errand running” adventure.
  •   Plant Something Edible. Planting a veggie garden is great if you have a yard. And, a few pots of edible plants will also suffice if you live in an apartment or a condo. For example, I grow cilantro for salsa and Moroccan mint for tea—in pots on my patio. Num! And, did you know that banana mint and pineapple mint plants are also available? Yep, pretty exotic flavors! To get started planting, visit ALIVE’s horticulture expert—Buzz Bertolero—at his informative website: www.dirtgardener.com
  • Take a “TV Fast.” Several times a week, turn off the television and the “over-snacking” that often accompanies TV time. Instead, get outside for activities such as walking, hiking, swimming, or playing sports. In addition, consider taking an exercise class—like Yoga, water aerobics, or Zumba. And, when you do watch a favorite television program, lifting hand weights during a couple of commercial breaks and then riding a stationary bike can be great ways to burn calories and avoid “sashaying” into the kitchen for unhealthy snacks.*   * Always talk to your doctor before changing your exercise routine.
  • Create Indoor Fun. Play board games, read a good book (to yourself or aloud to loved ones), or indulge in a relaxing activity, such as knitting, quilting, or painting.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for one-to-one emotional support (and leading edge tools) to break unhealthy patterns in your life, lose weight, or handle stress better, then don’t hesitate to call me and set up an appointment.
Finally, how about we all take a small step today and reel in one of our “foraging instincts” that has GONE WILD? By doing so, we’ll begin replacing unproductive habits with healthy habits that will propel our energy levels to full throttle!
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Trina Swerdlow, BFA, CCHT, is a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist, an artist, and the author and illustrator of Stress Reduction Journal: Meditate and Journal Your Way to Better Health. Trina has a private practice in downtown Danville. She soulfully shares her creative approach to personal growth and passionately supports her clients in reaching their goals. You can reach her at: (925) 285.5759, or info@TrinaSwerdlow.com.

Certified Clinical Hypnotherapy services in California can be alternative or complementary to licensed healing arts, such as psychothera