The image of the Gypsy conjures up ideas of a carefree people, who live life without rules and restrictions. It is a common occurrence for non-Gypsies to hashtag #gypsy or #gypsy life while spending a lazy day at the beach, hair out, not a worry in the world. In reality, being a real Romany Gypsy is not a life of lackadaisical sea-shore living. In fact, our lives are quite the opposite.
Although many are, not all Romany Gypsies nomadic; not all live in trailers, tents or wagons. You can be ‘settled’ in a house and still be Romany (Romany is the proper term for a Gypsy). It is a common misconception that Romany people naturally have wanderlust. The truth is, that for the last 1000 years, we have moved from country to country largely because of persecution and slavery.
Being a Romany Gypsy is not the same as being a Traveller. Irish Travellers and people who work on fairgrounds are not Gypsies. We are an ethnic race who can trace our origins back to India. We have our own beliefs, culture and traditions. We also have our own language, Romani, which is descended from Sanskrit. Contrary to popular belief, we did not choose this life; we are born Gypsies.
Another common misconception is the belief that Gypsies openly accept anyone into their networks; this is false. Gypsies are highly suspicious of outsiders and vet everyone who they come into contact with.
If you have a distant relative who is a Gypsy, this does not mean we would consider you to be one too. In fact, one Gypsy may consider another Gypsy not to actually be a Gypsy if they do not follow our rituals.
To be accepted by other Romany people, we must follow strict set rules and customs. We believe that observing our ‘laws’ is what distinguishes us from the Gorgers (non-Gypsies). We can be belittled, ostracized and excommunicated for something as little as dropping a cloth. Contrary to popular belief, Romany life is anything but carefree.
The vast majority of Romany laws revolve around the belief that the universe is separated into what is clean and what is dirty (marime). Being marime — or coming into contact with marime things — can cause a range of conditions including bad luck, sickness, disease and death.
The list of what we consider to be marime is endless. However, we do have generalised categories of marime things. Among other things, liquid which comes from the body (urine etc.), rodents, reptiles or anything which touches the ground are all marime.
Once an item is classed as marime, we avoid or limit contact with that thing. We are taught what is marime and what is not from the moment we are born. Avoiding dirtiness impacts how we act, think and speak.
If a physical thing is especially marime, then the word connected to it is also marime and, therefore, not spoken out loud. For example, because rats are marime, we call them ‘things’, ‘the things’ or ‘long things’.
Similarly, because menstruation is marime, we do not discuss periods or say the word ‘period’. In Romani, there is not a word for menstruation. If we are ill, and must refer to our periods, we call them ‘things’.
Because certain conditions are marime, those who suffer from these conditions are given special treatment. Women on their period, or the sick may be feared because they have the power to spread their marime to others. When I was ill around Christmas time, my family separated my stuff from theirs, feared my toothbrush and wouldn’t let me touch anything. There was also an understanding that no-one should upset or talk negatively about me.
Our strict way to life even extends to our thoughts. Romany people avoid talking badly about ill people because we believe that illnesses can be attracted to us by the power of the mind.
If my grandmother had an illness and then I caught it, she would believe I got ill because I didn’t give her enough sympathy. She would take me catching the illness as evidence that I was thinking badly about her while she was sick. By thinking ‘spiteful’ thoughts about her while she was in a marime condition, I put myself into a marime condition (for thinking negatively) which enabled me to capture the disease.
Romany people are not ignorant to how illnesses are spread. But, we are not interested in that. Our focus is not on how but why you have caught certain conditions. Therefore, you can attract not only diseases, but unfortunate events — such as broken bones — to yourself by how you think or interact with other individuals.
We believe that some people can be so marime that just by spending time with them, you can become marime by association; this is another reason why you will not be accepted into a group of Romany individuals. To live a Gypsy life is to live in constant fear of the outside world, which is marime.
The most marime individuals, are the ones who do not follow our cleaning rules and rituals. If you spend time in their environment, touch their stuff and use their cutlery, you too will become marime. In fact, for a Romany person, using the kitchen items of marime individuals is the fastest route to becoming marime like them.
Even as adults, myself and my sisters are warned by our family not to accept food or drink from people who are not related to us, just in case they do not follow our rules or customs — such as how we wash dishes. We always wash dishes in a ritualistic manner which takes into account how much contact they have with the mouth. Cups would go first, in the cleanest water, because you put your mouth directly to a cup. Pots are always washed last, because the body has no direct contact with food from a pot; food goes from the pot to a dish. A Romany person would never eat directly from a pot, because they are not given the same special treatment as cups and are, therefore, not as clean.
Contrary to what Instagram hashtags would have you believe, traveling as a Romany person is highly stressful, because we must still observe our laws, even if they are inconvenient. For example, we prefer to wash dishes in running water, not water which is stale. To avoid making our dishes marime, we must find a source of running water.
Life as a Romany Gypsy is not all boho dresses and stress free living; we must think, act and speak like Gypsies. However, aren’t all societies and cultures about acceptance? Doesn’t everyone strive to fit in, with their families, their friends and communities? I guess in this way, we are similar. Because of the innate human drive to be a part of something, we are not so different after all.