That was the word I heard every day of my life growing up. We were Gypsies and sometimes Tinkers, Knackers, Pikeys. I thought we were all the same – all the Irish Travellers (Pavee), Scottish Travellers (Nagin), Kale, Romany, Romanichal, and Romani. My grandmother called the Pavee and Scottish Travellers who lived near us “parne romane” – White Roma and didn’t treat them any differently to her own family. If someone needed something, we all helped each other. It wasn’t only Romani being evicted, it was Travellers too.
I remember Kako Tonju’s wagon. When I was a child it seemed huge, though I never had any fear of their horse, Xmara. I recently learned that those relatives were considered Romanichal or Romany and that they had lived in England for more generations than I ever realized. My immediate family on my dad’s side came from Slovakia and Poland only arriving in the UK in the 1900s. On my mother’s, they were Polish too – but they’d been over in the UK since the 1700s at least. They had names like Bacon, Defiance, Patience, Cadalia, Darkiss, and Septimus. I had cousins named Penhelli and Esan. My mother’s name was Trykhaena, though she didn’t use that outside of our family and friends.
I never understood the difference between our groups when I was a child. I thought and felt that we were all the same. I had no understanding about state and nation, about race, or ethnicity.
As I grew, I came to realize the differences and similarities that marked out our cultures. A lot of the language had crossed over into every day use in the area I lived in – words like “radge” – wild, crazy, “scran” – food, “gadjie” – old man, “yaggi” – fire, and “barrie” – nice, treat, were common to hear, even from non-Traveller/Romany.
Maami, though, refused to speak English. The only time I ever heard her say anything, it sounded like barbed-wire had coiled itself around her tongue, the words jagged and suffocating. At home she spoke Rromanes mostly. Papu spoke more English (because of his labouring jobs), but fell under Maami’s language rules at home: No English. Ever. (Slovak, maybe. German, maybe. English, never).
My father spoke a mixture of Rromanes and Anglo-Romany, with some Kale, and Gammon or Beurla. A clunky and cluttered language, but one he could navigate with ease. Part of our family had lived in the UK for a long time and their pogadi chib had become a natural way of speaking for those of my parents ages. Many of my cousins spoke this way too, though Maami and Papu insisted that we spoke “kherutnji čhib” when we were with them.
Language is powerful; proverbs tell us that words hurt more than just about anything else. Even my own family cautioned:
“Čhines čhuraha, e dukh pes predžal. Čhines laveha, e dukh ačhel” – A wound from a knife fades away. A wound from a word remains.
When I started school I spoke a pogadi chib of my own. A mixture of Rromanes, Anglo-Romany, and Beurla Reagaird/Lowland Scots picked up from the Scottish Traveller kids who lived in the same council housing estate as my grandmother. The words were very similar sometimes, with gadjie for man and pannie for water. Some were very different, for example, “lurach” for untidy, unkempt and “geall!” for “shit!”
Historically, Travellers and Romany (Romanichal, Romani, Romany) have been lumped together as vagrants or Gypsy wanderers. We have been viewed as the same and as trouble since we were first met. Laws and legislation have followed suit, with all of us being covered under the term “Roma Gypsy Travellers” which has only created more confusion about our identity and belonging.
Many Romany, Travellers, Kale, and Romanichal in the UK have maintained some semblance of a nomadic lifestyle. Several of my relatives still had wagons and horses when I was young. The rest had caravans, benders, and estate (station wagon) cars. Every summer our “raggle taggle” band of vehicles would make their way across England, into France, Spain, Portugal, or Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. We’d pick fruit, hack endless heads of broccoli, build fences, barns, houses. We’d attend weddings and funerals and once we even made the pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. We weren’t nomadic, but nor were we settled. We fell somewhere in between. A mixture of multiple ways of life – Servika and Bergitka from Slovakia and Poland, mostly settled there for generations. Romany/Romanichal in the UK, still considered nomadic travellers.
There is argument over who’s way of life is better for everyone. But, the issue isn’t whether we should all be settled or all nomadic, the issue is that we have very different cultures, languages, and lifestyles and trying to force all of us to be monoethnic just doesn’t work. We don’t need houses – we need healthcare, education, and acceptance of our way of life (not condemnation and forced assimilation).
I am torn, literally in half. I had no idea that the way I was raised is considered wrong. We travelled for a good part of the year and we did not integrate into English culture. Most of my family resolutely refused to speak English, though my mother’s parents encouraged us to learn it so that we could do better outside of our home. They understood the importance of education and economic opportunity, but also understood the importance of maintaining culture and language. The different sides of my family were treated the same under law, in the media, by the people of the town. There was no difference whether we lived in a house or lived in a wagon.
My grandparents referred to themselves as Gypsies, my parents too. We had no idea of the Romani Congress and the adoption of the term “Roma” and our flag and anthem. Of course we called each other romnji or rom, our names and nicknames when speaking Rromanes, but otherwise referred to ourselves as everyone else did. I have lived both ways of life – on the road and in a house – and I can tell you the one I have most nostalgia for is that of the road. Being evicted from a hitch was simpler, I think. You had your house to take with you. Watching relatives evicted over and again (and experiencing it myself) from house after house… that hurts more and things get left behind – important things.
I don’t know. All I know is there’s no best for everyone. There’s best for Roma, best for Romanichal/Romany, best for Kale, best for Irish Travellers, best for Scottish Travellers, best for Manouche, Jenische, Sinti… and not all of the answers are the same. We don’t all have the same origins and some groups are mixed (like Scottish Lowland Travellers – who are largely (but not entirely) of Romani origins, versus Scottish Highland Travellers (luchd siubhail) who are considered indigenous to Scotland). Some groups experienced the genocidal violence of the Holocaust, some did not. Some have travelled for generations, some have been settled for generations. Some are considered indigenous, some are considered perpetual foreigners.
It’s a complex subject that needs complex answers and tarring us all with one brush isn’t any kind of answer.
As my grandfather always said, “anji o pandž angusta nane jekh” – Even five fingers on the same hand are not the same.