In the south of France, the Rroma people were seasonal workers hired every autumn to pick the grapes for the vineyards. My family’s wine-making was only a dabble but it happens to be in the world’s most fertile viniculture land near Saint-Émilion, France. My birth town of Libourne is close to famous wine labels, such as Chateau Petrus. I think the region started wine making in Roman times and never lost the habit for it. As a result, I’ve had a taste of some of the most expensive wines ever made. The price tag on a single bottle can be astounding. All the more so when you consider that the process starts with the labor of some of Europe’s poorest people.
Here is a silent family home movie taken in the 1960s of one group of Rroma workers taking a break from their labor:
Growing up, there were lots of myths around these people and they were used as a joke, “Eat your peas or we’ll sell you to the Gypsies,” or sometimes to scare monger and control the youngest children, “Don’t go out there or the Gypsies will steal you.” The locals would board up their shops before the Rroma came into town for the harvest. These groups rarely mixed.
When I lived in the American South, I did some work in journalism with a local television station and did stories where we interviewed migrant workers about tragic deaths and accidents. The living and working conditions these mostly Spanish-speaking male field hands faced were appalling. They often had no more than a shed to live in as a group. The heat soared in the summer months and dozens were forced to share one tap for fresh water.
Based on my experience of the migrant workers in America I’ve decided the Rroma had the right idea: They keep to themselves but they’re self contained. They bring their own homes and their families to a town and don’t have to be separated from their children during the harvest seasons. If a boss is unreasonable they can pack up there caravans and head to the next destination.
In order to learn more about the Rroma I read a terrific book from the late 1990s called Bury Me Standing. The negative stories people tell about Rroma reminds me quite a bit about how southerners refer to current “Mexican” illegals. These are the people in the bottom socioeconomic stratum in both their respective nations and it is interesting that you hear identical stories of laziness, filth, and stealing. The wealthy will always say these things about the poor… as they always have. You might be filthy, too, if you had no running water and worked in the fields all day. Instead of stealing family heirlooms the “Mexicans” are accused of stealing services like emergency medical care and social services. Never mind that it’s not true.
Then, there is romanticizing. My family sometimes went to the Rroma for “psychic fortune telling” and my mother still refers to prophesies that the Gypsy women foretold about her own life.
The “Gypsy woman” or gitanes is even an icon of French smoking:
The term “gypsy” originated because the Rroma liked to tell tall tales about themselves and one of them were claims that they were from Egypt. Through DNA testing we now know that groups of migrants left northwestern India (Punjab area) in the 1200s and made their way into Europe. Although the timing is hazy as different groups arrived at different times.
I’ve seen a few Rroma encampments in southern Europe when I’ve traveled by train. They’re usually settled in a back corner of a given city. They’re famously in-your-face about begging in certain tourist hot spots. That’s true, but it’s also a small subset of Rroma and now any beggar or swindler will be referred to as a “gypsy” so who can say if gypsies are worse in this regard than any other group of people.
I regret that our home movies do not have sound on them so I will leave you with the Django Reinhardt playing Sweet Georgia Brown as a way to tie it all together.