For a long time I've been wanting to learn more about Travellers or Roma, also called Gypsies, a term sometimes considered politically incorrect, but not by everyone. Isabel Fonseca respectfully uses the term in her book, and I will too.
Fonseca spent several years visiting Gypsy communities in Eastern Europe in order to learn more about them and their ways, which are largely unknown and poorly understood.
Often mistrustful of non-Gypsies, who they consider unclean or impure, they seem to isolate themselves from others. In return, their reputation for being dirty themselves and thieves to boot, has contributed to their status as pariahs rejected, sometimes brutally, from the communities where they have tried to live. It can be a vicious cycle: They don't want to fit in and they're not allowed to fit in, or even to live in peace.
Fonseca's research confirmed that some of the behaviors which are hard to accept are indeed typical across the groups she visited. She noted commonalities that may be key to understanding them: They live in the present; they lack attachment to place or possessions, seeing money as the means to an end only, and any way of getting it to be justified. (Working is no better than stealing for example.)
In terms of progress, Gypsies have sometimes been their own worst enemies. For example, they are suspicious of reading and schooling, and as a group have a high illiteracy rate. Traditionally, they marry and have children very young; it's common to be married by age 15 or even sooner. Not having children is seen as suspicious. Their worldview seems at odds with many cultures.
The author also reminds us that Gypsies were exterminated during the Holocaust. According to one account she gives of an extermination camp during WWII, for an unknown reason the Gypsies were allowed to keep their clothing, and housed separately from the Jewish prisoners. Many Gypsies are unaware of their Holocaust history, partly due to being illiterate, or not interested.
In France, my contact with Gypsies is mainly with those begging in the street or in front of the supermarket, identifiable by the long dresses of the women, gold-filled teeth, a plaintive way of begging (mentioned in the book as typical), or sometimes an overall messy, dirty appearance. I've met some Gypsy men who are aggressive about asking for money and rude when refused. Another common sight is Gypsy camps, usually mobile homes or trailers set up in a parking lot or other location. In general, the town where they locate wants to kick them out. There are certain rules against doing so once they've set up camp, so it's not that easy to make them leave. Instead towns use different methods to keep them from establishing camp in the first place, like putting up cement barriers in parking lots.
I've always felt bad for not feeling much compassion for the Gypsies I see begging for money. I don't like what I see as their aggressivity, and especially cannot understand sitting in the street all day with young children who could be in school, for example. This is why I've wanted to learn more about their culture to see if I can be more compassionate or at least understanding.
This utterly fascinating book helped me understand the Gypsy culture in new ways, I’m not sure I've gained more than a little extra compassion but every bit helps. I’ve gained more respect for a culture even if I don’t understand it very well. That's important.
Extra note: Fonseca talks about much more than I've mentioned here, including the history of Gypsies, like where they came from and fascinating stories and different theories about where they came from (most likely India). More information here.