My Country by Marie Queen of Rumania

There is a wandering people known in every land—a people surrounded by mystery, whose origin has never been clearly established, a people that even in our days are nomads, moving, always moving from place to place. Wherever they stray, the gipsies are looked upon with mistrust and suspicion; they are known to be thieves; their dark faces and flashing teeth at once attract and repel. There is a nameless charm about them, and yet aliens they are wherever they go. Every man's hand is against them; nowhere are they welcome, ever must they move on and on homeless, despised, and restless, wanderers indeed on the face of the earth.

Yet there are places in Rumania where those gipsies have settled down on the outskirts of villages or towns.

There, in the midst of indescribable filth and disorder, they are massed together in tumble-down huts and dug-outs, half-naked, surrounded by squabbling children and savage dogs. Their hovels are covered with whatever they can lay hand upon : old tins, broken boards, rags, clods of earth, torn strips of carpets; no words can render the squalor that surrounds them, the abject misery in which they swarm.

I have never been able to discover if always the same gipsies live in these places, or if, after a time, they move on, leaving their nameless hovels to other wanderers, who for a time settle down and then depart, making place for those who still will come.

I am inclined to think that in some cases these settlements are refuges where the wandering hordes seek shelter in winter, when snow-drifts and bitter frosts make the high-roads impracticable. Yet also in summer have I seen families grovelling about in these sordid suburbs.

Infinitely more picturesque are the gipsy-camps. These strange people will pitch their tents in all sorts of places. On large fields used for pasture, on the edge of streams, sometimes on islands in the midst of river-beds, or on the border of woods.

Along the road they come, not in covered vans as we see them in tamer countries, but in dilapidated carts, drawn by lean, half-starved horses, sometimes by mules or patient grey donkeys.

On these carts, amidst an indescribable jumble of poles, carpets, tent-covers, pots, pans, and other implements, whole families find place—mothers and children, old grannies and greybeards, little boys and bigger youths, regardless of the unfortunate animals that half succumb beneath the burden.

Mothers and children, and old grannies.

They stop where they can, sometimes where they must—for many places are prohibited, and no one desires to have the thieving rascals too near their home.

To me these camps have always been an unending source of interest. Whenever, from afar, I have perceived the silhouettes of gipsy-tents, I have never failed to go there, and no end of impressions have I gathered amongst these wandering aliens. Often have I watched the carts being unloaded ; with much noise and strife the tent-poles are fixed in the ground, discoloured rags of every description are spread over them, each family erecting the roof beneath which it will shelter for awhile its eternal unrest.

Many and many a time have I roamed about amidst the tents of these jabbering, squabbling hordes of beggars, beset by hundreds of brown hands asking for pennies, surrounded by dark faces with brilliant eyes and snow-white teeth. Half cringing, half haughty, they would demand money, laughing the while and shrugging their shoulders, fingering my clothes, slipping their fingers into my pockets; sometimes I have almost had the sensation of being assailed by a troop of apes.

When on horseback they have nearly pulled me from the saddle, overwhelming me with strange blessings that often sounded more like curses or imprecations.

But one wish that they cried after me was always gratefully accepted by my heart; it was the wish of "Good luck" to my horse. Being nomads, they appreciate the value of a good mount, and as from all time my horse has been my friend, such an invocation could not leave me unmoved; on those days, the pennies I scattered amongst them were given with a readier hand.

The most beautiful types have I discovered amongst these people; at all ages they are inconceivably picturesque, so much so indeed that occasionally they seemed to have got themselves up with a view to effect.

Inconceivably picturesque.

Old hags have I seen crouching beneath their tents, bending over steaming pots, stirring mysterious messes with pieces of broken sticks. No old witch out of Andersen's fairy-tales or the "Arabian Nights" could be compared to these weird old beings draped in faded rags that once had been bright, but that now were as sordid and ancient as the old creatures they only half clothed.

Gaudy bands of stuff were wound turban-wise round their heads, from beneath which strands of grey hair hung in dishevelled disorder over their eyes. Generally a white-clay pipe was stuck in the corner of their mouths, for both the men and women smoke; in fact, smoke pervades the atmosphere about them, fumes of tobacco mixing with the more pungent smell of the fires lighted all over the camp.

These old crones are the respected members of the tribes. Their loud curses call order to the young ones, throw a certain awe amongst the rowdy quarrelling children, who run about almost naked clamouring for alms, turning summersaults in the dust, tumbling about between one's feet. A sore trial to one's patience are these scamps, but at the same time a source of infinite delight to the eye, for extraordinarily beautiful are some of these grinning, screeching little savages, one with the colour of the earth; small bronze statues with curly, tousled heads, large eyes bordered by indescribable lashes, sometimes so long and curling that they appear to be black feathers at their lids.

These are the respected members of the tribes.

Small bronze statues with curly, tousled heads.

Occasionally a torn shirt barely covers them, or their arms have been thrust into coats much too large, the sleeves dangling limply over their hands, giving them the appearance of small scarecrows come to life. Never more enchanting are they than when gambolling about as God made them, for all attire a string of bright beads round their necks!

Occasionally a torn shirt barely covers them.

These earth-coloured little waifs will run for miles beside one's carriage or horse, begging for coins with extended palms, whining over and over again the same complaint.

Most beautiful of all are the young girls: upright, well grown, with narrow hips and delicate hands and feet. Whatever rag they twist about their graceful limbs turns into a becoming apparel. They will deck themselves with any discarded finery they may pick up by the way. Sometimes valuable old pieces of embroidery will end their days upon the bodies of these attractive creatures, enhancing their charm, giving them the air of beggared queens. Bright girdles wound round hips and waist keep all these rags in place, giving the wearer the look of Egyptians such as we see painted on the frescoes of temple-walls.

Most beautiful of all are the young girls.

Beneath the gaudy scarves which they tie on their heads plaits of hair hang down on both sides of their faces—plaits that are decorated with every sort of coin, with little splinters of coloured glass or metal, or strange-shaped charms or holy medals that jingle as they move about. Round their necks hang long strings of gaudy beads that shine and glisten on their bronze-tinted skins.

Little modesty do these maidens show. They are loud and forward, shameless beggars, quite indifferent if their torn shirts leave neck and bosom half naked to the rays of the sun.

With flashing white teeth they will smile at you, arms akimbo, head thrown back, a white pipe impudently stuck at the corner of their mouths.

Indescribably graceful are these girls coming back to the camp at evening, carrying large wooden water-pots on their heads. Over the distance they advance, upright, with swinging stride, whilst the water splashes in large drops over their cheeks. The sinking sun behind them gives them the appearance of shadows coming from very far out of the desert where the paths have neither beginning nor end. . . .

The men are no less picturesque than the women; they are covered with filthy rags, and are mostly barefooted. But tribes have I encountered less sordid, where the men wore high boots, baggy trousers, and shirts with wide-hanging sleeves. These belonged to more prosperous clans, the men particularly good-looking, with long curling hair hanging on both sides of their faces. Evil-looking creatures no doubt, but uncannily handsome nevertheless.

Most gipsies are tinkers by profession, by instinct they are thieves. Leaving their women-folk to look after the tents, the men will set out towards the villages, there to patch up pots and pans; often one meets them several in file carrying bright copper vessels on their backs. They grin at you, and never forget to stretch out a begging hand.

Others have studied the gipsies' habits, morals, and ways; I have only looked upon them with an artist's eye, and in that way they are an unending source of joy.

Inconceivable is the bustle and noise when a camp breaks up. The tent-poles are pulled out of the ground, the miserable horses that have been seeking scarce nourishment from the withered wayside grass are caught by the screeching children, who have easy work, as the unfortunate creatures are hobbled and cannot escape. Resignedly they let themselves be attached to the carts, the tent-poles, carpets, pots and pans are once more transferred from the ground to the vehicles that will transport them to another place, and thus onwards . . . without end. . . .

The old crones are stowed away beneath all this baggage, and with them the children too small to walk, the feeble old men, the invalids, and those too foot-sore to tramp the weary way.

A delightful picture did I once perceive. Upon the back of a patient donkey numerous tent-poles had been tied; how so small a beast could carry them remains a mystery. Between these poles several small naked babies had been fastened, their black eyes staring at me from beneath mops of tousled, unkempt curls.

The donkey moved from place to place, grazing, the heavy poles bobbed about, one or the other touching the ground, raising little clouds of dust like smoke.

No concern was to be read on the faces of the babies; this mode of transport was no doubt the usual thing. They looked like little brown monkeys brought from warmer climes. . . .

I have often met old couples wandering together men and women bent with age, weary, dusty, covered with rags, with pipes in their mouths; wretched vagrants, but always perfectly picturesque. No doubt they were going to tinker in some villages, for the men carried on their backs the inevitable copper pots, whilst the old hags had heavy sacks slung over their shoulders, a thick staff in their hands. Along the sides of their earth-coloured cheeks grey plaits of hair hung limply down, swinging as they went. It was to me as though I had often met them before; I seemed to recognise their eyes, their weary look, even the shell, sign of the fortune-teller, that the women wore hanging from a string at their girdles; yet no doubt they were but samples of the many wanderers among this people who, homeless and foot-sore, are for ever roaming over the earth. . . .

I have often met old couples wandering together.