What does it mean to be a gypsy?

Vibrantly painted caravans, colorful clothing and jewelry, passionate music and dance. Those are the images I grew up with in Germany where one of my favorite children songs was “Lustig is das Zigeunerleben,” or “how fun it is to be a gypsy.” A romanticized vision that I was only too happy to buy into, even though it was in stark contrast with the reality of the gypsies who camped along the edges of my hometown, often accused of stealing and other petty crimes, while being regarded with suspicion and fear. Alas, I have never personally met a real gypsy and have to admit that I never gave their history and real life conditions much thought.

If you asked someone from the Romani ethnic group, where the term originated, their answers may not resonate with the images of the romantic bohemian lifestyle that our western culture commonly associates with it. The word ‘gypsy’ is in fact considered an insult amongst many Romani and there is nothing much romantic about the lives of real gypsies who have suffered extensive persecution for most of their existence, and whose tendencies to travel was more often a result of being chased away by resentful locals rather than a voluntary desire to see the world. In the Romani culture men have generally more authority than women, and strictly regulated purity laws mean for instance that things like a menstruating woman, death, childbirth, the lower body or cats are considered impure. Now I am not an expert on the subject, the history of the Romani and related ethnicities is quite complex and the limited results of my research barely skim the surface. Nonetheless, what I have learned so far seems far removed from the romantic images of the independent and free spirited boho woman that we have come to call a gypsy.

In my own life I have often been called a gypsy because I have traveled and moved around so much. Since the age of 16 I have visited more than 30 countries, lived in Germany, Canada, the UK and the US, and have just moved home for the 21st time. Thus my previous blogname ‘gipsylife.com’ which is how Alex and I found each other! Alas, I recently decided to continue blogging under my own name, following an online confrontation with a Romani woman that at a time I had no energy to fight. I feel at peace with that decision because for me ‘gipsylife’ was always more about my restless nature rather than bohemian way of living. And even though travel remains a passion of mine I felt ready to shed those layers of my gypsy life that were more about protection rather than the freedom of expression and experience. I was ready to just be myself.

Whatever gypsy means to me or a Romani person, the trend that uses the term as a reference to a lifestyle or fashion is here to stay. To me it is a light-hearted and graceful movement and if it puts a more positive spin onto the word then that’s a good thing in my books. And Alex’s new site is a beautiful celebration of the free spirit behind it! Thank you for asking me to be a part of it :)

Kerstin just moved to Western Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and cat. She muses at www.kerstinmartin.com and her photos can be found at www.flickr.com/photos/kcmartin

Comments
  • I think I know exactly what you mean by freedom of expression and experience one finds in traveling. Thanks for the post!

  • I have been contacted by romani as well… It is such a shame that they cannot see the positive on making something good out of the bad. Love having you here!

  • I loved this post! Sometimes a fight is just not worth it. Btw, I have to say the word for gypsy in German is not the prettiest word haha.

  • It’s funny how something so utterly romanticized can be so different from the inside. It’s like any story we create I suppose, to try and give a persona to the freewheeling beauty we know is out there.

  • bravi!!!!!! <3

  • I’m a romani gypsy roma travler what ever you want to call it and honestly I like your post thing is were not all steal big dress catholic those are people who just use the name to make them seen cool anyway my point is don’t judge those who can not judge

  • Lovely words and good luck to you my sister.

  • im a gypsy this made perfect sense explaining it to my bff

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