This will be a somewhat disjointed blog post about a visit to Slovakia. I don´t even remember the year I visited the country. Maybe it was 20 years ago. Maybe even earlier. I stayed for over a week in a Slovak-Polish border region known as Spis (pronounced Spish). Most of the time, I cruised the local churches and cathedrals, marveling at the Byzantine Revival architecture, listened to the strange tall tales about the medieval Carthusian monastery, and other such strange pastimes which I found worthwhile in my insufficiently misspent youth. A funny detail: some of the teenagers standing in line outside the Levoca cathedral, a tourist hub of some standing, were smoking pot! I suppose their youth really was misspent…
A large proportion of the population of Spis turned out to be Gypsy. I don´t remember the exact figure. Perhaps it was around 15%. Perhaps even somewhat more. So I decided to query my Slovak informants (one of whom spoke English) about the Gypsy problematique. Back in the days, I knew next to nothing about Gypsies over and above the obvious, and with a few exceptions, I had only encountered Finnish Gypsies, whose culture and even appearance was strikingly different from those in Slovakia. At the time, I had no idea that the Roma were an extremely heterogeneous group, really a cluster of several different “peoples” than a single one. I haven´t done any further research on Slovak Gypsies since, so I present this observations completely raw, as recollected by an innocent naïf over 20 years ago.
The Gypsies in Spis are dark-skinned and vaguely Indian-looking. I´m not sure which dialect of Romani they speak – perhaps Vlax Romani, since Slovak political parties have published election information in that language (yes, really). The Gypsies in the cities speak relatively good Slovak and use Slovak when communicating with other Gypsies. The Gypsies in the “settlements” (in the countryside) speak Slovak with a heavy “foreign” accent when encountering Slovaks, but Romani within their own group. (In Bratislava, the national capital of Slovakia, I also saw Gypsies speaking Slovak-with-a-strange-accent amongst themselves. I´m not sure if the accent was Romani or Hungarian! Many Gypsies in southern Slovakia would have at least a working knowledge of Hungarian.)
The small Spis town I visited was 100% segregated, with Gypsies living in a separate part of the town. Also, the Gypsy neighborhood was really divided into two. The houses in the “better” part were of worse quality than the Slovak houses, and probably built by the inhabitants themselves, but still tolerable. These were the Gypsies who had seasonal employment at road constructions in Germany or Austria. In other words, they had some money to spend. In the bad part, people lived *literally* on Third World level, in dwellings reminding me of the slums in South America or Africa. These were the unemployed Gypsies. Seeing this level of destitution in a European nation was…weird. Weird and shocking.
Later, I met a Catholic priest (let´s call him Pavel) who told me the following. As an outspoken anti-Communist, the Czechoslovak Communist regime decided to punish him with a kind of de facto internal exile. They made him priest of a parish in a Gypsy settlement somewhere in northern Slovakia! I don´t remember if it was Spis or some other region. Since “Whites” (Slovaks call themselves “Whites” in relation to Gypsies, who are “Blacks”) and Gypsies don´t particularly like each other, this was intended as some kind of cruel and unusual punishment. However, Pavel managed to get by with relative ease. The local Gypsies, while mostly indifferent to the Catholic Church, regard clergymen with superstitious awe. The priest (called “rasha”) is seen as a conduit of supernatural power. This explains why Gypsies insist on baptizing their children. Otherwise, they virtually never show up at the services. However, they believe that rasha has the ability to lift Gypsy curses, and therefore visit the priest whenever some family conflict has been resolved and the (supernaturally binding) curses pronounced during it needs to be dispensed with! Pavel had no idea what to do in situations like these, and simply improvised…
Pavel clearly didn´t like the Gypsies. He believed very strongly that the Roma want to live like they do, and that their situation had nothing to do with poverty, per se. He also claimed that they were thieves by cultural commandment. The Gypsies in the region supposedly had a tradition known as “the first theft” – a boy had to prove himself to his father by stealing something from the gadjos (the Gentiles or non-Gypsies). This explained the incredibly high amount of incarcerated Gypsy teenagers in the region. Somewhat surprisingly for an “anti-ziganist”, Pavel actually believed that the first theft should be de-criminalized! It would substantially lower the number of youth delinquency center inmates… Either Pavel or another Catholic priest also claimed that the Gypsies had a bizarre tradition that Jesus had given them permission to steal, after a Gypsy had stolen one of the nails from the cross of Christ but been pardoned by him! (This legend also exists in a “negative” version – that Gypsies are forever cursed to wander the Earth due to their theft of said nail. In Spis, this idea is said to exist among Gypsies in a positive form.) I have no idea of knowing whether any of this is true, or a gadjo urban legend.
After the fall of Communism, it seems that there are two prominent “Whites” in every Roma “settlement”. One is the priest. The other is the bar-owner. Thus, there is White-owned bar or saloon in every Gypsy settlement. The barman functions as an informal banker, and presumably also as a kind of middle-man between the Gypsies and the proper authorities. The social problems are even worse than under Communism, when the Gypsies had (usually lowly) jobs in industry. Today, many are unemployed or forced to work abroad. The traditional Gypsy trades, which included master-builders, artisans and entertainers, have either disappeared or been taken over by gadjos. This leaves the Gypsies in a marginalized position, to a large extent due to their fear of “assimilation”. Thus, many Gypsies in Spis refuse to send their kids to Slovak public schools, since they fear that this will turn them into Slovaks (which may indeed be the goal of Slovak schooling).
Many mysteries of Romanihood can be explained if this conscious and systematic separatism is kept in mind. I naively asked my informants why the Gypsies, who form a substantial portion of the Spis electorate, don´t form their own political party, since this would almost guarantee them the balance of power in the Spis regional parliament. My question was met with incredulous smiles… (For the record, two Roma political parties *did* exist in Slovakia at the time, but they were both very small. Their story is a strange one, too, but that´s for another time.) Another obvious question is why the bar-owner or banker is White. Why can´t the Gypsies simply take over the rum trade – and the banking – themselves? *Some* of them do have money, and it only takes a few rich guys to control the entire operation, especially if most others are underprivileged. My guess is that the Gypsies are split into different clans and sub-clans, making it downright impossible to unite them. Also, they have to both keep majority society at arm´s length *and* reach some kind of pragmatic accommodation with it. Both goals are kept by *not* voting in elections, except maybe sometimes for Slovak parties, and the second goal is kept by having two White brokers in the village (the priest and the bar-owner).
End of story.