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And speaking of the “Gypsy Nightingale” Sofi Marinova To Represent Bulgaria in Eurovision 2012, I recently stumbled upon a very interesting documentary series from the UK, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.
The series follow several gypsy families as they plan their daughters’ weddings and offers commentaries about this ethnic group’s traditions regarding interaction between the genders, family values, educating the youth, choosing a house, and so on. The 5-episode series aired for the first time in 2011 on Channel 4 ( on TLC in North America under the name My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding). The second episode got 8.7 million viewers, giving Channel 4 the highest ratings since Big Brother. Check out the series on YouTube:
The show distinguishes between Irish Traveler and British Romani Gypsies. What is fascinating to me is that these two communities seem completely different from the Easter European gypsies. So I made a little investigation:
There are three types or lines of Gypsies that emigrated from their land of origin in today’s Pakistan during three exoduses in the period 1000-1400s AD: Domari, the Egyptian and Middle Eastern Gypsies; Lomavren, the central gypsies of Armenia and Turkey, and Romani, who made their way to the Byzantine Empire, through the southern Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova, Hungary etc) and now populate all of Europe. The Gypsies have always been a semi-nomadic cultural group with their own language (and sixty dialects) and religion.
The Irish Travelers, which the TV series also focuses on, on the other hand, are not from the same Indian ethnic origin as Gypsies, but they share a similar nomadic background and do not mind being called Gypsies. Travellers are of Irish origin, populate Ireland, the UK, and USA, and have their own language and traditions, but are often put under common denominator with Gypsies because of their similar lifestyle.
I personally had never seen Gypsies in the light in which Big Fat Gypsy Weddings present them! There seem to be striking differences between the living conditions and lifestyles of Western European and Easter European gypsies. On one hand, this is normal because there are such differences between Western and Eastern European countries in general. On the other hand, it really disturbed me to see that even the most ostracized and marginal community in Europe seems to be so much better off in the West than in the East.
The TV shows portrays Gypsies (Romani and Travellers) as a group with ostentatious sense of fashion, yet a very conservative worldview that is driven by a very strict moral code. UK gypsies may be over-the-top and hardly compatible with the “settled community”, but their culture seems fascinatingly rich. Thus, UK Gypsies seem worlds apart from Eastern Europeans gypsies.
The majority of Bulgarian and Romanian gypsies live in poor conditions in the outskirts of the cities or in very poor villages (there are exceptions of course). In the countryside, their main occupation is shepherds or day-laborers. In the cities, they often collect metal for scrap, clean cars at traffic lights, beg, or pickpocket. None of the Gypsy slums I have seen in Eastern Europe look like the nice houses portrayed in the British series. Like in the UK, Bulgarian gypsy families are large but mainly because girls give birth at a very young age and have many, many children.
Regarding their sense of style, I have never seen Bulgarian gypsies dressed as flashy and colorful as the Travellers in the UK in their daily life (except for a wedding, as the video below demonstrates). Our gypsies usually wear clothes that they find or that are given to them, or very cheap clothes sold in bulk – so they look more like shabby street urchins than like provocative fashion divas. They would rarely be able to afford buying new dresses for each wedding they attend like their UK counterparts. Our gypsies do, however, put on make-up sometimes and often bleach their hair – and this applies both to boys and girls. Therefore, in Bulgaria we have a saying “dressed as a gypsy”, which might mean very scruffy and ragged, but might also mean flamboyant to the point of looking ridiculous.
Bulgarian gypsy weddings are, similarly, a great celebration for the community, but in a very different, much less glamorous way. They usually include an orchestra (often times with a dancing bear), the entire village/neighborhood as guests, and a lot of bargaining and arranging the marriages of the next daughters in line. Compare this video from a Bulgarian gypsy wedding (notice the surrounding – this is the gypsy quarter in Stara Zagora) to the UK series and tell me what other striking differences do you notice?
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