Unlike all of my articles of the past several years, this one will have no photographs. I apologize. Since arriving in Germany in late September, I’ve visited nine other countries, and have written about and photographed Germany, Singapore, England, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Ukraine. Though I’ve been to the Czech Republic three times, I couldn’t quite come up with the right angle to discuss it, so with just over a week left before returning to Philly, I thought about going down to Usti nad Labem or Most, two towns in Northern Bohemia, to examine its Gypsy situation.
In 1999, Usti nad Labem attracted attention when it built a 2 meter high, 65 meter long wall down the middle of a street to separate Gypsies from other Czechs. The New York Times quoted the town’s mayor, Ladislav Hruska, “This wall is about one group that obeys the laws of the Czech Republic and behaves according to good morals, and about a group that breaks these rules—doesn’t pay rent, doesn’t use proper hygiene and doesn’t do anything right. This is not a racial problem. It is a problem of dealing with decent and indecent people.” After much international condemnation, the wall was torn down two months later.
In 2011, Baia Mare in Romania built a similar wall, for which its mayor was fined $1,530 by the central government. Catalin Chereches ignored its ruling to tear it down, however, and had art students paint murals on it. It’s now a work of art, he declared. At the next election, townspeople reelected him by a landslide. In 2013, 13 more Gypsy walls were built in Romania.
In Slovakia, Kosice (pop. 240,688) and Ostrovany (pop. 1,975) have erected Gypsy walls.
The first Gypsy I’ve ever heard of was Django Reinhardt, perhaps the greatest jazz guitarist ever. Seventeen, I was living in Northern Virginia, and there were no Gypsies at my high school, Thomas Jefferson. Of course, you can’t judge a population by its most accomplished and famous members, since they’re not just more talented than the rest, but usually better looking and more charismatic. Bruce Lee (one quarter German) is no more representative of his people than Denzel Washington.
When I was a housepainter in Philadelphia, I had a Czech coworker. He told me that “All Europeans hate Gypsies,” and in his town, Gypsies would steal people’s laundry from clotheslines.
From 2002 to 2004, my wife and I lived in Certaldo, Italy. Going to Florence often, we would see Gypsies all over. I saw them lounging around the Piazza Santa Maria Novella at dusk, and making quite a mess of it with their littering. There were trash cans around, but that took some effort to reach, so why not just leave all these food containers, tissue paper and bottles right there? I stumbled upon a rotund, middle-aged Gypsy woman pissing on the street. She didn’t seem too concerned about hiding herself. Exiting a train, I had to step over a Gypsy woman who was plopped right by the door. She didn’t care that she was blocking the way. It’s also safe to assume she hadn’t bought a ticket.
When a Gypsy woman stuck a hand into my wife’s purse, she had to slap it and shout to scare the Gypsy away.
An American couple visited us in Certaldo. Within half an hour of getting off the train in Florence, the woman saw a bunch of Gypsies. Seconds later, she reached into her bag to find that her purse was already gone and, with it, 500 Euros. Experienced travelers, this couple had been all over the world and were living in Japan. There are no Gypsies in Japan.
In January of this year, I met a Vietnamese restaurant owner in Zgorzelec, Poland. Our conversation touched on the economy of Poland vs. the Czech Republic. Without prompting, he suggested that Poland will be better off in the long run because they have many fewer Gypsies. He then recounted four Gypsies who ordered lots of food at his place. After all the dishes were brought out, they claimed that there was hair in each one, so refused to pay. Knowing any argument would result in a huge commotion, with plates and glasses possibly thrown around, and maybe even violence, he just let them leisurely finish their free feast. It wasn’t worth it to ruin the evening for his other customers.
Ask just about any European, and you can hear similar stories. Though living in Europe for just over three years altogether, I’ve seen and heard enough to be very leery of Gypsies. In Leipzig, however, there are only a few, and they mostly just play music or beg. A fashionably dressed young Gypsy sits outside upscale Restaurant Weinstock nearly every day.
Online, you can find a torrent of appalling accounts in a dozen languages about Gypsy misbehaviors. Well intentioned employers talk of hiring Gypsies, only to see them show up late habitually, miss work or steal tools. Others talk about Gypsies stealing everything from kiddie bikes to manhole covers. It is remarkable that one group of people can accumulate, in practically every country they’ve been in over the centuries, some of the worst stereotypes. Perceived as indifferent to education, regular employment and assimilation, they are notorious for stealing, begging and lying. On the positive side, they are acknowledged as gifted musicians.
Even with hatred, stereotypes don’t have to be negative. Most Vietnamese, for example, will readily admit that Chinese are more industrious and commercially astute than Vietnamese, and basically honest. The evidences are just too overwhelming to argue otherwise. Though stereotypes are unfair for ignoring individual differences, they’re not necessarily inaccurate as general descriptions.
There’s a Russian saying, “A Gypsy does not human feel, if he has no chance to steal.” Until 1783, one could kill a Gypsy in England without punishment, and even the tolerant Republic of Venice allowed the same with a 1558 law.
The Weimar Republic banned Gypsies from public swimming pools and parks. Interestingly, the Nazis concluded that Gypsies were originally pure as Aryans in India, but trekking across Europe for more than 600 years, they became polluted by mixing with other ethnicities. For centuries, Gypsies were often fingered whenever a child went missing. Deciding that Gypsies were mostly “social misfits” or “professional criminals,” the Nazis started by sterilizing Gypsies, then ended up killing perhaps half a million, or 25% of its population in Europe. With the European Union’s open border policy, Romanian Gypsies have flooded into Germany, and here, their incarceration rate is 20 times that of German citizens.
In Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, the Gypsy unemployment rates hover around 80%. In the Czech Republic, it’s 70%.
Though the United States actually has a million Gypsies, they’re practically invisible, so cause almost no animosity. Besides the Gypsy fortune tellers, they have mostly blended in. A five minute walk from my South Philly apartment, my friend Beth has a little café, with Gypsies living over it. Waiting until she’s busy, thus preoccupied, they would come down and grab several soda cans and toss her but a dollar. They would chuck garbage bags from a second floor window into a neighbor’s yard.
Ah, but we don’t know nothing! Gypsies have a very strict code for what’s pure and impure, for what’s clean and unclean. Since to keep garbage inside the house is filthy, it’s best to get rid of it as soon as possible. Gypsies, then, are very hygienic. By hypocritically and pathetically covering up our multifarious wastes and waiting sheepishly for trash day, the rest of us are actually pigs.
Wherever they show up in numbers, Gypsies alter the locals’ behavior. In 2009, I visited a friend of a friend in Bellows Falls, Vermont (pop. 3,165). Charlie didn’t even bother to give me keys, since he never locked his house door. Apparently no one in town did. Though primarily white, Bellows Falls also had some blacks and Hispanics. You can be sure the mild, fine folks of Bellows Falls would have to change immediately if there were Gypsies among them.
Having been in Europe since the 14th century, Gypsies can claim to be native to all these countries, and yet they have been persistently shunned and despised by their neighbors, and it’s not primarily because of their race, as their defenders would like to you to think. Since Gypsies who don’t steal, beg and wreck everything are hardly recognized as Gypsies, one should talk of a revulsion against Gypsy behaviors, and not a hatred of their race. It is essentially not racism.
Gypsies have no nation and want none, and it’s hard to imagine one run by Gypsies, acting like Gypsies, being anything but an unprecedented disaster. You can’t have an economy based on loafing, begging, singing, picking pockets and stealing anything that’s not nailed down. Speaking of which, many Gypsies believe one among them was the smith of the nails for the crucifixion, and that’s why they’re eternally cursed. Others believe a Gypsy stole a fourth nail meant to secure Jesus’ head or heart to the cross, and this means they’re forever entitled to steal as a thank you from God.
When Canada started accepting Gypsies as refugees, the Czechs were ecstatic, but that process has stopped, and even Angela Merkel isn’t waving a placard with “Gypsies Welcome.” The Gypsy situation tests the contention that all cultures can coexist if we just tolerate each other. A group may be incompatible with a society’s norms, but what can it do if such a group has justifiable, historical roots? Individually, most people simply flee from such predictable nuisances and/or dangers.
It was with this train of thoughts that I contemplated going down to the Czech Republic one more time. I could park myself at U Pristavu, a bar right on Maticni Street, the one with the former wall. At the very least, I could see and photograph the contrast between Gypsy and non-Gypsy dwellings. Of course, they might just chase me away or beat me up, but whenever you leave your front door, something bad may happen anyway. For the past seven years, I’ve visited some of the worst places in the US, as in Camden (repeatedly, even at night), Gary, Oakland and Detroit, etc., and during this stay in Europe, I’ve prowled completely unknown cities at all hours, and I’m still here, I think.
If I don’t go to Usti ad Labem now, I’ll never likely have another chance. I may never have an extended stay in Europe again. On the other hand, I’m exhausted, having just returned from a taxing trip to Ukraine, with two 24-hour bus rides squeezed into a week. Further, whenever I travel, I’m on the streets nearly all day, in any weather. Like a Rom, I roam. Actually, your stereotypical Gypsies don’t so much roam as loiter. In Europe, many of them lurk around train stations.
Money was also a consideration. Though I always traveled as cheaply as possible, I’d spent a tidy sum already. Still wishy-washy, I decided to take a quick, stress-free trip to Hamburg, a place I had never been.
Leaving my Leipzig apartment at 3:35AM on a Wednesday, I would not be back until 6:15 on Thursday, meaning I would spend nearly 27 hours outside, inside a bar or café, or on the train. These extremely long days are not atypical, since I always strive to maximize my travel budget and time. The day turned out to be cold and drizzly, and I thought Hamburg mostly sterile and charmless, with the famed seediness of the Reeperbahn rather canned. Still, I managed to take some nice photos, including a mural of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in front of an actual mosque, a poster announcing the 20th celebration in Hamburg of Black History Month, a sticker of Kim Jong-Un as a centaur, and one that said, “Merkel muss weg!” [“Merkel must go!”].
The round-trip from Leipzig cost but 28.50 Euros, but the catch was a 4+ hour layover in Berlin in the middle of the night. Fine, I would just mellow out in some coffee shop or McDonald’s, whatever that’s open in the spectacular Hauptbahnhof, perhaps the most impressive train station I’ve ever seen.
Having bought a milk coffee, I sat in Backwerk and thought about the rather lame day, but hey, not every trip can be mind blowing. Zum Silbersach was a bar with character, though, and I did hit it off with an old fart. Leaving Backwerk, a friendly frau suggested that I should move to her former seat, since it was right beneath the heater, thus warmer. I smilingly thanked her, but decided to stay where I was, since that chair was more comfortable. With my camera bag on the floor next to me, I stretched out.
Just across the Spree from the Hauptbahnhof, I had given a poetry reading in 2005 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. I was treated so well then, with my wife and me put up at a hotel for five nights. Truth is, I’m no fan of huge, cosmopolitan Western cities such as Berlin, Paris, London or New York. I want to feel out of place when I travel. Still, Berlin has many wonderful associations for me. I don’t just think of Fassbinder, for example, but also Pham Thi Hoai, one of Vietnam’s best writers. She lives in Berlin. We had a wonderful meal there with poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh in 2005. There’s also a huge portrait of Joseph Beuys inside Ständige Vertretung, which I’ve only seen from the outside, considering its prices.
When you’re exhausted, your thoughts can get ridiculous, and I caught myself wondering if I had tipped the bartender in Zum Silbersach too much. Irritated by my own pettiness, I noticed a bunch of young men goofing around just outside Backwerk. By appearance and language, they weren’t German, I remember thinking, but Berlin (and Hamburg too) is filled with foreigners, and I was in a train station, after all. I heard a sound right behind me, which I thought was someone throwing something into the trash can.
I spaced out for a few more seconds, then decided to migrate downstairs to McDonald’s. Fully enclosed, it would be warmer, I thought with pleasurable anticipation. Reaching for my bag, however, I discovered that it was gone. Looking around, I tried to will it back into being, but it was really gone. Not only were my expensive Canon 50D and its two lenses stolen, but so was my passport. Erased, the Hamburg photos. Disappeared, the Ucraina stamps.
The thief had apparently walked out of Backwerk with my rather bulky bag inside his, which I now assume he had folded up and concealed inside his jacket, walking in. As the cashier in the tiny shop was not far behind me, there was probably an accomplice to distract him. Those goofs laughing and pushing each other in front of me were also likely accomplices. It worked, for I remember smiling at their good natured buffoonery.
As if mocking me, there was an ad in the station for the movie Django Unchained. Of course it wasn’t about Reinhardt, but I sure got the joke.
Postscript: within 12 hours of this incident, half a dozen of my blog readers, plus Ron Unz, have chipped in very generously to replace my camera and lenses. This, I will do when I get back stateside. I thank everyone for supporting me through the years, for without you, my photo and political writing project would have died a long time ago.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on February 29, 2016, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.