Gypsy Fiesta in Provence
Much of this chapter appeared in the Gypsy Lore Society Journal, Vol. XXIX
There is a Gypsy shrine in the Camargue: the most mysterious part of mysterious Provence. Those far-stretching plains and marshes pasture wild black bulls and near wild horses; in the reed-beds dwell eotic birds of Africa – the sunset plumaged flamingoes and the moon-white egrets; the Little Rhone shimmers and flashes on its way to the Mediterranean sea to marry its waters with those of the Great Rhone, and along the shores rise camel humps of tawny sand dunes bearing dark crowns of tamarisk trees. There could be no better setting for the Gypsies.
They come! they come! the wild dark people. From all parts of France – whereto belongs the Camargue; from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Roumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia – even from America. For days before the annual pilgrimage on the 24th and 25th of May, the sound of the oncoming caravan wheels and horses hooves, is as thunderous as one of the stormy seas at the mouth of the Great Rhone. The modern Gypsy of France and Italy travels often enough in lorries or motor-driven caravans, the rich from Spain – the professional dancers, musicians, and bull-fighters – come in limousines, the poor of all countries make their way on foot carrying their tents on their backs, as Gypsies have done through all time – since their beginning.
The shrine which brings the Gypsies to the Camargue is the tomb of the only saint possessed by the Romanies, Sainte Sara, ‘la Vierge Noire’. Now the Gypsies are celebrated tellers of tales, being people who gather around fires to converse and romanticize, and thus countless legends have being about their patron saint Sara. The principal seem to be that she was the servant of the two Marys – Salome and Jacobe, who fled from Palestine after the crucifixion of Christ. As the Marys left the shore, the faithful servant, the black-fleshed Gypsy girl Sara, cried out to the departing Marys to take her. The boat was gone some distance across the sea, but Mary Salome cast her cloak upon the waves and Sara rode upon it to the out-heald arms of her mistress. The boat in a storm lost provisions and oars, but Sara, powerful with the travelling instinct of the Gypsies, guided the ship by the stars and by the far scent of land, and brought the two Marys safely to the Camargue. She begged there garments from the Provencal fisher-folk, to clothe the saintes (thus originating the Gypsy right to receive old clothes from the gawje (non-Gypsy); earlier she had stolen the nails which held Christ to the cross and taken away his crown of thorns, thus giving the Gypsies the right to steal small objects). It is told that the reason for Sara remaining virgin was, at the time, there were not Gypsies in the Camargue, and she would not wed with a non-Gypsy. This last belief concerning Sainte Sara is of especial significance to the Romanies, because they well realize that the survival of their disliked and persecuted race is much dependent upon the avoidance of mixed marriages. A Gypsy wedding with a gawje is always a time for lamentation amongst the kawlo rat (black blood Gypsy). The fiesta of Les Saintes Maries has long been an occasion for the making of Gypsy unions. Many a chal (lad) has met his chai (girl) in the gathering of the tribes in the Camargue; it is Yugoslavian Romany mating with Spanish, Hungarian, with French – black blood with black blood for ever: the continuance of the ancient race.
Long before I was able to attend the Gypsy fiesta at Les Saintes Maries, I had read and heard much concerning it. I had listened to radio recordings of the Gypsy procession to the sea, for the traditional benediction there of the statue of Sainte Sara, by a high cardinal of Rennes – benediction in the sea. I well remember hearing the hysterical praying of a party of Spanish Gypsies, amongst them the voice of a young woman, keening in flamenco, wild and hot-breathed as the Minstral wind itself which storms over Provence. I was made determined to attend a fiesta. In 1949 I fulfilled my desire.
The 1949 fiesta was notable for two things unusual, the sadly diminished attendance of the Romanies, and the constant sunlight. Usually the weather is ill-favoured for the “fiesta de Gitanes”, but that year there was an abundance of sun which, following three weeks of incessant rain over France, inflamed the Gypsy temperament, and the wild tempest of their music-making, which filled not only the days but also the nights, was indicative of the general feeling of high festival. Unforgettable, that Gypsy music! It felt like a great Romany heart throbbing incessantly in and around Les Saintes Maries: those low thrumming guitars and mewing mandolines – so sad and haunting all, absolute sign of the presence of the Gitanes.
The small numbers of Gypsies attending the 1949 fiesta was typical of the times. The modern mania of forms and formalities, passports, visas, ration cards, finger prints and photographs, and many other bureaucratic impositions, have all made travel both odious and impossible for the true lawless Romanichal. Then there was the further important fact of the 75 per cent extermination of the Gypsies by the Nazis in all occupied parts of Europe, including countries where they had been exceedingly populous. For instance there was only one small party from Hungary, all women and the most beautiful of all seen at the fiesta; they in their exquisite head scarves and long dresses, hand-painted and brilliant as ranunculae flowers which in springtime carpet the plains of their country.
In Gypsy camps were some magnificent horses, and one black stallion from northern France I will never forget. The arched neck, wonderfully muscled body, imbs fine and yet stalwart, the wind-streaming mane and tail, black all and glancing with blue lights as the plumage of ravens: setting a lilac-mauve ending sky streaked blood – from the dying sun, foreground, a brazier charcoal fire glowing the sullen red of rubies, and all around the low-walled black Gypsy tents.
Horses were too few at the fiesta, again the fault of modern times, concrete-surfaced roads overcrowded with motorists who know not of the nature of horses, all making horse travel difficult and often perilous, as I myself have experienced trying to drive a pony and trap in England. But in true Gypsy fashion most of the families had their packs of dogs with them, the majority trained for “la chasse” and as skilled in silent poaching as the Gypsy lurchers of Britain.
When not engaged in the various celebrations associated with the fiesta, men women, and children occupied themselves with basket-making, wood-carving, and card and dice playing. The women also spent much time in begging food and clothes from the gawje (tradition of Sainte Sara!), usually with success because they were so beautiful; also in fortune-telling. Amongst the French Gypsies I found generally the handsome brilliant-eyed faces, the thick shining hair, and the lovely lithe bodies of the true kawlo rat. The children were fascinating, and my admiration must have been recognizable, for two women offered to sell me one of their teeming progeny. The offers greatly tempted me, they being made with all the Gypsy art of persuasiveness; but who can buy another woman’s child and expect true happiness? Certainly not I.
Mention must also be made of the Gypsy dancing, for it was carried on everywhere, and all the time, throughout the “fiesta”, among the little groups of people gathered in the streets, the cafes, or on the sands, to the clapping of hands and cick of castanets, and oftentimes to the music of guitar, mandolin and tambourine. The wild Gypsy fandangos and ritual fire-dances or the sad flamenco. Gypsy dancing! how fantastic and absolutely inimitable it is. This rhythm of the dance above all separates the Gypsy from the gawje. Gypsy dance, like Gypsy music, is spontaneous and improvised, and comes as easily to the performers as their breathing. For my own part I am able to ride with the Gypsies, buy and sell horses and dogs with them, practice herbal medicine as successfully as they, and tent out in the winter months with the hardiest – but when it comes to Gypsy dancing then I find myself as a clumsy-winged heron endeavouring to flight with the soaring brown swifts – which at twilight seem to mount the stars.
Apart from all the other memorable events of the fiesta, there was my meeting with the Gypsy patron saint – Sara. She is entirely the kind of saint whom I can adore. A saint of the people – of the poor, the homeless, the true wanderers. Herself simple and earthy, no simpering tinselled figurehead she; carved of wood, painted a swart Gypsy hue, black haired, dark-eyed, gowned in faded blue, the paint of her strong lips literally kissed away by the warm mouths of the host of Romany chauvi lifted to her in the arms of their parents to receive the blessing of “La Sainte” – through the centuries. (I have seen in Le Figaro, 1952, that a new statue of Sainte Sara is now in use – made 1951. The pity of it! What has become of the old, the beautiful?) Her decoration throughout the fiesta was but a crown of milky roses, which hung pale as stars upon the night-black paint of the head of the Gypsy saint.
I was summoned by the saint herself to her crypt. This was one of those events of Gypsy magic which have occurred many times in my life. It was my intention to stay away from Sainte Sara’s crypt until the end of the fiesta, when the vigil of the Gypsies by the tomb of their saint also ended.
I had been told that the Romanies resented the entry of any who are not full-blooded members of the race, and I wished not to bring annoyance to my friends.
Yet wishing to visit the mysterious-looking ancient church of Les Saintes Maries, I brought candles for the Mary saints and proceeded to the church. The young daughter of the Armenian Gypsy from whose booth I purchased the candles, asked to be allowed to accompany me, and I was pleased to have her. Then within the church, at the shrines of the two Marys, my candles strangely refused to light. There was no stir of air within the church, the atmosphere indeed was sultry, but candleflame after candleflame blew out, and then the candles fell from their places where I had stood them amongst a big collection of others. The only one candle I achieved to bear a flame, then fell backwards upon my arm, inflicting a burn and extinguishing itself.
It was then that the Armenian girl said to me earnestly and consolingly: “It’s not the fault of the candles, my mother’s candles always burn well, many of them here are purchased from her. Let us try them for our sainte Sara.” The girl then took my hand and led me towards the Gypsy crypt.
There indeed my candles all kindled immediately, burnt brightly and stood upright as madonna lilies. The dark eyes of the finely carved figure of the black virgin smiled down upon me in kindliness, strange and mysterious in the swart painted face all marigold tinted by the candles’ flaming.
“Tatchoavel me kushti pens (welcome, my sweet sisters).” she said to the Gypsy girl and me.
“Rinkeno ta kushto miduvels tatcho gairi (beautiful and good angel or lit. My God’s true woman),” I said back to her.
I was alone in the crypt with the Gypsy girl, and I stayed until the entry of a party of Gypsies well litten by wine, and then I went out into the sunlight again.
In that underground crypt I had sensed a definite and forceful presence, as others have also testified. When during the fiesta I returned to Sainte Sara to ask her aid in an affair of the heart, she heard me and helped me.
She, granted me her aid, sent a one-legged musician, Django, and his wonderful and haunting music, to lead me to a Gypsy man whom I had lost through a misunderstanding: he angry with me, and I with him, for no reason at all, only the prevalent fault of loving each other too much. But who, who has not veins filled with lymph instead of blood, can fail to love in such a place at such a time! The days and nights of music, heart-searing as the screaming of the swifts over summer skies, the dark people themselves so bewitching with their Gypsy magic, and the setting of the Camargue – the green, the blue, the gold – and the whispering and sighing tamarisk trees, those trees which Virgil tells interest themselves in the fortunes of lovers…”The tamarisks weep, for gallus, lying by his lonely rock, dying of love for Lycoris.”
So, at the 1914 Gypsy fiesta I loved M., the Golden Gypsy; he like a wild golden antelope. For ever he will be for me the golden heart of that wonderful Gypsy fiesta. And having known him will make me love all Gypsies more for always – indeed all men more.
M. was not free, he had a jumel (woman) of his own, and they had been happy together for two years and had two children: and I cannot cause sadness. So it was but a few golden hours of the fiesta and then “good-bye, good-bye” for ever.
The Gypsies uphold monogamy, one woman for one man. If a woman be unhappy with a man, she is easily able to leave him for another, and she takes the children with her. It is the woman usually who does the changing. If a man desert his wife, then it is general for her family to search him out and bring him back. A Gypsy man may have many passing loves provided that he does not leave his wife; though some do leave. The Gypsy attitude to love is natural and fresh as the wild flowers of the fields. “Woman is made for man and man for woman; then why not love. When men and women love they do not kill or rob: they become givers. Love is creative not destructive. It is natural to love.” those are the words of a Tunisian Arab spoken to me, but they are entirely the sentiment of the Gypsies. The Gypsies but insist that a woman loves truly. Loves a man only for himself, for his person and voice and his thoughts, not for the caravans or horses or dogs that he may possess, or the trinkets and gowns that he may give to her, to love materially is unforgivable…and I was loving M. only for himself, and Sainte Sara gave her help to us. But the story of the Golden Gypsy is too personal a thing for this book. Perhaps one day he will come stepping into a novel, beautiful as a dream, golden as the sunlight of Provence.