Pages 168-176

The next afternoon I went again to the Gypsy encampment, accompanied by the same companions. They would not let me visit alone, and I was pleased, because I much needed the help of their Spanish speech to supplement my own limited vocabulary; furthermore I liked their friendly company. We approached the camp in bright sunlight, the heat of the sun being such that the unpaved street surface burnt my feet through my sandals.

For my second visit I had purchased more nourishing food for Bella’s hungry sons, and some attractive things for Maria’s household. By that time I was very depleted of money. I had my rail ticket booked to Granada, but it had become impossible to achieve there, only sufficient money remaining for five further days in Valencia, when I would then be penniless and would have to return to Paris fasting. Since leaving Paris I had not purchased one restraint meal, and had kept my living expenses very low by sleeping out often, and living on an unchanging diet of goat cheese, bread and cherries and strawberries, throughout my travels in Provence and Spain, all inexpensive foods in those countries and delicious. The time had come, and it was in Valencia, when my purse was almost empty and I was having to count every centavo and peseta (Spanish coins). Even so, I could not go to the Gypsies empty-handed.

Rico and Plata were on watch for me long before the encampment was reached, and seeing them again, I was thankful that I had decided to fill my basket for the Gypsies, and leave out the cheese from my own diet during the time that I would remain in Valencia. The Gypsy lads, remembering my pleasure in their dancing and singing of the yesternight, commenced performance of both as soon as they reached my companions and me. That noon Rico was further amusing, for he was continually thrusting out his cupped hand and hanging his head in a posture of much suffering, all in the true begging manner, in which he had been well schooled by his mother: “Bread! Bread!” he whined. Although he was at that time play-acting, his need was real enough, as was well shown by the fury in which he devoured all food that I put into his thin, grimed hand.

Now in the sunlight I could see well the small Gypsy brothers. I was amazed at the filth of the, which had not been very noticeable in the yesternight’s light of stars and fire. The hair of the Gypsy boys was matted so that combing would be impossible, scissors would be necessary to break through the matted tufts; their clothing was in tatters and stained with grease and dirt; and the layers of filth accumulated upon their bared chests and their forearms and legs, lay so thickly it could have been scraped away in spoonfuls and would have filled canisters. Yet I loved the little lads; they were so vivid and their brown feet so lightsome upon the earth. Their eyes peering out through the low-falling hair, were brilliant, long and as black as poppy-seed, and so highly expressive the they made the thin child faces appear quite beautiful.

Bella was outside her tent to greet us, dressed before in the torn dress, which in the sunlight showed to be of faded blue cotton, revealing much of her brown-skinned firm body through the many rents. She was well pleased with the food gifts that I brought to her and at once began to distribute fair shares amongst her three sons, which were consumed wolfishly by all of the. From the tent wherein lay Zo-Zo I could hear the same frantic swallowing of food and the gulping which accompanies things taken too hastily. I went to speak with Zo-Zo and he told me that his rat was away – “Hunting and killing snakes and biting off babies’ ears and toes”, and that the animal would be back with him by eventide.

Bella endeavored to keep some of the food gifts for another day, or perhaps for herself, for on both of my visits she had eaten nothing, the children taking all. But Rico and Plata would not let her do so. For the two boys, aware that all the food had not been distributed, then became momentarily maniacal as soon as their own shares were consumed and their mouths once more empty. In unison they commenced leaping at their mother, punching her breasts, kicking at her legs, getting their spittle upon her dress.

“Hoben. Hoben! (food)” they screamed in Gypsy speech. They were not play-acting at mongering (begging) then, as they had been earlier in the street.

“But Bella proved that she could be master of her sons when she had the wish. She whacked their heads powerfully, took hold of Rico by one leg and swung him against Plata, thus flattening both of the boys into the rubble dust. Then, placing the remaining bags of food within the big tent, she forbade the boys to approach near there.

Rico and Plata arose from the ground and shook the dust from their hair and their rags, and wiped their faces dry of their tears, leaving long black smears down the grimed flesh. Then Rico immediately commenced another Gypsy dance for my benefit, this of flamenco style. Sad and slow, slow, slow, as if in keeping with the present mood of the little lad. The thin-limbed body in the tattered clothing, swaying as a clump of wind-blown fennel weed amongst the rubble.

The flamenco dance ended, I dusted further sand from the dancer’s hair, and with the end of my scarf cleaned up his thin, hard face. “I love you,” I said to him, “I shall always love you.”

He opened wide at me his dark lustrous eyes, and then set off into a further dance of very different character. No longer sad flamenco, but one of crowing cockerel prancing in which he had excelled at the previous night’s performance.

“Ole! Ole!” I called. And my companions joined me “Ole! Ole! Gitano!”

Bella made excuses for the trouble over the food. She told me: “Those chauvis (children) of mine are so greedy they would eat themselves motto (drunk), eat until they burst their bellies open, if I didn’t check ’em. There’s no end to their greed.”

I said nothing. I thought of the children of the rich, picking without appetite at the over-abundance of artificial foods with which their plates are loaded daily, and I knew that it was better as it was with the Gypsy children of Isabella, to be able to devour plain black bread, and green apples, and raw roots, and such like. For all their state of filth the little Gypsy brothers were unusually lithe and active, and their keep glittering eyes behold of inner health. They were certainly more alive to the pulse of the earth than were most children of their age. And they were rhythmical as the dancing birds-of-paradise.

I asked Bella’s consent to take a photograph of her with her two sons – Zo-Zo being unable to leave his bed – and I promised to send her enlargements later. The Gypsy woman and her two wild chauvis then posed for me against their tent, and gave me one of my best Romany Photographs.

As I was photographing Bella and her sons, a Gypsy woman visitor arrived by Bella’s tents, and stood watching the procedure, she meanwhile giving a performance of a state of high impatience, coughing, clapping her hands as at the final of a theatre act, and unceasingly tapping at the earth with her feet which were shoe-clad. She kept commanding: “Bella! Bella! Enough! Enough! Come, come!”

I had sufficient difficulty in getting the wild boys to stay quiet for one photograph, without the further trouble of the impolite interruptions of the newcomer which fretted them. Therefore I was determined not to let the visitor hurry me unduly. If anything I prolonged the photography.

The impatient Gypsy was a young woman of medium stature and build, her coloring unusually pallid for a Romany. Her eyes also were pale and very prominent; their expression predatory. Her teeth were bad and her shoulders very rounded. She was arrayed in a stage-version type of Gypsy dress, consisting of a scarf of pea-green satin bound tightly across her brow, long-sleeved blouse also of green satin, and a skirt of royal blue velvet, much worn of its pile, ragged of hem and many sizes too big for the thin body which carried it.

The photography ended, the woman in the thin angry voice began to reprimand Bella for having kept her waiting. Bella then informed me that the young woman was wanting me to visit the tent of her people and to photograph them, and had come to Bella for that purpose, to lead me to her family. She explained further that the woman was one of a party of Roumanian Gypsies camping on the site; and that she had promised them that she would ask me to visit their tent.

“They are very high-blood Gypsies,” Bella informed me in some awe, looking in respect towards her impatient visitor, who was still performing much toe-tapping and angry head-tossing. “They’re real Hungaros, and have much pride. They’ll be very angry with me if you do not visit them this day.”

I turned therefore to the ill-tempered Hungaro, and told her: “Very well, if your people wish it, I’ll be happy to visit your tents and take photographs.”

The Hungaro then immediately took my arm, her fingers so tightly pressed into my flesh that I again thought of a predatory being. She led the way at fast pace to her people’s tents at the far end of the site. Isabella and her two sons followed after us, and also my three Spanish companions.

The family tent of the Hungaros was a big one, the largest and grandest on the site. It was indeed a marquee of grey canvas, with tasseled decorations of cord on the upper parts of the outside walls. On entering within at the Hungaro’s command, what a strange scene was to be beheld! For richness of color, and for the bizarre, grotesque and dramatic qualities, it was of the nature of a painting of Goya: Goya who was himself a friend of the Gypsies.

There were near twenty Gypsy figures gathered in the ill-lit interior; three men and the rest of the company, women of all ages. There was not one child to be seen. The men were in ordinary clothes, apart from their wide-brimmed hats, which all were wearing dispute the sultry atmosphere of the tent. Only the weathered appearance of their faces and their fierce eyes gave evidence of Gypsy blood. The women were almost all dramatically arrayed in theatrical Gypsy clothes after the style of the young woman who had brought us to the tent. It was obvious that they had dressed themselves thus for the occasion of my visit, and doubtless that was one reason for the impatience of Bella’s visitor, whom I learnt bore the name of Helena-Lena.

From traveling chests and baskets, the Hungaro women must have pulled out their head scarves, their shawls and blouses and skirts, their high-heeled shoes. Their apparel was a collection of faded silks and satins, velvets, and even a fur-cape worn by one grey-faced crone. All the clothing was very greased and drab-looking and smelling powerfully of garlic, with which many Gypsies pack their clothes and rugs as a protection against destruction by moths.

I was thankful for the pungent garlic aroma, for there was in the tent a loathsome smell of unclean human bodies and hair, not the pleasant wood-smoke and earthy smell of the habitual country-living Gypsy. The atmosphere was rank and oppressive, and how the flies swarmed and troubled the air with their shrill chorusing; a black insect plague every-where and upon everything, whilst on the ground the sand ants, too, moved in red processions. Many of the women held fans of folded newspapers, with which they sought to beat away from themselves the pestering insects above and below, and also to create some air flow.

Most of the gathering of women were pale-skinned, with reddish-hued hair showing under their loosely fitting head-scarves. Further red of eyebrows, and pale eyed, either red-lashed or very pink-lidded and without lashes. The noses of the majority of them were long and curved, looking to me much like the beaks of carnivorous birds. Only four women of the company looked of Spanish Gypsy type; and they were not in festive wear as were the others, but plainly dressed in black, they most likely being neighbors from the camping site, merely invited into the marquee of the Hungaros for my visit.

One of the men, a bent faded figure, wearing a big black hat of beaver-felt, which being many sizes too large for him hid his eyes from sight, was smoking at a big hookah pipe. That was the first time that I had seen such a pipe in use, outside the small room of my childhood home in Manchester, where my father had kept all of his special Turkish property, and which room we had all known simply as “The Turkish Room”. The centre piece of the tent, however, was not the hookah pipe, but a big silver samovar, newly polished and of which the Hungaros seemed very proud, considering the many times they called attention to that object. I think that the article also had been brought out from storage for my benefit, as it appeared to be merely a thing of ornament, and was not in use for the brewing of Russian tea.

The gifts of food which I had been keeping for Maria and her children, for my visit to the street of the Gypsies, I gave to the crone in the fur-cape, who appeared to be the head woman of the party of Hungaros. It thus meant that I would have to purchase further gifts for Maria, and as my money was at an end I would be compelled to endure one footless day as a result of my visit to the marquee of the Hungaros. Yet I had no regrets; the scene within the tent was such that I was unlikely to meet with elsewhere in my lifetime. The very atmosphere was electric with human emotions, while the bad smells and the chorusing flies and swarming ants added to its strangeness.

The people in the tent talked with me for half an hour, mostly questioning me as to my travels, and whether the Gypsies whom I had met had been rich in possessions or poor in possessions. “Very Poor,” I told them, in truth, and my answer seemed not to please them.

I passed round amongst my collection of photographs of English and French Gypsies, which they well enjoyed. I found that they knew very many of the Romany words in general use with the English Gypsies, and their emotions were childlike as they translated my Romany words back into the peculiar type of Spanish that they spoke.

One word was certainly known to Lena, who had been seated herself at my side and was sharing with me one of the soiled cushions which gave us some seating protection from the ants. Lena’s word was love (money) and this she importuned unceasingly  as an under-chorus to the shrill string orchestra of the flies: “Lova! Lova! Lova!” Sometimes she broke her mono-word chorus with a second Romany lav (Romany word), which was tuvlo (tobacco): “tuvlo! tuvlo! tuvlo!”

As I was enjoying myself so well among the strange com pay, feasting my eyes upon the peculiar and very individual Romany faces, I finally gave heed to Lena’s importunings, and paid her love enough to buy tuvlo for all the people gathered in the tent; thus ensuring for myself a second foodless day before I departed from Valencia. That money she handed to one of the men, and sent him forthwith away to buy cigarettes.

I will speak what good of Lena I am able, and tell that she was not mean with the cigarettes when they were brought to her, but distributed one each to all, including Bella and my three non-Gypsy companions.

I do not smoke, but as I sat in the marquee surrounded by smokers, I was much tempted to ask the man with the hookah to let me have some pulls at his pipe. But his teeth being so black and his person so greasy and all-over filthy, I would not give such speech to my desire.

The cigarettes all consumed, Lena began then to chorus at me a further word of: “Hoben! Hoben! Hoben!” That had been the hunger cry, earlier, of RIco and Plata.

“You already have food,” I told her, my voice sharp. I was by then much determined to resist all further pestering from Lena. “I gave the lady in the fur-cape many bags of good food for you all.”

“I’ve much hunger,” persisted Lena. Then holding out her hands dramatically, an adult imitation of the begging act of Rico, she screeched: “I have bauro bokaloben! (big famine, bokaloben also means “lucky” in many Romany dialects). Lova! Lova! Por konna. (a meal)”

I was already knowledgeable of the Romany art practiced by many a Romany, upon the gawje (non Gypsy) especially, of willing money and other objects away from chosen victims. The art is usually practiced by women members of the kawlo rat (dark blood). I have spoken with many gawje women who have parted entirely unwillingly with things which they valued, when under the spell of a Gypsy woman’s persuading. Only twice before on all of my meetings with Gypsies through the many years, had the mongering art been practiced in such a form upon me, and neither time with success. I must here admit to having employed the art myself on few occasions, to obtain things that I much desired, but which further the victims could always well spare. Whereas at the time of my meeting with the Hungaros I was in a state of penury, and could not spare one further peseta for the unceasing wants of Lena. Therefor, with finality, I told the Gypsy:

“No!” and my voice was loud and determined. “Nothing! Nothing!” With that declaration I left the cushion and went towards the tent opening; movement proving difficult owing to the crowding people. I heard an oath of anger from Lena, followed by an equally indignant murmurous chorus from the rest of the party of Hungaros. I had some difficulty in finding the door aperture, it being hung with rugs of animal skins, in oriental style. Each rug was formed from the skins of several animals, complete with head, fastened together with leathern thongs. At first I had thought the skins to be of dogs, but close view showed me that they were pelts of wolves.

I was angry at Lena’s lack of traditional Gypsy hospitality and the fact that the other women had supported her in her mongering. It was the first time that I had been inited to a Romany home and treated with discourtesy: I felt ashamed that my non-Gypsy friends should have witnessed the rudeness. The Gypsy caravan or tent, and the fireside, are traditional places of hospitality; there, always, the guest can be confident of good treatment. Away from the two places there is no telling what treatment may be met with; but in general the Gypsy is kindly to the visitor.


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