Location: Antibes, South of France
As the red light glimmered in the pink of the evening haze, a woman wearing long, flowing skirts canoodled up to my car and drew a soapy heart onto the windscreen before me. Persistently, but not aggressively, she was asking for money to clean my car windows before the traffic light turned green. Staring beyond her towards the dusty haze of Antibes and the azure-blue of theMediterranean Sea, I shrugged my shoulders to show I had no money but resolved to return to this spot and to talk to her people, the tziganes of France.
The word tzigane, like the English word gypsy, has etymological roots in the word Egyptian and evokes the sense of a bohemian lifestyle. The three main groups of French tzigane are called rom, manouches, and gitans and all travel around France in caravans finding shelter in illegal locations and often causing much unease in local communities. Like the swallows, they arrive on the Cote d’Azur with the frost and then leave as spring begins to warm the air. My time on the coast had similarly been bird-like, as I had darted from place to place, exploring and seeking understanding.
Perhaps for this reason, the next day as I drove back to the same spot I remembered that once, as a child in the farming land of Scotland, I’d rescued a baby swallow. In the warm dust of that evening, I’d stood in the shadows of the feedbarn and felt its large, purple heart beating through its gentle pink body as other swallows and the odd bat flitted overhead. The memory of that pulse rippled through my body as I left my car and walked not towards the gypsy woman but two of her male companions. As I walked, my heart beat quickly in tune to the young boy who was now circling around me on his bike. He taunted me with questions and challenged my nerves as I began to explain in my halting French that I wanted to interview them for a local English newspaper. By this point, I was so nervous that my voice and my body were shaking and I needed to stop to take additional breaths. Initially, they fed off my fear and pushed off my need to understand their world. The clear sense I had at this point was that I was too different to them, and that the bridge to their culture was too fragile for others to tread.
However, as I began to explain that I, too, was a traveler – that I was Scottish but had been born in Africa and had traveled through America and Europe – something magical began to happen. The heart of the baby swallow that beat inside me began to gain confidence and so my cautious pose became more determined. In response, Micheal, the stocky dark-skinned slightly aggressive one, began correcting my French and even began speaking his own, hesitant form of English. Slowly our similarities began to bridge across the warm, dusty air as they began to smile at my beat-up car, whose windows still needed washed. Then, they began to talk of their own accord.
As they voiced the difficulties of being gitans (gypsies), they seemed wearied by their situation and ready to find land to stop and build homes for their families. “What many of us want is a place to build and so, as long as we are unable to build – even on the land we buy ourselves – we will remain displaced,” Micheal explained this quietly as his eyes followed a distant gull gliding along the rocky beach shore. The sense of disappointment on their faces was obvious: “we are accepted nowhere and so, as long as we are not accepted, we will continue to travel to places where there is work.” Such dependence on seasonal work takes them not only around France but also to Britain where they feel they meet many of the same problems. Talking with them, I came to understand that there are those who wish to travel for the sake of their history but that equally there are those who are working hard to accumulate their wages to better provide for their families and their future.
As the meeting closed, they were quick to point out that they preferred the term ‘gens du voyage’ (travelling folk) to tziganes. Perhaps, like many of us, they prefer not to be labeled en masse by stereotypes. Indeed, as I walked back to my car and stared out to the birds flitting across the sea, I knew the next time someone drew a soapy heart on my windscreen, I’d try to look further than appearances.
Text © Robyn Shaw Cnockaert 2005 , All Rights Reserved.