Big, fat, gypsy anecdotes (1)

Under a sky the colour of dirty milk, and against the backdrop of the fascistic grey arch of Puerta de Toledo, the gypsy woman stood in the drizzle, delivering her sales pitch to anyone who would listen, while she described her wares eloquently with her hands.

‘These umbrellas are well-made…… they have a double lining…….. they come in four different colours…’

There was something about the slick enthusiasm that gave you the impression there would be a musical number coming any minute now: ‘Why, these umbrellas are automatic …….. they’re sistematic….. they’re hyyyyyyyyydromatic…….. why, they’re greased lightening!’

I paused to look at her, turning down with an apologetic shake of my head the offer of a greased lightening umbrella. I had already bought one from an asian man at the metro exit, a purchase which would probably disintegrate into a deformed metal spider wearing a macintosh within three days. How reality always falls short of the promise, I thought. There was nothing of the flashing-eyed Carmen about this woman. Poverty just isn’t picturesque; there was no pouting of lips and buxom swagger here, only a shark-like gaze, and hands like a bricklayer’s.

I had heard about the controversial UK show and seeing the woman jogged my memory: I’d been meaning to take a look for some time, urged by titillated and morbidly curious friends from back home. They were right. I found myself guiltily hooked. Those dresses! The dichotomy of the underage girls whose principal aspiration is to marry at sixteen, dressed like hookers, dancing like lap-dancers, while behaving like virgins. The Grabbings… Those dresses… The weird, chintzy caravans. Those dresses!…. I decided it was time to air the show in a business class of women, where the subject of gypsy culture had come up previously in conversation.

‘But they’re nothing like Spanish gitanos!’ they exclaimed as they watched, fascinated.

‘And these girls are so attractive…..’

‘Well, they are only 16, most of them.’

‘But here, gitano girls are really pretty as children, but only till they get to about 11 or 12. Then… Oh, look at the little kids running around, they’re so clean and healthy-looking. ‘

‘That’s never their house! Is that where they live? Really?’

‘And that’s their caravan? It’s immaculate.’

One of the quieter women tore her eyes away from the screen for a second to comment wrily,

‘Me? I’m just taking notes for my daughter’s wedding, for when she’s old enough….’

‘We had a documentary on tv here, about a big Spanish gypsy wedding, but that was out in the countryside somewhere, they were cooking food on open fires, all sitting on the floor, children running around all muddy and snotty-nosed. People weren’t dressed up like that, they didn’t spend anything like this amount of money, they didn’t have it to spend. It was like a shanty-town, really depressing.’

I taught for an academic year at a government-backed charity that tackles issues in the Roma population like healthcare, education, protection of gypsy culture and integration. I taught the staff, who were extremely motivated and charming: lefty social-worker types, mostly in their thirties. One member of the class was Roma himself: Candido, a thoughtful, bryl-creamed bear of a man with complex facial hair, traced as carefully as Nasca lines, who wore a heavy gold bracelet and signet ring. He was in charge of educational programmes and youth projects. A moment in class that made me smile was while discussing national and regional identity, and I was asking students, who, like most people in Madrid, originated from elsewhere, whether they identified first as Europeans, Spaniards, Madrilenos, or whether their loyalty and identity came from their pueblo. He stopped and thought about it carefully when it came to his turn.

‘My barrio,’ he proclaimed, flexing his jaw proudly, ‘My neighbourhood, yes.’ prompting snorts of laughter from his companions, then friendly digs, like,

‘Oh yeah, Candido’s from the ‘Hood, Man, you can take the boy out of the ‘Hood but you can’t take the ‘Hood out of the boy…’ He responded good-naturedly, with a grin and a shrug.

The other thing I remember about teaching there was that the students were always late in the morning: it was one of those faintly obscene 8 o’ clock starts so I couldn’t blame them. I was always the first to arrive, and would get the key to the classroom from the office, open up, turn on the heating, pull up the blinds etc, and hang around waiting for them. Next door there were training courses running at the same time for groups of young gypsy men dressed uniformly in the Spanish manual workers’ bright blue overalls. The tutor and I used to greet each other every morning with a complicit nod and a yawn, as we both arrived, bleary-eyed. His students were always waiting outside the front entrance smoking and chatting, in a dialect I couldn’t understand. Candido had explained to me it was difficult to get young Roma men into employment as they had a culture of working for themselves. But this scheme appeared to be working. The boys had a particular way of lounging indolently and easily at the entrance, smoking with their cigarettes cupped, inverse, in the palms of their hands between their thumb and forefinger, laughing and slapping each other on the back, that reminded me of arab males. They were the most handsome, sultry young men I had ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. Of course, there was no question of talking to them or interacting with them. They were always rowdy and lively in class: their guffaws and the frequent groans off shifted desks and chairs could be heard through the wall from the classroom next door. One day when I came to set up our classroom it was stacked with wooden boxes, the kind you may have seen flamenco musicians sitting astride and using with the flat of their palms as percussion. Apparently, not only were training courses available to help Roma people into work, but also literacy classes, healthcare education and cultural courses like flamenco music and singing.

There were some interesting poster campaigns that were displayed around the centre, some of them permanent, others temporary. In the entrance hall was a poster proclaiming ‘When you speak with prejudice you are only mouthing the opinions of others,’ accompanied by the face of a young boy, with a strip ‘torn’ across the poster where his mouth was, and another strip, another mouth superimposed over it. The ‘other’ mouth was from a much older man, with grey stubble, and hard, pinched lips. My favourite posters were a series advising you ‘not to judge many by the example of one.’ The illustrations were clever and visually striking. One showed an idyllic sandy beach with one pebble. ‘The beach is all stony’ moaned the tag-line. Another showed a perfect blue sky with one tiny cloud, and the complaint ‘But the sky is full of clouds!’ In the first classroom we used there were posters of grinning, barefoot children hugging each other on scruffy wasteground. Occasionally we were moved to other classrooms which were clearly normally used for childrens’ classes, and I scratched excruciatingly in chalk on a green ‘black’board, surrounded by hand-made posters in primary colours.

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