I was robbed at Rome’s Tiburtina bus station last week. A Roma woman took my portfolio-style wallet with about $500 in cash, my passport, vax card, and international driving permit. And though she looked decrepit, she must have had the light and lightning-fast fingers of the Artful Dodger.
I was sitting on a bench reading something on my phone when she first approached me and others around me, giving us all the usual pitch about a baby who needed milk, blessings and good fortune to those who gave her something, blah blah. I was very dismissive, as I always am with Roma supplicants. I simply don’t buy their stories, and I have reason.
She must have spotted the wallet through the gaps in my purse —which had a snap closure rather than a zipper — and resolved to circle back to me. This time, she reached out her hand and flicked me on the nose and forehead as I read my phone, startling me enough that I snapped my head up to protest. At that point she wagged her finger at me and muttered something about fortune. She must have simultaneously plucked the wallet while I was thus distracted. I didn’t realize it was gone until a few minutes later when I went to board the bus to Abruzzo.
I have long railed against the Roma, aka gypsies, in Rome. In my experience, they are not simply mendicants or criminals; they are both. They are villains whose cringing, obsequious pitch about a baby who needs milk sets my teeth on edge. The baaaby, signora, needs laaatte. I’ve seen these same women around the corner a few minutes later, out of their poor wraps and into their jeans and tees, smoking and laughing with friends, no baby in sight.
Some years ago, I watched a news piece on Italian TV about how one community, I don’t remember where, was fighting a decision to allow a Roma caravan to set up camp in what was, essentially, its own backyard. As part of her protest against such discrimination, one Roma woman interviewed had said, I thought, that working was against her religion. I remember thinking “Gee, small wonder people don’t want you backing onto their property. Your ‘religion’ leaves you two choices: begging and thieving.”
Nevertheless, my railing turned to research. Before I went off on the Roma in a blog post, I thought I’d better check myself. In googling some key phrases, I found nothing about work being against the Roma religion, which varies according to country, anyway. Had I misunderstood the woman, or was she part of a group of outliers?
I read that the Roma are a much-persecuted people, reviled in Europe for centuries. And that the term “gypsy” is a slur coined by white Europeans who mistook them for Egyptians due to their skin color. (The linguistic connection between the two names works across many languages. In Italian, the words for Egyptian and gypsy are Egiziano and zingaro, respectively.)
Much like the Jews in Europe, the Roma have been hounded out of city after city since they first appeared in the 1500s. Their history includes enslavement, forced sterilization, and government-sanctioned massacres. Unlike the Jews, they’ve never thrived. To this day, they’re openly denied jobs if they’re truthful about their Romani (not to be confused with Romanian) background. When they do get jobs, they are often ones that keep them out of sight. Some companies in Europe even have policies against their employment. And some European countries including Italy, where they live in slums on the outskirts of cities, are right now trying to mount policies and programs to further isolate and marginalize them. Disenfranchised and shunned, without rights, without work, what were and are their choices but to become mendicants and, ultimately, thieves?
Obviously, I am chastened.
And yet…that’s not to say that I’ve decided the Roma are saints. It’s unclear why they’ve been on the receiving end of such rabid hatred for so long, and what part they themselves have played in stoking it. Some say it originated with mistrust of their nomadic lifestyle, together with resentment of the competition they brought to the marketplace status quo with their skills in certain crafts like metalwork and basket-weaving.
But why have they never managed to turn things around or to assimilate, even after centuries? Why does the hatred persist? Was and is their exotic way of life and dress always just vaguely threatening to the European sensibility? Is it that they insist on playing by their own perhaps questionable rules or that they have never been permitted to enter the game?
Even articles decrying the treatment of the Roma aren’t especially clear on the hows and whys of their persistent plight. Is there a certain raised-on-robbery villainy intrinsic to their nomadic culture, as so many Europeans — and certainly so many Italians — clearly believe? Are those who try unsuccessfully to assimilate and find jobs victims of their own people’s ongoing bad behavior or simply of European prejudices?
Like every ethnic group, there are those among their ranks that are bad to the bone. Evidently, some leaders of this patriarchal culture can be malevolent. Men who act as clan heads sometimes get rich by pimping women and kids out to thievery. I’ve been told some will cripple their own children at birth to make them better beggars, though that may well be of a piece with tales of eating children. It would, however, account for the high number of boys with twisted legs who move through the streets of Rome on wheeled flatbeds, by turns peddling with their hands and extending them for alms.
No doubt, there can be unpleasant consequences for women and children dispatched to earn their living who return short of their daily quota. And that presents another dilemma: Have women like the crone who robbed me been sent out by brutish husbands or fathers or brothers or sons to earn their daily bread and dare not come home until they have? I suppose that’s likely.
So it’s hard to know how to feel. In the abstract, you don’t want to reward the kingpins of such a brutal arrangement; nor do you want to think a woman will be brutalized tonight because she’s come home empty-handed.
How much of all this is malignant myth about a culture Europeans don’t understand and how much is based on reliable information? Again, unclear. I’d have to read a lot more to reach anything that looks like an answer.
Meanwhile, I haven’t changed overnight my aversion to Roma behavior. I still resent the young women who cringe and cry invisible tears about their starving baby or, with the same cringing posture, show you a picture of the Virgin Mary or some other maternal icon and then moments later shed that ragged persona and join their friends for a hang. But I do believe that these tribes of people collectively known as gypsies or Roma deserve at least a bit of informed attention from folks like me.
I guess this has been a windy rumination on two lessons I learned having been robbed in Rome.
The first lesson is practical: You need to put away the reading materials and phones and stay alert in train and bus stations in Rome. Every police officer and official I spoke to said the same thing: These places are a huge problem that’s getting worse.
Your every bag and pocket should be zipped up tight, with valuables preferably tucked inside your clothing against your skin. To ensure against losing everything, credit and bank cards should be divided and kept in different places, as should passports and other identity cards. And if you’re going to offer something to those who ask, keep some pocket money separate from the bigger stash.
The moral lesson is that I reaped what I had sown. I’d nursed a real contempt for a whole group of people that, while based on some anecdotal evidence, was also born of ignorance of their history and plight. I hadn’t even bothered to look that woman in the eye. I’d treated her with contempt and robbed her of any dignity or hope of help. She’d responded in kind and robbed me in return. I don’t know that I exactly had it coming, but I don’t know that I didn’t. Would she have done it if I’d offered her a little something in the first place? I’ll never know.