Excerpt from Chapter entitled Les Manouches
In the old John Wayne western movies, there was always a good pilgrim who thought that he could make peace with the Indians. Invariably, he would sneak off at night to show the savages that they were god fearing Christians who only wanted to live in peace. The next morning they would find him skinned alive and staked to an anthill. I think of these old movies every time I see a caravan of gypsies parked in the terrain de voyageurs. These people seem to be completely unapproachable which makes them that much more mysterious. They have been traveling the roads of Europe for hundreds of years and their culture remains basically unchanged. They travel in small tribes or families and never seem to stay in one place for a long time. Some still pull their old style wagons with horses like in the Dracula movies, but most now travel in modern RVs.
Our first contact with the gypsies was in front of the local supermarket where the women sell baskets. Aprille has a penchant for baskets and wanted to buy one. Her real motivation was to help the poor gypsies feed their children. But my friends have warned me to avoid them and I noticed that the French were circling them like a pit of rattlesnakes. Aprille, however, who is a little left of Lennon politically, decides that if we show them that we love them, we can get a good deal on a basket and feed a child.
It does not take much to get them started. I make eye contact and four women rise like flies from a pile of garbage. They are literally buzzing with offers and deals. One woman holding up three baskets is yelling cent francs (fifteen dollars) and I am thinking that fifteen dollars for three baskets is really a good deal. I make the deal and hand her a hundred franc note but she doesn't let go of the baskets. My hundred franc note has disappeared and she now says the price is two hundred francs.
We are pulling back and forth on the basket and I realize that a crowd is gathering to watch the spectacle. This is where the old axiom "If you are stupid, you will pay for it everyday of your life" comes from. I say okay and pull out a two hundred franc note thinking that I will get my hundred franc note back as change. The two hundred franc note disappears and she is still gripping the baskets. The price has gone up to four hundred francs but she is throwing in another small basket as a cadeau. While all this is going on, the other three women are jabbering away and sticking baskets in my face. By the time we walk away, we have enough baskets to open a boutique and they only cost us about a hundred dollars. Aprille is happy but I feel like I have been skinned alive.
Aprille was content with the transaction because she was more of an observer and did not get involved in the basket tug of war and the magic spells cast by these women. When my good little pilgrim later tried to approach the basket vendors alone she came away with a completely different point of view. She still loves their baskets but would never try to buy one again.
Aprille learned from her experience but I will from time to time get sucked in again. Aside from magic spells, it is the tactic of holding up a beautiful basket and saying "ten francs" that occasionally gets me. Another old maxim is that people tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. I have on two other occasions since my ordeal handed over ten francs without thinking. At least I have learned to abandon the ten francs and walk away. One has to pay for it everyday.
The French are remarkably tolerant of the gypsies. There are special rules that allow them to get around compliance with social welfare and compulsory education standards for their children. I don't know what the government does about taxes but I suspect that they don't bother trying to collect them. The gendarmes watch them closely and usually visit their camps to recover stolen items as soon as they are reported missing. The locals grumble about the lack of punishment for their thievery but seem to accept it as a fact of life. They are notorious for taking anything not nailed down. That is the reason every French home has a fence and a garage that are locked every night. I think that the gypsies are tolerated because they are not violent. They are master thieves but they do it quietly at night with surreptitious magic. No one has ever caught a gypsy in the act of stealing. Only the circumstantial evidence of chairs, tables, cloths lines and license plates found in their camps suggest their guilt.
The gypsies are still a mystery to me. The unknown places they come from and go to after they leave add to the romantic notions of their travels. There must be something in this lifestyle that is appealing enough to sustain it for so long. The local libraries are full of books about local and national traditions but there is very little to be found about the gypsies. It is because they are unapproachable and I like that.