LADY GYPSY was my 2nd book with Dorchester and was initially released the month the Towers came down. For those of us unfortunate enough to have new releases out during that chaotic time, our distribution took a huge hit. There were days when I wondered if my book ever got out of the New York warehouse.
Thanks to the raging popularity of ebooks, though, LADY GYPSY is alive again and has reminded me how fascinating Gypsies were. Liza, the heroine, is one of my all-time favorites. Fathered by a Gaje (non-Gypsy) she never knew, she and her Gypsy mother are outcasts by her people. By the sheer nature of her story and the life she was forced to live, she’s unique and colorful. The way I depicted her with the obstacles she must overcome were true.
Let me share with you some of the Gypsy ways:
Scratching – Most Gypsies were highly suspicious of the Gaje. When they encountered one they deemed unwelcome, they would scratch themselves or start coughing violently, giving the implication they possessed a skin or lung ailment which quite effectively sent the Gaje scurrying. They would take this skill into the Gaje stores, too, a butcher shop, for example. After scratching and scratching, they would freely touch hams or sausages. The disgusted butcher would send them on their way with the ‘soiled’ meat free of charge or at a drastically reduced price.
With their possessions few, from time to time the Gypsy would stop at a farmhouse and ‘borrow’ something they needed, say a pair of scissors or an old pot. The Rom (Gypsies) found it unecessary to return the item to its owner; they would simply leave it behind when they were finished with it. In their minds, they weren’t ‘keeping’ the item, and besides, another kumpania (family group) would come along and could use it as well.
Vurma – leaving signs or messages along a trail. If a Gypsy had to break camp quickly to avoid the police, they would leave signs for family members left behind. They’d hang bits of material or lengths of colored thread on tree branches slightly higher than the normal range of vision, choosing branches pointing in the direction they’d left. Pinecones, small heaps of stones, chicken bones, broken glass, etc. would be used, too, pointing the way if there were no trees along the road.
Ghost Vomit (Johai) – The Rom believed a spirit called ‘little grandmother’ (Mamioro) brought disease and fed on filth. They believed she left behind ghost vomit (slime found on garbage) which could heal Gypsy ills. Mixed with flour and baked until it was hard, the Gypsy would chip off small pieces and carry it in their bujo, a small medicine bag. Johai would be mixed with garlic and pepper and other herbs, placed in a small bag, then sewn into an unbaptized child’s clothing, for example, or a sick person’s clothing, to keep them safe.
Marhime – Most of us think of Gypsies as being eternally dirty in their shabby clothes, uncombed hair and bare feet, but in truth, they were fanatics in their cleanliness rituals. A woman was considered marhime (dirty) from the waist down. If her skirt hems touched a man besides her husband, he was soiled by her and considered unclean, a source of shame amongst the kumpania. If her skirts brushed against plates, cups or drinking glasses, they had to be destroyed.
While parked along a riverbank, a kumpania followed five different orders for drawing water. Water for cooking and drinking was taken farthest upstream; next to that, water for washing dishes and bathing. Farther downstream, water for horses, then water for washing clothes, and lastly, the water used for the clothes of pregnant or menstruating women. Right down to using separate buckets for each use.
However odd we might think it, this custom of considering women marhime assured her of both privacy and protection, giving her dignity, power, and a sense of mystery to men. Not necessarily a bad thing, eh?
These are only a few of the strange Gypsy beliefs that I”ve incorporated into Liza’s world. To read more:
LADY GYPSY, Kindle Edition
LADY GYPSY, Nook Edition
Also available at Smashwords!
Do you know of any other customs, Gypsy or otherwise? Do you or your family have any quirks the rest of us would think a bit strange?