Tag Archives: gypsies

Extreme Travel: Gypsies and Rubber Tramps

hippie vanBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

What does a scaler of Everest have in common with a guy sitting on a piece of driftwood on the Oregon shore who hasn’t climbed ten feet above sea level for years? They’re both extreme travelers.

For a lot of people, “extreme” doesn’t necessarily mean going to a remote place, or performing impressive physical deeds, or even seeking a particular kind of thrill. For some, travel is not an occasional luxury, or even a periodic obligation, but a way of life. The “extreme” part is the unending duration of it, and the danger that isn’t sought but that comes anyway.

America has its share of eternally restless wanderers who make their homes in old buses, vans, and even cars. Sooner or later, most of them pass through Venice, California. This piece looks at a few of them, who were featured in Rubber Tramps, a documentary directed by Max Koetter and produced by Kenny Rosen. The film crew started in Venice and worked its way up the California coastline to Oregon, interviewing and immortalizing a fascinating array of road folks such as these:

Ceramic artist Patty has run afoul of the rules governing sales on the boardwalk…During the filming of Rubber Tramps, Patty’s home on wheels was destroyed by fire, and the filmmakers gave her one of their buses. RomTom has spent plenty of time in Venice during his travels, and wrote a good portion of his book Comporting Roadwise in a local cafe.

For a fuller look at the “cast,” the film’s MySpace page shows the whole spectrum: the Vietnam veteran and his son; the Deadhead; the schizophrenic; the Greyhound employee; the aging black bluesman; the various troubadours and philosophers whose words and lives make this such an inspiring chronicle of alternative lifestyles. The film is stitched together with segments of a Ken Kesey interview, as the grand old man tromps around his Oregon farm. It was the last major film project of Kesey’s life. There’s even some antique footage of beat icon Neal Cassady driving the Merry Pranksters’ bus, Furthur.

The ability to be at home anywhere is, nowadays, an extreme life skill. But it used to be the only game in town, back when there was no town. Our roaming hunter-gatherer ancestors knew how to make the whole world their comfort zone. It’s genetic, mostly dormant, but still active in the true Gypsies. The Romany people have been persecuted for centuries, forced into urban ghettos to put an end to their roving, and then persecuted some more. In Europe and the United Kingdom they’re marginalized, and even tolerant Canada is undergoing a wave of Romophobia. In the Czech Republic alone, there have been at least 35 racially motivated murders of Gypsies in the past 20 years. In The Star, Rosie Dimanno, who writes prolifically about the world political scene, provides a summary of the current situation.

At the end of July, 150 Romanian gypsies showed up in Prague because a 17-year-old said to be the “prince” was in the hospital and not expected to live. (It should be noted that one of the gypsy secrets, revealed by a trustworthy source, is that there’s no such thing as Gypsy royalty, it’s just public relations BS to fool the gajos.) They camped someplace, and there were no problems. Then, the public health officials got involved, because to cook out in the open is unsanitary. The Gypsies camped someplace else, but got kicked out of there because it’s a natural heritage site. Then they camped somewhere else…

Well, the young man died. The Gypsies didn’t have enough money to transport the body back to Romania. Not even a third of it. So they hit up the Prague city fathers and the Romanian embassy, which said it would let them know in a couple of weeks. At another campground, the city declined to provide the Gypsies with portable toilets or tanks of drinking water. They might like it too much and decide to stay. They are the archetypal NIMBY triggers. (Somewhat like halfway houses, recycling plants, and various other things that are recognized as good, but to which the average urban dweller is likely to object, saying “not in my back yard.”) Civilized people think the Rom should just get over themselves and settle down. But in some other back yard.

photo courtesy of Dennis Wong , used under this Creative Commons license

Woodstock and Other Music Festivals of the World

News Editor

A mainstay of World Hum and the Matador Network, Eva Holland went to Woodstock’s 40th anniversary bash in upstate New York. Born 13 years after the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, Holland admits to liking the music of her parents’ generation better than her own, especially the Woodstock album. It was the siren lure of those musicians that inspired her to attend the commemorative version of the legendary happening. In a piece titled “Back to the Garden?” she describes the journey, which was almost in the nature of a pilgrimage:

At one point, I noticed a homemade peace sign by the side of the road. It read, “40 Years: The Message is Still the Same.” I wondered if it was intended as a hopeful or a cynical comment…For a moment, trapped in my own, much smaller patch of gridlock, I felt closer to those legendary half-a-million hippies than I ever had before.

After idling in traffic for too long, Holland arrived at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, parked, and bought a ticket. She mentions the extensive police presence, and the copious amount of Official Merchandise. Original Woodstock bands Ten Years After and Canned Heat were satisfying. What emerges as the important thing about the four-decades-ago festival is its significance as a social phenomenon and a political statement. Why did so many people show up for this thing, back in the day? And what brought the people who showed up this time? (Feel free, by the way, to send us your own interpretation of the significance of these questions.)

One of the nicest things about The Third Tower Up From the Road is that Kevin doesn’t only describe the sights, and the history, and whoever happens to be hanging around on the scene with the spare time to humor a foreigner who specializes in off-the-wall conversational gambits. Everywhere he visits, if any kind of music is audible, we are sure to hear about it. His awareness extends to the musical nerve center of a given city, the place where the real musicians buy their reeds and strings and try out attractive new percussion instruments. During trips by automobile, particularly in America, matching the music to the landscape is a preoccupation of his. He embraces the universal truth that “mornings are particularly hard on bluesmen.”

Don’t you love being reminded of events you missed? A slew of music fests were conducted over the summer, any one of which might someday turn out to be as legendary as Woodstock, or the 1963 Newport Folk Festival (when Bob Dylan “went from zero to hero in the course of a weekend,” in the words of Rowland Scherman.)

It wasn’t all youth culture material, either. The Copenhagen Summer Festival consisted of twelve nights of chamber music. There was the Byblos summer festival in Lebanon, and the Istanbul Jazz Festival and International Music Festival. People flocked to Lyon, France, for the National Music Festival, while Aix-en-Provence hosted a festival with the theme of ancient mythology, featuring Götterdämmerung. Amsterdam had its Dance Event (which also encompasses electronic music), and presented the week-long Grachtenfestival of classical music.

This one is coming up in October and it sure sounds interesting: the Rajasthan International Music Festival in Jodhpur, India, whose mission is to:

…revive dying folk musical genres of the state and will promote the traditional music of the European gypsies, who are said to have migrated from Rajasthan at least 1,000 years ago… A delegation of musicians from Spain’s biggest institute of gypsy music Instituto Gitane will take part in the festival.

One last word: Jeremy Kressmann of Gadling has compiled a stunning list of desirable music-oriented destinations, including both festivals and ongoing music scenes that are not to be missed.

And here’s another question. What music event in the coming season do you consider essential?

photo courtesy of Patti Haskins, used under this Creative Commons license

Provence, France: Literary Tourism and More

RoussillonBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Susan Spano, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, sees Provence through the lens of a reader. She was attracted by the writings of Peter Mayle, who has published no fewer than four books featuring the district, only to have a fan of show up in his living room. And then there’s a book called Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, which which brings throngs of devoted readers to the area of the Luberon Mountains.

Spano, however, is not content to stick with trekking off to see the sights described in any of these books. With us peeking over her shoulder, she visits the town of Apt, where the market day is a famous attraction:

The Apt market, stretching along pedestrian-only streets…draws tourists and locals alike for its dazzling array of regional merchandise — handmade lavender soap, lotion and sachets, olives and olive oil, wine, artisanal honey and liqueurs, cheese, herbs, flowers, candied fruit, pottery, baskets and fabrics in all the bright, beautiful patterns of Provence.

Every one of those items is practically mandatory baggage for the home-bound visitor, especially the lavender products, because this is lavender world headquarters. And a serious market-goer has to know the ropes: Show up early, like 8:00, because first of all you want to be able to park.

Spano also explored the a mountain village called Sivergues, which she describes as “sort of Provençal ghost town” situated near the scenic Aiguebrun River. In fact, there appears not to be an inch of Provence that isn’t scenic. Art tourism vies with literary tourism as the big draw, especially since the recent opening of the house of Jane Eakin, a painter who inhabited Ménerbes for about forty years. Know who else used to live in this town? Dora Maar, one of Picasso’s muses.

Travel Examiner Mickey Sewell has also written extensively about Provence, adding an interesting detail about the area called the Luberon. No new buildings are permitted, so if you want to live there, you’d better have a relative who owns a house and who is anxious to remember you in their will. Sewell claims Texas as her other area of geographical expertise, and also is a proficient technical writer who grew up in many different parts of the world.

In La Belle France, she also covers the territory immortalized by painter Vincent Van Gogh, and the village of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, where Gypsies from around the world gather each spring to celebrate Sara the Black, patron saint of the Romany folk. Another town in Provence, Cassis, is where Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry tended to hang out. And that’s only scratching the surface of the treasures Provence has to offer. And now, wouldn’t you know it? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have invaded Provence and bought a 35-bedroom chateau with a 1000-acre back yard.

It goes without saying that this incomparable section of France is a favorite of a certain travel writer whose name is at the top of this page. Kevin Dolgin sings the praises of Provence like nobody else, in The Third Tower Up From the Road. We won’t give away too much, but he does say:

All of these things are wonderful and you should go to Provence and stay a long time and read about them, then check them out and then decide to stay even longer…

So, there you have it: Provence, France – be there or be square!

photo courtesy of jacdesalpes , used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Highlight: George Borrow

wandsworthBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Here’s a pithy note on a guy who’s maybe not as well known as he should be: George Borrow, born in 1803. (The Gutenberg Project offers a picture of his birth home.) These words are from Thomas Swick, whose blog observed Borrow’s birthday not long ago:

Wild Wales is the account of a trip he took in the summer of 1854 with his wife and stepdaughter. He of course had learned Welsh, and read the national poets in the original, and rambling around the place…he talked to everybody, an antecedent of Paul Theroux who once used the verb “buttonhole” to describe the travel writer’s modus operandi.

Thomas Swick, by the way, is former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World. He’s lived in Washington, D.C., France, Alsace, London, Poland, and Greece, and he’s a very funny guy. We know this because of his list of “Seventy Ways Travel Magazines Address the Economic Crisis” at WorldHum. In a depleted publishing arena, Swick imagines such articles as “The 12 Best City Parks to Sleep In” and “Forget Exotic Places – Visit Exotic Dancers” and “Two Places to See Before You Die.”

But we were talking about George Borrow who, as a young Englishman, began his travel career by walking around in France and Germany. Later, via other means of transportation, he went to Portugal, Russia, Morocco and Spain. He was an incomparable linguist, speaking many tongues and translating, for instance, the works of Alexander Pushkin from the Russian.

As a Protestant, a proselytizer, and a demonizer of the Pope, Borrow was thought by some to be a fanatic. It’s true he did most of his wider traveling under the aegis of the British and Foreign Bible Society. But he also knew how to have a good time. He liked his Burgundy wine, saying, “It puts fire into your veins,” and he was known to be a practical joker, though the example we unearthed is too complicated to go into here. Borrow was a gentleman and a scholar, but not as well socialized as some. He tended to be blunt and tactless in the name of resisting baloney, but he never cussed. There may not have been a Polar Bear Club back then, but when Borrow was 70, he’d still plunge into an iced-over pond.

In Borrow’s day, his powers of description were recognized as second to none. He not only loved Wales and the Welsh, which was a lowbrow taste, like admitting that you loved hillbillies, but specialized in the despised nomads of Europe and the British Isles, the Gypsies. Indeed a contemporary detractor said Gypsies were “nine-tenths of his stock in trade.”

It was all very well for a British subject to learn Greek or translate Russian, but this oddball took things too far, for heaven’s sake. Oh yes, he was looked down on for hanging out with the riff-raff. Four of his published books are about Gypsies, starting with The Zincali: The Gypsies of Spain. Then a pair of volumes called Lavengro and Romany Rye were published in the mid-1800s, about Borrow’s travels with the Gypsies. Even today, scholars are unable to agree on their fact/fiction ratio. But there’s no doubt he knew the language; Romano Lavo-Lil is a dictionary of Romany terms. The photo on this page was taken in Wandsworth, near London, one of the places where Borrow visited the Gypsies long ago.

As a tourist on foreign soil, Borrow was most impressed by St. Petersburg, writing:

Notwithstanding I have previously heard and read much of the beauty and magnificence of the Russian capital……There can be no doubt that it is the finest City in Europe, being pre-eminent for the grandeur of its public edifices and the length and regularity of its streets.

A page at Peter Greenberg’s comprehensive travel website gives you a pretty good idea of why visitors are so impressed with the city. It was put together by Karen Elowitt, who collected tips from savvy locals who recommended the best places to visit. Greenberg is a multi-media personality who has served as travel correspondent for Good Morning America and travel editor for Today.

And what of The Third Tower Up From the Road? You’ll find St. Petersburg in Kevin’s book, for sure. He checked out the Hermitage and Dvortsovaya Place and the Nevsky Prospekt, and enjoyed the city very much. But we’re waiting for his report on traveling with the Gypsies.

photo courtesy of Ewan-M, used under this Creative Commons license

Kevin Dolgin’s Useful Foreign Phrases


News Editor

Let us consider one of the components of The Third Tower Up From the Road, a piece called “Useful Phrases.” Like many other travelers and travel writers, Kevin Dolgin believes in learning the words that signify civilized politeness in one’s host country. But there’s more to it than that. Here’s a quotation worth paying close attention to — and the reason will soon become clear.

Bitte is a great word. It can mean many things, depending on the intonation. It can mean “please” or “thank you” or “are you out of your mind?”

Let’s back up a moment, to the title. “Useful Phrases.” Yawn. I mean, at first glance, a person might be excused for thinking this subject is a little too utilitarian to be, you know, entertaining. Acquiring such phrases is a worthy achievement, of course, like when Anglo hospital staff learn how to say Le voy a tomar la presion de la sangre, and other apposite constructions. But no. Kevin Dolgin is talking about something else entirely.

He’s talking about wandering around in a foreign country, telling people that there’s a penguin in your closet, or that your father has ten toes. Well, no wonder they say, “Bitte?

“Useful Phrases” — Ah, that such an infinity of meaning should be contained within such a minimalist title. In addition to “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” the Dolgin Theory of Cross-Cultural Communication recommends mastering one phrase that is totally nonsensical. Or, at least, a definitive all-purpose non sequitur. The resulting dialogue usually makes a charming tale, like what happened when Kevin said “I would like a large chessboard” in Spanish.

The Swedish phrase he recommends is “My hedgehog isn’t stupid,” and of course there’s a story attached to that one. Furthermore, he says the hedgehog line once came in handy when he gave a speech to 350 Swedes.

Now, here’s a strange thing. As a young teen, I read everything Gypsy-related that was in the hometown public library, and learned some Romani words. The only one I seem to have retained is hotchiwitchi, and guess what that means. It means hedgehog. Is that weird, or what? Incidentally, you can’t go wrong spending an afternoon looking at pictures of hedgehogs. The real ones tend to blend in with the natural surroundings unless they’re crossing a lawn or something. Artisans employ the hedgehog likeness to create toys, planters, chairs, cartoon characters, and logos. Chefs make desserts that look like hedgehogs. Here’s an intriguing up-to-the-minute bit of hedgehog news. A website called Hotchiwitchi is devoted to books, DVDS, and various other media, whose mission is to enhance understanding of, and tolerance for, the Gypsy and Traveller cultures. The best part is, they’re for children.

What does it mean to say that a writer has that certain je ne sais quoi? One symptom is, when you read their stuff, it makes you think of things from your own life, stories which you then endeavor to frame in an interesting way. The solid psychological reason for liking someone’s style might be their knack for reminding you that your life, too, has been pretty darn interesting. Which is always therapeutic.

What is this leading up to? There’s a little episode in “Useful Phrases,” and I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it involves a certain type of perfect existential moment. It recalled something from one of my travels: a comment made in a park in Toronto. This park had a pleasant oval-shaped running track, and next to the track was a sculpture of Jean Sibelius, the composer of Finlandia.

So we watched two women running, and I said, “Are they racing?”

And my friend said, “See that statue?”


“That’s the Finnish line.”

Okay, one more. Two friends were debating something about movies, and one of them called me in as an authority. “What was that hunchback’s name?” and I said, “Does Quasimodo ring a bell?” I swear this really happened. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and a peak experience, in the subcategory “Nerd Fun.”

In the beginning was the Word, and “Useful Phrases” is a prime illustration of the Power of Art — that is, if you consider language an art form, which many do. Which leads us to the question of the day:

What is your useful foreign phrase?

photo courtesy of yoppy , used under this Creative Commons license