Gypsies – “The Measure of a Smile”

Gypsies are Roma. But Roma are not from Romania. Roma or Gypsies leave north India in the early Middle Ages. They travel and settle throughout Europe. Here they adapt, and adopt local religions and languages.

Gypsies are Europe’s largest minority group with 11 million people. They endure centuries of discrimination. It culminates in WW2 when Hitler tries to exterminate them. The EU estimates 34% are unemployed, 20% have no health insurance and 80% live below the poverty line. Today, Europe’s far-right parties again appeal to local prejudices. Verbal attacks against Gypsies are common.

Gypsies make up 8% of the Romanian population. So we see them. Often! We see them on the outskirts of every town and village. We see them in makeshift dwellings and abandoned buildings. Where children play, chickens scratch and laundry flaps in the wind. Where bits and pieces of metal, sheet, wood, plastic and cloth, keeps in stacks and heaps. Where, everything is precious. They are so apart and so poor. Here, there and everywhere in Europe.

We wonder why? How can we not wonder why!

We ask the landlady, the waiter, the woman at the market, the guy at the bar. “They prefer to beg than to work.” “Be careful they throw stones and scratch cars.” “They refuse to pay for anything.” “They are so lazy.” “They only care for satellite TV, cars, sex and cigarettes.”

Our questions lead us to Gabriel. He runs a guided outreach programme. It is a simple matter. We buy and bring groceries to a willing Roma family.

We are uncomfortable Samaritans! But we go!

And our experience, albeit single, flies in the face of all that plenty of prejudice.

Gabriel is a seasoned shopper. So, in no time at all we carry bags of potatoes, celeriac, turnips, beetroot, onions, garlic and coriander; flour, pasta, soup powders, meatloaf, coffee, cool-drink, biscuits and sweets.

Now we are ready to pay a visit to the family of Ural & Herena. They live in a Gypsy settlement, near Viscre, for 18 years. And around us we see the labours of those 18 years. A home with two rooms, a storeroom, an outside pit latrine, two sheds, one for the horse and pigs and the other for a handful of sheep, a hen house, a dog kennel and plans for the future. They have no title to the land.

Ural and Herena are both 40 and have 3 children; two daughters and a son. The eldest daughter is 8 months pregnant. When we arrive, her husband meticulously cleans a carcass. The slaughter of this sheep marks the end of the Eastern Orthodox Lent and tomorrow’s Easter Sunday feast. A little later the son and younger daughter arrive. Her English is excellent!

Ural, during his compulsory military service, is a fire-fighter for the army. He doesn’t retain this job, after his service, as school education becomes a requirement. He now gets odd jobs shepherding. The elder daughter’s husband recently loses his job. They live in a one roomed shack nearby and worry sits on their faces. The young son struts and younger daughter smiles, confidently. She has a job at an airbag company and doesn’t want a baby yet. He teases her; a woman’s work is in the kitchen.

We have coffee; syrupy sweet. And a sip from a ladle of soup, that simmers on a wood stove.

They tell of the bitter winter. We tell of our dry South African summer. They show an album with photos of family celebrations, weddings and birthdays. We show photos of a recent visit to Addo Elephant Park. It’s an easy hour.

It’s clear, it’s a poor life. And its power across generations stifles us all in the room.

Our mother of the home, Herena, doesn’t smile. She is kind and giving, but doesn’t smile. I work hard, with compliments, jokes and good wishes. Her lips turn up slightly but never reach her eyes.

I grasp that the measure of your smile is a measure of your cares. They have many. Harry and I have none. We smile broadly, they don’t.

We say our goodbyes warmly. And Gabriel slips the grocery bags in, discreetly.

We see Gypsy settlements on the outskirts of almost every town.

Some families live in makeshift dwellings.

Others live in abandoned buildings.

And men seem to go about their work like they did a 100 years ago.

Gabriel, an outreach guide, takes us to a local market to buy groceries for the Roma family.

This market is a busy place full of short Romanians.

Gabriel, on the left is a tall exception. Here he buys potatoes, onions and celeriac.

Pickles, roots and shoots.

In the back there is a bread queue. This time for fresh bread not the stale bread staple of the period of dictator Ceaucescu.

We drive onto the plot of Ural and Herena. This is the view of the back of the plot.

We are first drawn to the carcass hanging from the roof of the shed …

… and being cleaned very thoroughly by the son-in-law of Ural.

Here is Ural with his horse, a pride and joy.

The shed is just high enough for the horse, who stays here throughout winter ….

…. together with these wee pigs.

The surviving sheep become curious …

… and file out for a wee look.

This photo shows the pit latrine.

The roof of the animal shed is held down by bottle weights.

Inside the two room house we are greeted by this wood burning stove. There is a single tap, and the most basic electrical connections in the house.

We enjoy coffee together. Herena, the mother, is sitting next to me. Then the children from oldest to youngest. Herena explains what a difference a washing machine has made to her.

A light moment with the men.


We hope this is the beginning of a smile, Herena.

15 Responses to Gypsies – “The Measure of a Smile”

  1. Anonymous

    Can’t believe you met Gypsy! Eish we have so much to be thankful for. So glad you reached out to them. What an amazing experience! Lots of love Amelia xx

  2. Naude.K

    Wow, great story that make one feel humble and thankful. makes one realize that we have a lot of reasons to smile.

  3. Anonymous

    ons vriendin en vriend, Lynnie and Harry, my magties maar julle is omtrent besig! We are missing you tremendously and we feverishly visited your blog today only to find the most interesting stories! We are so proud of you, at the same time a little envious, but so privileged to be part of your journey! The way in which you relate all your experiences give us such insight and a very warm feeling about where we are and the things we need to appreciate in life. We are looking forward to the next episode! Love you lots! Enjoy and stay safe! Ida, Jeremy, Rachel, Gheena and Kaity xxxxxxx

  4. Anonymous

    Wow! thank you so much for such wonderful photo’s and stories it is a fantastic read :

  5. Anonymous

    What you offer to me and those who read your stories is incredible. I have no superlatives that begin to do it justice.
    Thank you for what you do and your stories.
    Wimsussie

  6. Anonymous

    What a loving family they all are, and I love the animals especially the Horse and piggies as I grew up on a farm. Nice you meeting alot of families and making new friends. Await your next posting take care. Debbie Durban

  7. Gail and Jan van der Mey

    heart-warming, shattering, sensitive and compassionate. Congrats Linda and Harry—dont know how you manage to set up this real-life true reality for us. Thanks indeed

  8. Wendy

    Linnie you tell a story like only you can and like no one else will ever be able to do!!!!!!. Your words are like a grand symphony- normally it is said “every picture tells a thousand stories – you tell a story that gives a picture substance. They way you described the mother and then seeing the photo- a sense of WOW – but also the realization that life has dealt her a sad, cruel and cold hand. Where is the love, where is the joy, where is the wonder that is life……only the sadness that life has passed her by……. Our history text book on Hitler only refers to Gypsies as one of the other groups that Hitler and the Nazi’s persecuted- always believing that
    they no longer were around. A shock to discover that Gypsies actually do still exist. Once again – a very big thank you to you and Harry for your bravery, adventurous spirit, kind hearts and courage to expose us to places that we would never have been part of- because it would never feature on our protected bucket list – or as Harry would say- “not for our Wendy”. I will forever be grateful!!!!!!!

  9. Ana and Jon

    Hi guys, thank you for sharing your visit to a Roma family and for sharing photos from provincial Romania. It’s hard to accept that people like Herena and her folk have little to smile about, so many decades since the coup d’etat that jerked Romania out of communism. Roma people remain one of the most discriminated against, and there are few support programs catering for them. Sadly, though, Herena’s family is not among the poorest of the poor. There are many Roma people here who live in truly abject conditions, without even a long drop pit for toilet and certainly without any household machines and no livestock. This is an excellent movie about Romanian gipsies who belong to a traditional clan of artisans https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UY6oAI6vMg

  10. Anonymous

    i fully agree with all the comments above , especially last. Book pse. take care and be well xx

  11. Colin

    What a heart warming story. Ural and Herena are such humble folk. We can be thankful for what we have here in South Africa. Durban squatters can take a leaf out of the Roma Gypsies book and learn have to lead a crime free lifestyle. Colin from Durban.

    • Colin

      and learn how to

  12. Anonymous

    Wow! I’m once again blown away. In an instant, for a few minutes, I was transported to Ural and Herena’s “home”. Ai, so sad. Am disturbed by Herena’s lack of smile – too awful to be so very very unhappy. It makes me want to go back to all the Gypsy theme events I’ve ever decorated and remove every piece of rich velvet, brocade and tassel, and simply replace with a stark empty setting with no access to the cloakrooms. And an unwashed, uncooked turnip for catering…. Fun, laughter, music and song will be banished. How privileged we are looking at the world, at the Gypsys, with colourful lenses. Thank you for this!

  13. Anonymous

    Thankyou for the story and the reason to be thankfull for what we have.

  14. Anonymous

    Wow you write a wonderful story Linda! Hope you going to make your adventures into a book😀looking forward to the next one… take care. Enjoy!

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