Roma begging
Roma woman, begging on the Champs-Élysées. I gave her a Euro.

I remember traveling in Spain by myself, and calling my dad a couple of time because I was lonely. During one conversation, I told him about the gypsies that tended to congregate around major tourist sights. At the Seville Cathedral, I even saw a guy with a monkey, dancing to a street organ.

“Stay away from them,” my dad almost yelled. “Do you hear me? They’re thieves, all of them. Stay away from them!”

My dad lived in Milan for a few months, when the Italian government requested his help with upgrading their national air traffic system. He contends that most people didn’t get to work until 10, and they took off from noon to 3 p.m., so it was impossible to have meetings, but that’s an aside.

My dad gets animated about a lot of things, but he was worried about his baby daughter, knocking around Spain by herself and possibly being overwhelmed by a band of gypsies. It was a legitimate fear.

What was interesting to me then, and still is now, is that the gypsies have long been a reviled population. Hitler exterminated them during World War II. They were persecuted in Eastern Europe — women were forcibly sterilized in Czechoslovakia starting in the mid-1970s. In July 2008, Italian beachgoers seemed indifferent to the bodies of two dead Roma girls laid out in front of them.

In 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government began a crackdown on the Roma population in France, demolishing their illegal encampments and “repatriating” thousands of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants. There are still 20,000 Roma in France, and many French blame them for a rise in petty crime like pickpocketing and street beggars. It’s hard to disagree with that.

On Tuesday, we saw an elderly Australian couple nearly mugged by four gypsy teenaged girls, right in front of us, at 11 a.m. on a busy street. Strolling down any touristed street, such as the Champs-Élysées, means walking a literal gauntlet of young gypsies wielding fake petitions, which they wave in your face while saying “speak English?” and making kissing sounds. Rick Steves says these are “smokescreen(s) for theft.” I’m inclined to believe him. Steve and I march through these throngs without making eye contact, holding our bags firmly to our bodies. Thieves. Scam artists.

Still, when we were on Boulevard Haussman, Steve and I were shocked at how many brown-skinned people were lying on the streets. I’m a former San Franciscan used to homeless, and I can usually walk by, heart hardened. But last night, on the way back from our nine-course meal at Atelier de Joel Rubuchon, I saw two little Romani children sleeping in a storefront. It was starting to rain. One of the girls looked to be about Bini’s age. In America, we draw the line at children sleeping on the streets. The current government shutdown may halt the special nutrition program, which helps low-income babies and mothers eat, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a child sleeping on the street at night. Here, no one cares.

So, I did some digging, and here’s the deal: In 2007, Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU, which meant that citizens could work within the European Economic Community. There’s little opportunity in these countries, so their citizens are migrating to places like France to find work. To me, an American who has moved for a job, that sounds reasonable.

But if you look at the very bottom of the page on the European Commission’s description of Free Movement, you’ll see it there: Nationals of Bulgaria and Romania may face temporary restrictions. For awhile, there was a small list of jobs that Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants (mostly gypsies) were permitted to do. In France, employers faced a steep tax if they chose to employ these job-seekers. France has relaxed some of the restrictions, including the tax, but still requires a work permit ONLY of these citizens. Sounds like discrimination to me. And if you’re poor and you can’t find work, what else can you do but beg and/or steal?

If anyone bothered to interview the Roma, like France 24, they’d find that many are ashamed of their circumstances. The illegal encampments where many live are squalid and dangerous, and anyway, the government continues to tear them down. Where else is there to go but the streets? There are no social services for them, no safety net. One would imagine that in the U.S., there’d be a “Save the Roma” campaign somewhere. In San Francisco, homeless advocates went bananas when Safeway tried to reclaim their shopping carts.

Come January, the Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants will have the same rights to work and travel in the EU as other member countries, according to a great report by Steven Erlander in the New York Times. But a recent poll shows that 77 percent of French agree with a statement made by Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls that Roma were incapable of assimilating, and should be deported. I can’t imagine a high-ranking Cabinet official saying something like that and getting away with it in the U.S. Maybe fringe nutters who live near the Mexican border can say stuff like that, but everyone knows they’re fringe nutters.

So, it’s acceptable to kick around the Roma here in Europe, and it has been for centuries. For my part, I’ll continue, for the remaining two days we have here, to clutch my purse close to my body when I walk through a cluster of gypsy teenagers waving fake petitions. But then I’ll also drop a Euro in the cup of the old woman curled up on the sidewalk. I feel bad for them, but I’m also wary of them.


  1. Let them come here. We’re not great about our own history with ethnic groups (there seems to be a lengthy initiation/hazing process), but I guess we are their best chance.

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