Anne Sutherland, in an essay titled "Health and Illness Among the Rom of California," observes that "these basic concepts affect everyday life in many ways including cultural rules about washing, food, clothes, the house, fasting, conducting rituals such as baptism and the slava, and diagnosing illness and prescribing home remedies." They believe that ritual purification is the road to good health. They strive to avoid diseases and curing them. The most powerful cure to disease is a substance called "coxai," or ghost vomit. According to legend there is a "Mamoria little grandmother who is a dirty, sickness-bringing ghost who eats people, then vomits on garbage piles." In these garbage piles the Gypsies find and gather what scientists call slime mold, and bake it with flour into rocks. Another cure, which is referred to as devil's dung, has a long association with healing and spiritualism in India: according to Sutherland, it has also been used in Western medicine as an antispasmodic, expectorant, and laxative.
Sutherland also recounts several Gypsy cures for common ailments. A salve of pork fat may be used to relieve itching. The juice of chopped onions sprinkled with sugar for a cold or the flu; brown sugar heated in a pan is also good for a child's cold; boiling the combined juice of oranges, lemons, water, and sugar, or mashing a clove of garlic in whiskey and drinking will also relieve a cold. For a mild headache, one might wrap slices of cold cooked potato or tea leaves around the head with a scarf; or for a migraine, put vinegar, or vinegar, garlic, and the juice of an unblemished new potato onto the scarf. For stomach trouble, drink a tea of the common nettle or of spearmint. For arthritis pain, wear copper necklaces or bracelets. For anxiety, sew a piece of fern into your clothes. Sutherland notes that elder Gypsies tend to "fear, understandably, that their grandchildren who are turning more and more to American medicine, will lose the knowledge they have of herbs and plants, illnesses, an cures." Sutherland also notes that when a Gypsy becomes ill, some families turn to doctors. The Rom will often prefer to pay for private medical care with a collection rather than be cared for by a welfare doctor if they feel this care may be better."
Gypsies are usually bilingual. They speak the language of the country where they live as will as the Gypsy language, Romani. Marlene Sway, in "Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America," observes that "since the Gypsy language has (almost) never been written, it has been easily influenced by the sounds of local languages." The American language strongly influenced that of the Gypsies in their sojourns. Next, modern Greek contributed words to the vocabulary.
The Gypsy language was the key that unlocked the mystery of where the Gypsy originated. Sway reports "that the discovery that Gypsies originated in India was made by a scholar who noticed a close similarity between the language of the Hungarian Gypsies and the Sanskritized Malayalam of subcontinent Indians. This discovery, by a Hungarian theology student, did not come until the middle of the eighteenth century. Matt Salo in 'Urban Gypsies,' suggests that 'from the realization that Gypsies indeed had their own language, the step to the recognition of their separate ethnicity followed automatically." Anne Silverman in "Urban Gypsies," indicates that when non-gypsies ask Gypsies speaking Romani to identify the foreign language, "gypsies answer Romanian, Greek, or "Yugoslavian," to minimize curiosity and prejudice toward them. Among themselves, Gypsies use a sort of sign language, which are meaningful to themselves but unintelligible to others. They seem to use this sign language to describe conditions of camps for future campers, as well as to provide information about people in the area that might be useful for those practicing fortune telling. Also they only use their Gypsy name among themselves, and adopt an Americanized name for general and official use. Because many Gypsies pick common names, they are hard to trace.
Traditional Gypsies maintain large extended families, numbering into the hundreds or even thousands that gather for weddings, funerals, feasts, or when an elder becomes ill. Although Gypsies do not have kings as such, each family group is represented by a man, to the outsiders, that serves as a figurehead or representative. Often, a man and his family will tell hospital staffers that he is "King of the Gypsies" so that he will receive better treatment. In groups that are larger than a family, families often cluster to travel and make money - forming a multi-family business. In more recent decades Gypsies have been acculturating more closely to the American model by consolidating nuclear families. Presently, after the birth of their first child, some Gypsy couples may be able to move from the husband's parents' home into their own.
This change has given more independence to newly wedded women as daughters-in-law.
(Continued next week)