For many years I thought I knew the answer to the problems faced by the Romani Gypsies: education. If we could just make school more appealing to this population their situation of marginalisation would gradually end, and they would learn the skills needed to challenge the discrimination they are faced with all over Europe.
A new book I am reading has made me realise that I was totally wrong about this - there is no simple answer to their poverty - and that I know a lot less than I assumed about the Romani Gypsy population. And our patronising, know-it-all attitudes doesn't help.
Someone recently sent me a book called I Met Lucky People. The Story of the Romani Gypsies by Yaron Matras and it is incredible. I agree with the quotes on the cover: the Financial Times says it is "required reading" (I would add that it is ideal for government officials and teachers across Europe) and the Sunday Times is quoted as saying "almost everything we imagine we know about Gypsies is wrong."
I've been looking at this issue from a Romanian perspective as that is where I am currently based, and this is the country with the largest number of Romani Gypsies living in it. There are many things that infuriate the Romanians about their Roma minority, such as the fact that the words Roma and Romani look similar to the word Romania and some people in the west assume that they originate in Romania.
The origins of these words are interesting (the gypsies refer to themselves as "Roma" while the country is named after "Rome" as it was made up of former Roman Empire colonists) but I doubt a western news editor would bother with this explanation.
The Romanians are also infuriated by the fact that certain members of their Roma minority can be seen begging in city centres across Europe, bringing their country into disrepute. Many blame their poor international image on the Roma. Other complaints are that the Roma don't follow the basic rules of society, starting with obligatory school attendance through to their apparent reluctance to do "normal" jobs. Many Romanians have told me that the Roma don't want to go to school, they can't work and they all steal - and from what I have heard in other European countries I think these views are shared across the continent. In the UK, the tabloids can print insults about the Roma that they would never say about blacks, Arabs or Asians.
What is now clear to me is that the Romani Gypsies are just misunderstood and this new book gives us the opportunity to gain insight into their culture and eventually find a way to accommodate them better.
Let's start with education. I had assumed the problem was with the majority population not wanting Roma kids in their schools and discriminating against them if they do get in. This is certainly part of the problem and, in Romania at least, the state itself discriminates against Roma kids by allocating the least resources to the schools where there is a Roma majority. I heard about an educational authority in Romania that closed down a school simply because it had too many Roma in it and they considered it a waste of resources.
But I wasn't fully aware of the Roma perspective and this is where my new book helps. This is what the author, Yaron Matras, writes about education:
"Traditional Romani families educate their children by allowing them to participate in all family activities. Children observe, join in and gradually assume a share of responsibility for the extended household. There is no initiation ceremony and no formal testing of acquired skills or knowledge.
"School is seen as a Gadje (non-Romani) institution. It represents everything that outsiders stand for and everything that separates Roma from outsiders: rigid rules; obedience towards a person in authority who is not part of the family; oppression of children's own initiative and spontaneous and open expression of emotion; withholding of responsibility from children; imposition of arbitrary schedules; and, perhaps the most difficult of all, separation of children from the rest of the family for long hours."
Matras builds a portrait of Roma family life and several things seem impressive: their ancient system of holding families together, sharing responsibility among an extended family, the key role of old people as leaders and also child minders; their complex rules of washing and hygiene; their freelance work ethic; the fact that they involve children in everything. Their history is fascinating and the fact that their language has remained active after 1,000 years on the road is miraculous. And there's too much to say about their music to fit into this article.
I particularly like their approach to education which is to keep their children close at all times and teach them everything they know; the boys learn traditional trades from the men and the girls learn domestic skills as well as the mother's profession (such as selling stuff at a market). Even though begging is frowned on by most gypsy families, those who do it consider it work and they don't try and hide it from their children. Among themselves they are scrupulously honest and they have their own system of conflict resolution, in the form of consensus-based Romani courts (known as Kris).
I personally hated every minute of school and for many years I really couldn't understand what the hell I was doing there. Even now I struggle to relate to the logic of the institution and the big organisation and have always worked freelance. I would have been much happier just hanging around with my parents, learning from them. I think it's unnatural to separate kids from their parents for the best years of our lives. The most valuable things I learned as a youngster were from my parents, their friends and visitors.
Although I was wrong about the Romani Gypsies when it comes to education and I was woefully ignorant of their culture, despite much exposure to it in Romania, I do have an open mind about them and am keen to learn more and understand them better. I try not to be judgmental or make generalisations as these are almost always wrong; but this is so hard as making generalisations is fun and interesting and it makes me feel clever.
All I can say about the Romani gypsies is "I don't know". As a society I think we need to approach them with an open mind, talk to them, understand them better, respect their culture and try and accommodate their requests. Surely it is wrong to impose our values on them and then condemn them for not complying.
This article was first published on my new travel blog, where I received some really interesting comments from people in Romania.