Bowtops by the road

The road holds a special place in my heart; a special magic that words just cannot hold. The truth is, though, there was nothing at all romantic about nomadic life. It was hard. I didn’t experience it the way my grandparents, or even parents, did. I was a part-time verdanengeri romnji.

When you’re ten, life just is life. You don’t question why or how or where. You do what you do, that’s just how everything is.

The road was something elders spoke about – the long road, the difficult road, the open road. The road was as beloved and as cursed as a long-lost relative. Maami Babka would tell me stories of travelling through Europe; of the stars, the fires, the fields and forests. She told me the names of their horses and the names of my relatives who never left the road. She told me the joy of flowers and rain and snow. “The mountains, they were so beautiful,” she said sadly, “even after the war.”

Czechoslovakia, 1958: Law No. 74 “On the permanent settlement of nomadic and semi-nomadic people” forcibly limited the movement of Romani. In the same year, the highest organ of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia passed “the final assimilation of the Gypsy population”.

When I was small, some of my relatives still had wagons. I remember the gentle clip-clop and the verdan’s creaking. I remember prapapu’s voice, singing, gravelly as the road we slowly made our way along. I remember keeping step with the hulking sway of the horses as they chuffed along in the crisp autumn air. The pitch sites we stopped at were mostly illegal; huddled behind a crop of trees, clustered on the grass by the side of a road. Usually, each site only had four or five family groups; My parents, siblings, my dad’s parents, his brothers and their families, and my dad’s parents brothers and sisters, all shared a site, about seven caravans/wagons/benders. Only two families lived as “pitch permanent”.

The UK, 1960: New private sites are banned from being built in England by The Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act. Mass evictions and public harassment of Romani and Travellers.

I spent my summers with a jumble of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We visited France, Slovakia, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic, and Portugal (as well as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales). We travelled for weddings and funerals; to pick fruit or work fields; we travelled with the men who worked ship yards, steel mills, or construction sites. We collected wood, scrap metal, plastic. We spent part of our year moving between pitch sites – legal or otherwise.

1986: Public Order Act allows police to evict Romani from land under suspicion of trespass as well as providing ability for summary conviction (without the right to trial), including imprisonment for a term of three months, or a fine (of £2,500 – £5,000), or both.

During the 1980s, several of my older relatives burned their verdana and sold their horses. I didn’t understand the meaning and the horrific sense of loss this instilled in them. Police would evict them from sites without allowing them to take their wagons, which would then be confiscated, ransacked, and destroyed.

“Maloko hin baxtaloro …” Kako often said, his voice cracking. Not everyone is lucky

England, 1994: Criminal Justice Act abolishes Caravan Sites Act leaving more than 5,000 families with no legal home

The older I got, the more settled we became. After my grandfathers died, my grandmothers didn’t travel as much. They became very insular, sticking to the houses, caravans, land they knew. Our horses were gone; our wagons were gone; our benders and fires were gone. But, it wasn’t enough. It was obvious to me by now;

They wanted us gone.

October 2011, a clearance order was executed at Dale Farm. The site, owned by the Travellers and Romany who lived there, was deemed illegal and Constant and Co. was given a £2.2 million contract to clear the pitches. Residents were escorted from the site by more than 100 riot police and, since they had nowhere else to go, set up camp on the lane leading to the site (with no running water or electricity).

Yet, aunts and uncles still spoke lovingly of The Road. In fact, every day phrases carry echoes of our footsteps, however unwillingly taken. They’re the rose-coloured glass in the romanticism of our journeys:

bandjilja pal o drom – look after someone (bend/turn after the road)

 čhinavel drom – roam the world (cut the road)

 džal dromeha – breathe out, exhale (go on/with the road)

džal peskere dromehapass away (go with/on one’s own road)

phundrado drom – opportunity (open road)

xal drom – go quickly (eat road)

aver drom – next time (another/different road)

but droma – often (many roads)

I’m not sure what it is, exactly that I miss: being on the road, travelling, with family; or the idea of the road as expressed through the beautiful intricacies of our language and our history …