Every May 24 in France's Camargue, Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small town of 2,500 set astride the muddy fingers of the Rhône Delta, is invaded by some 10,000 Gypsies. They come from all over Europe to honor their patron saint, Black Sarah. St. Sarah is not a real saint at all. It seems oddly fitting for a people who are perpetual outsiders that even their patron saint is an interloper. These Roman Catholic Gypsies have embraced the legend of Black Sarah, the maid to Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome, Jesus' aunts. After the Crucifixion they were cast out upon the sea in a boat with no oars by the irate Romans and washed up here in the Camargue, France's cowboy country.
The black wooden statue of St. Sarah, resplendent in a gold tiara and a pink lace robe studded with sequins, stands in the arched crypt beneath the town church. (Because she is not a real saint, her statue cannot be displayed on the consecrated ground of the chapel.) Inside, the air is hot with the flames of a thousand votive candles. The Gypsy pilgrims run their hands over her face, worn now from the touch of so many fingers. Some have left their shoes at her feet. Thank-you notes and photos and offerings are stuffed into the collection box, and plaques of gratitude line the walls: a baby conceived, a mother recovered.
With a few days to go before the ceremony itself—a ritual cleansing of the statue in the Mediterranean—there are already 1,600 Gypsy caravans in the municipal campsites. Most are not folksy wagons but motor homes with satellite dishes bolted onto the aluminum siding. And the Gypsies who inhabit them wear T-shirts with Nike swooshes and chatter incessantly on their cell phones.
But the good citizens of Les-Saintes-Maries are not enthusiastic hosts to les Gitans—the Gypsies. Indeed some of the shopkeepers have boarded up their premises and left town. And this year an extra 200 riot police and a helicopter have been drafted in from Montpellier. Today the mayor has arranged a press conference in the town hall to recount the havoc of previous Gypsy pilgrimages (which are attended by almost as many non-Gypsy tourists): mountains of garbage scattered around, theft, drunkenness, and property damage.
Later, at lunch at a local café, the one-eyed Moroccan owner, Magrid, joins in the anthem of alarm. "This?" he says, pointing to his vacant socket. "I lost it in a fight with a Gypsy. He pulled a knife on me." Almost everyone here has a story like that, some incident designed to italicize the casual violence and unsteady tempers of these roving visitors. The sedentary person's fear of the nomad is an ancient one, and modern polls still attest to it.
Hostility to Gypsies has existed almost from the time they first appeared in Europe in the 14th century. The origins of the Gypsies, with little written history, were shrouded in mystery. What is known now from clues in the various dialects of their language, Romany, is that they came from northern India to the Middle East a thousand years ago, working as minstrels and mercenaries, metalsmiths and servants. Europeans misnamed them Egyptians, soon shortened to Gypsies. A clan system, based mostly on their traditional crafts and geography, has made them a deeply fragmented and fractious people, only really unifying in the face of enmity from non-Gypsies, whom they call gadje. Today many Gypsy activists prefer to be called Roma, which comes from the Romany word for "man." But on my travels among them most still referred to themselves as Gypsies, and I have tried to reflect the common usage of the people themselves.
In Europe their persecution by the gadje began quickly, with the church seeing heresy in their fortune-telling and the state seeing anti-social behavior in their nomadism. At various times they have been forbidden to wear their distinctive bright clothes, to speak their own language, to travel, to marry one another, or to ply their traditional crafts. In some countries they were reduced to slavery—it wasn't until the mid-1800s that Gypsy slaves were freed in Romania. In more recent times the Gypsies were caught up in Nazi ethnic hysteria, and perhaps half a million perished in the Holocaust, which the Gypsies call porraimos—the great devouring. Their horses have been shot and the wheels removed from their wagons, their names have been changed, their women have been sterilized, and their children have been forcibly given for adoption to non-Gypsy families (a practice in Switzerland until 1973).
But the Gypsies have confounded predictions of their disappearance as a distinct ethnic group, and their numbers have burgeoned. Today there are an estimated 8 to 12 million Gypsies scattered across Europe, making them the continent's largest minority. The exact number is hard to pin down. Gypsies have regularly been undercounted, both by regimes anxious to downplay their profile and by Gypsies themselves, seeking to avoid bureaucracies. Attempting to remedy past inequities, activist groups may overcount. Hundreds of thousands more have emigrated to the Americas and elsewhere. With very few exceptions Gypsies have expressed no great desire for a country to call their own—unlike the Jews, to whom the Gypsy experience is often compared. "Romanestan," said Ronald Lee, the Canadian Gypsy writer, "is where my two feet stand."
The prince of the pilgrimage at Les-Saintes-Maries is Pepe La Fleur. He's been coming here for 40 years. During the winter he and his family weave rattan furniture. In the summer they tour Europe selling their wares. Pepe's wooden wagon, which he tows behind a van, is decorated with painted flowers and a border of yellow fleurs-de-lis. There is a high, curtained bed across the end of the wagon, and underneath doors open to reveal another bed for children. He has 13 of them and 65 grandchildren, most of whom help him in the rattan-weaving business, just as he did for his parents before him. But this continuity is illusory—the old ways are over, says Pepe La Fleur. "We didn't used to go to school. We traveled constantly, and we were always chased away from one town to the next, and often we had to hide in the forest. It's better now, because every town in France with a population over 5,000 has to have a field reserved for Gypsies, by law.
"But in a few years there will be no Gypsies left here. They are all buying houses and living differently. They are mixing with other kids and intermarrying, and the culture is becoming diluted. Before, it was unheard of to marry a non-Gypsy. Now my own daughter has married one."
At night the Gypsies turn the town into one huge series of parties. A favorite venue is Les Vagues (the Waves), a small bar that buzzes until dawn. As I arrive, the din of chinking glasses and smoke-scratched voices dies down at the imperious strum of acoustic guitars, and seven men launch into an up-tempo, flamenco-style ballad. This is a family sing-along by the Reyes family, the chart-topping Gipsy Kings, who come from the nearby city of Arles.
A few days later, in another Gypsy pub, the gloomy Bar L'Écluse (the Lock), on the side of the highway near Arles, I find Jean Reyes, the patriarch of the musical dynasty, his face now lined with drink and age. He feeds a slug of pastis through a gap in his gray beard, pats his Chanel bandanna, and adjusts the sunglasses that ride high on his wild spume of white hair. "My family always used to make their living with horses, buying, breeding, breaking, betting," he remembers. "My father was very strict—he wanted all of us to work—which is very unusual for us Gypsies."
He signals for another drink, using his left hand—his right hand, injured in a fall, is bound in a polka-dot sling. "My best horse of all was an Arabian stallion—I went to Algeria myself to find him. I used to ride without saddles or reins—just holding on to the mane. But life has changed so. When I was young, I couldn't sleep in a normal bed. Now most of my children have nice houses. But me? I couldn't live in a house; it would be like a jail for me."