Published: April 2001
By Peter Godwin
Cutting hay on the outskirts of a Romanian village, Ionel Stoian, like many Gypsies, survives at society's margins. Once thought to be natives of Egypt—hence the name Gypsies—the Roma, as many call themselves, originated in India. Today, around the world, they struggle to assert their rights while sustaining their culture.

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."

The experience of the Gypsies in France and elsewhere in Western Europe has diverged sharply from those in Eastern Europe, where most Gypsies are to be found. There they have just lived through a half century of communism, under which they were pressured to settle and to assimilate. Very few of them are now nomadic.

Slovakia is home to about half a million Gypsies, in a total population of five million, one of the highest ratios of Gypsies to gadje anywhere. At current rates of population growth, Gypsies will outnumber Slovaks by about 2060. Most Gypsies here live next to old, established villages like Hermanovce, nestled into the foothills of the Tatra Mountains in the rural east of the country. A little brook choked with rags and bottles, tins and plastic bags, runs down through the Gypsy quarter, whose 300 residents are crammed into shacks made of logs and mud. Improvised roofs of sheet metal are weighed down against the tugging wind with rocks and old tires. It is a scene of medieval squalor.

There is a social hierarchy of sorts: The poorer you are, the lower down the slope you live. The man in charge is Miki Horváth. He has hennaed hair and light blue eyes, a walrus mustache, and a blurred amateur tattoo of a cowgirl on his right bicep. "My great-great-great-grandmother was born here," he says. Before that he's not so sure. "We traveled from country to country. But I don't know where my ancestors came from. We heard that we came from India. That's what white people say, anyway. They shout at us, 'Go back to India!'"

Miki invites me into his house on the top of the hill—it is surprisingly neat and cozy inside. His family is crowded around the TV, watching their favorite Mexican soap opera, dubbed into Slovak.

Not a single Gypsy here has a job. "The last time I worked was in . . .," Miki scratches his head, "about 1989. I think. I was digging ditches. No one wants to employ us. We go to the employment office in the city looking for work. But when they see we're Gypsy, they don't want us. Maybe it's because we have a low level of education." Not a single Gypsy child here has been to high school. They are channeled into special schools for kids with "learning difficulties," because when they start school, the children cannot speak fluent Slovak. This happens in the Czech Republic as well, and it only deepens the cycle of poverty. "My ambition was to be a waiter in a bar, serving food and drink," says Miki dreamily. "I tried to get into waiter school, but I couldn't add up the bill."

The Hermanovce Gypsies survive on monthly social benefit payments: 1,500 koruna ($32) per family member. Like many Gypsies in Eastern Europe, Miki says life was easier under communism. "We had jobs, and social benefits were better, and no one oppressed us. Now, under democracy, all these skinheads attack us when we go into town to collect our benefits."

Irena Čonková and her husband were attacked in 1999. "The skinheads ambushed us from behind the rubbish bins where they were hiding, and they punched us in the face with knuckle dusters. And when we went to the hospital and told them what had happened, they didn't believe us. They thought we'd been fighting among ourselves. Now when we go to town, we only go in big groups, for safety."

Though their culture seems degraded, the Gypsies in Hermanovce have a strong sense of their own clan's position, and they save their disdain for the Gypsies in the neighboring village of Chminianske Jakubovany. Irena Čonková lowers her voice and hisses, "They eat dogs. If we ate dog, we would die of disgust." But that does not get in the way of commerce. "We often sell dogs to them," says Irena. "Just the other day they took two dead dogs off our trash heap and paid us for them with an old watch."

When I tell the Čonkovás I want to visit them, Miki's eyes widen. "Be careful," he warns. "They are bad people, and they don't like the gadje."

At Chminianske Jakubovany a few days later, I stop in at the local store to gauge the mood. The Slovak shopkeeper can barely contain her hatred. "They should put all the Gypsies in a paper boat and send them to Africa. They are like locusts. When the old agricultural co-op shut down, they picked it bare within two weeks, roofs, windows, doors. They scavenged the lot. They steal everything, our dogs, our cows, the vegetables from our gardens. The week before they get their social security is always the worst; that's when they're short of money. They just want to drink and smoke and make babies. Fifty years ago there were only three families of them here. Now there are only 400 of us and 1,400 of them. Soon it'll be like that in the whole country!"

Her tirade is interrupted by the arrival of Tomáš Horváth, a local Gypsy. I ask him if he has any dog lard for sale, and he instructs me to follow him to his neighborhood. It is made up of substantial wooden cottages, one of the most prosperous villages I've seen in Slovakia. Immediately I'm surrounded by a great crowd, many of whom are proffering jars of congealed dog fat. "We feed dog lard to our babies, and it makes them strong," says Horváth.

"Yes, just look at us," cries another man. He lifts his vest, grasps a roll of belly in both hands, and flubbers it.

"We make dog lard into soup and drink it in our tea or spread it on our bread," explains Horváth. "If you smear it on your chest, it will cure asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. To make it, we scrape the fat off the dog skin—an eight-to-ten-year-old dog is best—and boil it."

After World War II many rural Slovakian Gypsies were relocated by the government to work in the factories of the industrial heartlands of the Czech territories. But when the Velvet Revolution toppled communism in 1989, Gypsy jobs tended to be the first lost as the economy lurched from central to market control. And while there is a small, assimilated Gypsy intelligentsia, today Czech Gypsies typically live in grim tenements in the cities. A combination of bleak economic prospects and a spate of skinhead attacks, contrasted with the glittering enticements of a Western Europe no longer cordoned off by an iron curtain, has lured thousands of Gypsies westward to work illegally, to beg, or to claim political asylum. An alarmed European Union has reacted with successive immigration crackdowns and visa restrictions that ensnare Gypsy and gadje alike, causing still more friction between them.

At a prison outside Prague in Říčany, more than 50 of the 200 inmates are Gypsies, way over the ratio in the general Czech population. Every evening before bedtime they sit in their communal cells in their blue denim overalls strumming acoustic guitars and singing mournful laments to the women they have loved. Like most prisoners they're reluctant to detail their crimes, but the jailer tells me later that they've mostly been convicted of mugging, theft, and burglary.

"From the time they are on their mothers' laps," complains Andrej, one of the Gypsy inmates, "white children are taught that Gypsies are bad. The Gypsy stereotype shown on TV is always of poor, uneducated Roma. But we have artists, musicians, and rich men too, you know. It's just that when Gypsies make money and raise themselves, it's easier for them not to look back. You can count on the fingers of one hand the Roma who reach back down to try to help the rest of us."

Miroslav Zíma is one such Rom. He works in the Czech Republic's second city of Brno, in a dilapidated neighborhood nicknamed the Brno Bronx. Here he helps Gypsies renovate old buildings for themselves, teaching them building trades in the process. He takes me on a tour of a large residential building overlooking a central courtyard, recently refurbished with the help of Dutch aid and now inhabited by 200 Roma who worked to rebuild it.

His black tracksuit and close-cropped hair reflect the 18-year career Zíma had in the Czech Army, rising to the rank of major—most unusual for a Rom. He is candid about the difficult relationship between the educated Roma and their communities. "The work I do today is not a job, it is a mission. I feel a debt to the Rom community, because I turned my back on them for so long. Many Rom intelligentsia leave the community so as not to be dragged back down by them, or we are expelled by them for mixing with gadje."

On the ground floor Zíma walks me through the well-equipped carpentry workshop that he has provided, but he admits he is disappointed that few of the residents are interested in it. And indeed he has great difficulty in attracting enough self-help recruits to these renovate-and-inhabit schemes. As we talk, a gaggle of glassy-eyed Rom youths stagger by in a miasma of glue fumes.

"With the paternalism of communism gone, the Roma have been shocked by the chaos of democracy," he says. "They had got used to a culture of dependency." Most adults here are unemployed and stay at home all day, with the children at school often the only connection they have with the outside society. And so the gap between the worlds widens.

But Zíma shrugs off the victim role that some Rom activists have embraced. "Rom officials compete with each other to blame racism for all their ills. But every time you want to help a Rom, they put out their hands and ask for more. Here, in this project, we try to teach them to be more self-reliant."

The threadbare social benefits system in Romania—which with perhaps two million Gypsies is the biggest Gypsy cultural reservoir in the world—has forced them into self-reliance. Having lost their jobs on collective farms and in state factories, many have fallen back on their traditional occupations—brickmaking, horse trading, and metalworking—to eke out a living. The result is that the old Gypsy social system loosely based on occupation is at its most pronounced here.

In a whitewashed house on a narrow cobbled street in the capital, Bucharest, a group of intense young Rom activists are hunched over computer terminals, trying to increase the political reach of the Gypsies. Their fingers fly over the keyboards, entering the identity details of Gypsies who live in the city.

"Without ID," explains Costel Bercuş, the 23-year-old director of Romani CRISS, the Roma Center for Social Intervention and Studies, "you simply don't exist here. But many Roma don't have papers—they fear the authorities." Now Bercuş and his squadron of young Roma are touring the city trying to convince the Roma that it is the time in their troubled history to stand up and be counted. That they have a right to be heard.

In recent years the fate of the Roma has been catapulted to prominence in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Bulgaria by those countries' applications for European Union membership. Under minority rights provisions, steps to end discrimination against the Roma must be in place before their candidacies can progress.

The activists at Romani CRISS are representative of the 600 Rom university students throughout this country—perhaps the vanguard of a new elite—cultural scouts who are learning how to deal with the gadje. Many of them are children of partly assimilated Roma—those who were put to work in collectives and factories under communism. In fact perhaps half of Romania's Gypsies have lost the Romany tongue, discouraged by the old regime, though many are now relearning it.

Despite the presence of desperately poor Gypsies in Romania, it is also a country that thoroughly banishes the stereotype of the poor Gypsy, as I discover driving west of the drab concrete city of Alexandria. There I catch sight of a mirage in the low, early morning sun—an astonishing sea of turrets covered in shimmering silver scales rises from the flat fields of brown. It is an architectural hallucination, the mongrel offspring of Bavarian castle and Japanese pagoda, a zany Gypsy Disneyland. These competing palaces of prosperity dominate the town of Buzescu, home to over a thousand members of the Kalderash clan—Gypsies who were traditionally coppersmiths. Stretched between the spires of the turrets, hanging like banners, the names of the owners are sculpted in zinc, broadcasting a message clear across the Danubian plains of southern Romania, a whooping visual cheer to the ingenuity of the Roma.

The biggest of the villas is owned by Marin Stoica, the bulibasha, the unofficial village leader. Today he is in the hospital, suffering from diabetes, and I am shown around by his granddaughter, Daniela Constantin, whose smile reveals four glinting gold front teeth—gold not for dental reasons but reasons of Kalderash aesthetics. Her limbs too are festooned with gold. And like almost all the Gypsy women here, she has a necklace made from large gold Austro-Hungarian coins.

Buzescu's grand houses sprang up in 1990, after the Romanian revolution, she tells me as we stroll through the cavernous, marble-lined rooms of the house, past computers and large-screen TVs, repro antique furniture imported from Italy, and pastoral tapestries on the walls. A marble-and-limestone staircase sweeps down four floors, its balustrades anchored in the hall by two statues of Greek archers; nearby is a small grove of plastic palms draped in tinsel.

Before the revolution, she says, "We were afraid to show any signs of wealth, because Ceauşescu would want to know where it came from." The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu forced many Gypsies into government housing that became ghettos and tried to suppress their culture. Many had their stashes of gold coins, accumulated through generations, confiscated by the notorious secret police, the Securitate.

The Kalderash are modern alchemists, turning base metals into gold by harvesting the metal skeletons of the industrial behemoths of the communist era and selling them off. When Daniela's husband, Ştefan Mihai, joins us, he (like most Kalderash I met) doesn't want to go into the specifics of his business—the line of the law is a rather blurred one in Romania's transitional economy, and competition for contracts is fierce.

Ştefan says he has encountered very little anti-Gypsy prejudice, but like many wealthy Roma I met, he has a little of his own. "We absolutely won't do business with any Roma we don't know, because they are dangerous. But with Romanians it's different. They don't try to cheat you like Roma do. We have no problem with Romanians—we employ them as chauffeurs and bodyguards."

The image of "the dangerous Gypsy" is actively promoted by some Gypsies seeking to distance themselves from "bad elements" by acknowledging gadje fears. And it works both ways—the wealthy Kalderash in Buzescu scorn poor Gypsies, but in the next town I found a community of Fulgari Gypsies, who earn a precarious living by traveling in horse-drawn wagons to buy duck down from peasants and sell it to wholesalers. The Fulgari hold up their poverty as a proof of honesty. "The people of Buzescu," scoffs their leader, Florea Sima, "they steal, but we are honest. The poor Gypsies are the honest ones. The rich do all the illegal business."

That night I return to Buzescu for a Gypsy christening at the Romanian Orthodox church. Throughout the ceremony the high spirits of the chattering Gypsies threaten to overwhelm the solemnity of the Orthodox rite. "Their mentality is different from ours," says the priest, Marinică Damian, later. "I once baptized a boy at nine and did his wedding at twelve! It's their law to get married as soon as possible, to retain the seed in the same families, to keep their fortunes intact." Just then the old caretaker bustles up and tugs his sleeve. "Those crows!" she exclaims, referring to the Gypsies by a common slur. "They've gone and stolen the soap."

Later, at the christening feast, a gang of teenage boys mills around me. All are married. The youngest is 14. He wears his baseball cap backward and speaks in a piping, unbroken voice. Do you stay in the same house as your wife, I ask? "Of course, we sleep in the same bed," he boasts. But when I ask if he has any children yet, he casts his eyes downward in embarrassment. "No, not yet," he admits, and runs off to play.

Clan and wealth distinctions like those between the Kalderash and the Fulgari, accentuated by centuries of nomadism and slavery and dispersal through many different countries, have created a Rom diaspora that lacks any centralized hierarchy. It is one of the reasons Roma have been so easy to oppress. But this is changing. The first World Romani Congress met in 1971 in England. It was attended by Gypsies from 14 countries, who adopted an anthem and a flag and began moves toward standardizing the language. Since 1979 there has been a Rom adviser at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Today there are a number of international Rom organizations that monitor Rom civil rights, lobby for an end to discrimination, and have recently begun negotiating for compensation for Holocaust victims.

Here in Romania there is another attempt at providing Gypsy leadership. Florin Cioabă is the "International King of the Gypsies." I know this because it is embossed on his business card, next to a picture of him wearing a heavy gold crown and clutching a gold scepter. His black Mercedes too has a regal cue: Its vanity plates bear the letters RGE, the closest they could get in a three-letter limit to REGE—Romanian for "king." And a crown has been sculpted into the side of his pebble-dashed villa.

"My father, the first king, was the only Rom leader in Romania to be recognized by Ceauşescu," announces Cioabă. (Ion Cioabă, who died in 1997, played a role in agitating for Gypsy rights.) "After 1990, when many Gypsy organizations suddenly appeared, the idea came to us to have a king as a symbol of Rom people the world over, someone who could be their savior."

When I ask King Florin about his royal rival and co-pretender, the Emperor, who also happens to be his cousin, he is peevish. "My cousin is only nicknamed the Emperor—there's nothing imperial about him." In the midst of our conversation, the King is called away to the nearby construction site where his new church is rising. Like an increasing number of Gypsies, he has been won over by the Pentecostals and is now a pastor himself.

As I leave, his wife arrives, dressed in a traditional Kalderash outfit, long bright skirts and plaits and head scarf. "Are you the Queen?" I ask. "No, no," she says, curtly. "I'm just his wife; I'm not involved in this royalty business."

The following day, while chatting with a group of Gypsies in the small Transylvanian village of Dealu Frumos, I get an insight into a side of the Roma that I have been constantly warned about but have not yet encountered. A young man and his friends are telling me about tsigani de casatsi—house Gypsies—"bad ones, who don't work on the land like us but just steal for a living." Without warning, he wrenches my notebook from my hands and shoves me against the car. I am punched in the kidneys, and my arm is twisted behind me. A blade is held to the side of my neck, and suddenly I am surrounded by roaring Gypsies, maybe 30 of them, more appearing every few seconds from the surrounding houses. My translator, Mihai, is punched in the head. "Money! Money! Money!" his tormentors bellow. I am allowed into the car to retrieve my bag, but Mihai is kept outside, a hostage to my ransom. I offer all the money from my wallet, and Mihai pulls free and throws himself into the back seat. As we drive off, we do an inventory of our injuries. Apart from bruises and shock, my main injury is to my hitherto benign image of the Roma as a wronged and misunderstood people.

Then the words of Nicolae Păun, a Rom politician I met in Bucharest, come back to me: "If a Rom commits a crime," he said, "he's not treated as an individual, the whole community has to pay the price, the dignity of all Roma is hurt." So I do my best to confine the blame for this particular episode to the individuals involved.

One of the ways the gadje punished Gypsies in the past for what was perceived as antisocial behavior was by deporting them. A few Gypsies arrived in North America as indentured servants or prisoners not long after the Pilgrim Fathers, having been expelled from England under laws like the Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars Act. But most of the Gypsies living throughout the United States—estimates range from 75,000 to a million—trace their roots to eastern and central Europe.

George and Veronica Kaslov live in New York's East Village, in a tiny first-floor apartment sandwiched between tattoo parlors and falafel joints. The front room is Veronica's fortune-telling parlor, equipped with crystal ball, tarot cards, and a map of the palm of a hand. "Real Psychic Reader" declares her handbill. "Advisor To Your True Destiny—For Peace of Mind—Discover your internal power for happiness and success." It also doubles as the office of the Lawyers' Committee for Roma Rights and Recognition, a legal aid society set up by George to fight anti-Rom prejudice in the U.S. Special police task forces targeting Gypsy con artists are evoked by Rom activists as an example of this prejudice, although police deny that such task forces exist. However, since many Gypsy men work in trades that are susceptible to con artists—car dealers and repairers, roofers, and pavers—Rom activists claim that the stereotype of Gypsy as criminal remains prevalent.

"There's a will within us to survive as a people," says Kaslov, whose grandfather, a Vlax Gypsy from Russia, arrived almost a hundred years ago. "All the other ethnic groups who come to America, they tend to assimilate after a few generations; they lose their customs and language. But not the Rom. We hold out." One barrier is the Rom purity code of marimé, a complicated set of taboos. For example, a towel used to dry the lower half of the body must not touch anything above the waist. Marimé also covers relationships, conversational topics, and food. To break the code can mean expulsion. All gadje are presumed to be unclean, because they don't follow the marimé code.

There is a marked schism between the established American Roma and more recent Gypsy arrivals, who tend to be less traditional and more assimilated, says Kaslov. "They come seeking education and jobs, whereas we don't like to work nine to five for the gadje."

American Vlax Gypsies are one of the most closed Rom societies in the world. Partly this is because so many of them are descended from enslaved Romanian Roma, freed only in the mid-19th century, with a strong suspicion of the gadje. It is only through George Kaslov that I finally meet Joe Marks, a Rom Baro, or Big Man, of Philadelphia, where he deals in scrap metal with his son Kelly. There is nothing about his outward appearance—gold-rimmed glasses, a chestnut pate fringed with white hair, and a well-tended white beard—that would suggest he is a Gypsy.

"We don't usually invite gadje into our houses," Joe admits, as he welcomes me in for dinner. "We don't want them poking their noses into our business." His wife produces a "pig-in-the-blanket," ham baked in a pastry crust, before withdrawing to the kitchen, as is the Rom custom. Joe and his wife met only six times (and never alone) before they married. That was 35 years ago. His son-in-law, Paul McGill, explains that today Gypsy kids are still expected to marry young, to keep them within the culture. He's already scoping out a Rom partner for his 17-year-old son, Brian. "He's helping though," says Paul. "He tells me who to call! And nowadays there are Gypsy chat rooms on the Web, and they get in contact there too."

After the meal is cleared away, the serious business of the evening commences —a divano—a Gypsy mediation hearing in which Joe wants to settle a dispute that has resulted in assault charges against two young Rom men. Across America a network of Gypsy courts controls almost all Vlax Rom disputes, commercial and territorial—especially over rival fortune-telling spots and rulings on marimé breaches. They also grant Rom divorces—few American Roma officially register their marriages.

Joe talks quietly but firmly in Romany to the two men, pointing out the perilous consequences of their fight and demanding an end to their hostility as the price for his intercession with the authorities. By the end of the evening he persuades them to shake hands (though, as he puts it, one of them "would rather chew bullets"), and a phone call is made to a lawyer to arrange for the charges to be dropped.

Joe's son Kelly gives me a lift to my car. In crocodile-skin cowboy boots and jeans he appears thoroughly American. "I'm afraid we don't have campfires or wagons or bandannas, earrings, or violins," he jokes. "We don't steal babies or pick pockets—maybe we're not Gypsy enough for you?" Then he gets serious. "We may look modern and adapted on the outside, but on the inside we're pure Rom. We're naturally secretive because we have such a long history of persecution."

Without a country to call their own, in a world changing fast around them, the fortune told for the Roma has often been grim. But historically their skill has been to survive among a great diversity of hosts, among those always more powerful and entitled than themselves, enduring both the fist of hostility and the bear hug of forced assimilation by remaining nomads of the spirit.