History of 'the Vardo'

The Roma

Telling the history of the Vardo, is telling the history of the Roma, also known as Gypsies or Romany. That’s why I’ll start with that. The Roma aren’t one group, with one ethnicity, origin or religion. When I check the Open Society Foundations Website (Marsh 2013), it becomes clear that there are:

Catholic Manouche, Mercheros, and Sinti; Muslim Ashkali and Romanlar; Pentecostal Kalderash and Lovari; Protestant Travellers; Anglican Gypsies; and Baptist Roma.

Also, the term ‘Roma’ may point to a lot of different groups:

Romanichals in England; Kalé in Wales and Finland; Travellers in Ireland (who are not Roma), Scotland, Sweden, and Norway; Manouche from France; Gitano from Spain; Sinti from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy; Ashakli from Kosovo; Egyptians from Albania; Beyash from Croatia; Romanlar from Turkey; Domari from Palestine and Egypt; Lom from Armenia, and many others.

Their origin is usually seen as North-West India, where they started traveling to Europe around the 3th and 7th century after Christ (BBC, 2009). Amongst them were ‘farmers, herdsmen, traders, mercenaries or book-keepers. Others were entertainers and musicians.’ First the Roma settled in the (as it is called in the West) Middle East. Here they called themselves the Dom, which translates as ‘human’, according to the BBC. This name is still used, and the language, Rromanës, is related to Sanskrit. Many Dom travelled further to Europe, fleeing for the Ottoman Empire (Wogg), where Dom became Rom because of the way of pronouncing the D in Rromanës, and where Roma, plural for Rom, was born.

Although the history make it seem as if the Roma are ‘one group of people’ with ‘one origine’, it seems they have a rather diverse history. But the Roma have certain things in common, like for instance their lexicon Rromanës, although they do have different dialects; the world-view, and the ideas of beauty and behaviors: how to act with dignity and respect as a Roma. Trades which were practiced by Roma were for instance stock trading and repairing materials with few value. They’re known for recycling goods, and used to be often healers and herbalists for people in the country side (Marsh, 2013) Further has the flexibility of moving around always been a part of the Roma identity, although they have also been known to do agriculture. They’re experts in auto mechanics, craft skills, repairing roads and laying roofs. Also metalwork and making baskets are general professions.

Something else what ties the Roma together is their position as ‘outsider’ of the society, and their long history of it since they’ve left India. Although not all Roma have an origine in this history, it does create a symbolic connection between the Roma. For Roma there’e not one country, one religion or one holy priest. The world is a place for all and should be lived to its fullest potential. Already in the Byzanthium Roma were placed as ‘untouchables’ (BBC, 2009). This idea is the origin of words like ‘gypsy’ and ‘roma’. As can be seen in the video above, they’re suppressed almost everywhere where they are. In the 14th century the Roma were in Bulgaria, Servia and Greece, but in Romania, especially in the areas Walachije and Moldavia, the were taken in as slaves. A century later some managed to flee to Ukraine and Russia. As they’ve presented themselves as pelgrims, they had a pretty safe life, till 1500, when the ‘first Romani genocide’ began. As the BBC (2009) writes: ‘There were hangings and expulsions in England; branding and the shaving of heads in France; severing of the left ear of Roma women in Moravia, and of the right one in Bohemia.’ Countries as Poland and Russia were very welcoming when the Roma wanted to flee for this aggression, allowing them a nomadic life. In the West of Europe, they were ‘civilized’: they were forced to leave their language, prohibit to marry amongst their own, restrained in playing music and the children were taken away. In the end this moved towards the well-known Holocaust, were Roma were amongst the first victims: up to 500.000 Roma were probably killed by the fascistic reign.

After WOII, Europe has denied the Roma any possibility for support, and in some countries Roma were faced to be sterilized (Czecho-Slovakia), change their name and hide themselves (Bulgaria). Today there are about 6 to 10 million European Roma living in Central and Eastern Europe, and, despite the murders and slaveries, most live in Romania. They’re still undergoing exclusion and poverty, and:

‘Most Roma families live in small shacks with no electricity or running water, and international institutions calculate that Roma poverty rates are up to 10 times higher than those of the majority population where they live, while their lifespan is 10 or 15 years lower.’ (BBC, 2009)

The vardo

The use of the Vardo (which comes from the Iranian word vardon, which means carriage) is only been done in the past 150 years. Before they traveled by feet, pulling carriages themselves to carry their goods, slept in tents which were called ‘benders’, made from hazelnut branches with a canvas cloth around it. Around 1810 the first form of Vardo was created in France, to carry as wagon goods and people, but mainly for living in it. Newly wets bought a wagon from a non-Roma builder, which needed about 6 to 12 months to build it. Specific for these wagons are their eccentric painting and decorations, often decorated with gold leaf. Six types of Vardo’s are determinable: the Bush wagon, the Reading, the Ledge, the Bowtop, the Openlot and the Burton (see this link).

In the interior was an iron heater, although the Roma preferred cooking on campfire, and in the end a bed behind closed doors. Underneath the bed was a smaller space for the kids to sleep, and sometimes even a hidden ‘safe zone’. One horse was used, to travel per day about 24km. To get up the mountain there was sometimes a 2nd horse. After 10 years the Vardo went back to the builder to be repaired, and when the owners died it was often burned. In the late 19th/ begin 20th century many Vardo’s were made in England, although the camper was also getting popular quite quickly. Almost all old craftsmen died by the end of the 2nd World War, so there aren’t many Vardo left from that time, and the ones which are, are seen as a monument of history (see website Gypsywaggons).