Racism in empty bottles


We are also a bit racist, and that is an old tradition, we were raised on it and our parents told us stories. (Fernandez: 386)

It’s incredible how deep-seated is (European) racism towards Gypsies; I grew up in the middle of it and everything that you were taught by those around you stressed that Gypsies were not like us.

Gypsies would come and steal the (misbehaving) children.

That used to be a common admonishment issued by Romanian parents.

We had these Gypsies’ carts drawn by horses, with bottles

Sticle, sticle, sticle goale cumparam!

Empty, empty, empty bottles we will buy!

They had a song about “empty bottles” which they would buy from you; Gypsies used to move slowly around Bucharest in horse-drawn carts filled to the Sky with empty bottles.

Gypsies were different:

They had another language, and they would steal from you (that was common “knowledge”).

When I was 14, this Gypsy woman tried to sell a gold ring to me; I told her that I didn’t need it and that I didn’t have the money, but in the back of every Romanian’s mind reading this would be the 100% certainty that the ring was actually fake.

Of course, I couldn’t know this for a fact, since I didn’t have it tested for purity, but any Romanian would tell you that I would have been swindled. Let us accept the premise that it was fake:

Why would anybody try to make a living out of selling fake gold rings?

Why would anybody try to make a living out of buying and selling empty bottles?

Why would anybody try to make a living out of selling sunflower seeds (“seminte”)?

Because these aren’t many other options left for you if you’re a Gypsy.

The racism which pervades my thinking towards Gypsies is as widespread in Romania as racism towards black people would have been in the American South in the 1960s, with traces still visible even now.

The racist dialogue is remarkably similar across the world; you can also see it in the way White Australians felt (and may be still feeling) towards Aboriginals:

Those alcoholic homeless good-for-nothing lazy people.

For Romanians, this racism is deeply embedded, it is part of our national culture; that’s why we make fun of it by putting it into jokes, inadvertently showing how ignorant “white” Romanians (like myself) are about Gypsies.

Like most Romanians, I know close to nothing about Gypsy language: I only know a couple of words like misto (something nice, “cool”) which have been borrowed into Romanian.

What else? Do we know other words from the Gypsy language?

It’s not “Sticle, sticle, sticle goale cumparam!” This is Romanian.

Do you know another word in Gypsy if you’re Romanian? Does it come to you immediately?

Maybe you’re thinking bulibasa (“Gypsy band leader”); that’s from Turkish bölük-baş (Squad-Chief).

We used to think that they live in tents, travel in caravans, use carts drawn by horses…

That’s pretty much our knowledge of them: Travelers, but different from the wandering Jew, a different kind of wanderer who had to survive in racist Romania, racist Czech Republic, racist Germany, racist Hungary, racist Poland, racist Ukraine…

There was another side to the Holocaust (called Porajmos) and it has been given much less light.

The numbers are smaller, but when we talk about millions…

To deny the Holocaust is idiotic; but to deny the application of “genocide” to what happened to Gypsies is also pretty silly at this point: Gypsies were hunted like animals, their caravans were driven in the middle of nowhere, where it was hoped they would just die of lack of food and water.

What happened to them in reality? Who knows? Nobody cared; they just took them somewhere where there was nothing, and told them “You have to stay here a couple of years”; the winter came, disease…

It was a different kind of genocide for many Gypsy families; the Holocaust was much more horrible, of course.

The official history of Romania tells you that the Holocaust happened and that “we” were not actively involved; the connection with what happened to the Gypsies is not made immediately in the Romanian consciousness even if this is also really important to come to terms with, as a Romanian.

This deeply-felt, ingrained racism is based on wilful ignorance.

So, homework for Romanians: Learn Gypsy

Invata ma si tu niste tiganeste!

Something else besides the (false) knowledge that they’re from Egypt. Remember that they’re called “Roma”. Not the [Italian] city, but their name for themselves. Let’s start with that; not just misto.

‘if caught speaking the Romani language, the punishment was twenty-four lashes’ (Posavec & Hrvatic: 95)

Let’s start with that: the Roma people, let’s learn their language. Auziti bai, romanii? 

Note: The linguistic varieties spoken by Roma minorities in Europe and elsewhere are generically known as Romani and appear to have evolved from an Indic language; this was first noticed in the 18th century,

‘when a Hungarian theology student at Leiden heard students from India discussing Sanskrit, and recognised similarities to the Romani he had heard in Gyor [a city located in northwest Hungary]’ (Lemon: 60)


Fernandez, O. 2006, ‘Educating for difference in a Romany community in Spain: An exercise in integration’, Intercultural Education, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 373–390.

Lemon, A.M. 2002, ‘”Form” and “function” in Soviet stage Romani: Modeling metapragmatics through performance institutions’, Language in Society, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 29–64.

Posavec, K. & Hrvatic, N. 2000, ‘Intercultural education and Roma in Croatia’, Intercultural Education, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 93–105.

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