Bangkok, 29 August 2015

I wrote a post a year or so ago where I listed all things French. One of the things I didn’t list, though, was the game of pétanque. Anyone who has spent any time in France will eventually have come across a scene like this

petanques in France

especially if you’re there for the summer holidays; it seems that it’s all the French do during their summer holidays at the beach.


In truth, my memory of pétanque leans more in the direction of the following photo, the game on the village square ringed with those poor plane trees that the French love to massacre, with ten times more spectators than players – and all looking so serious!

petanque old photo

So French is pétanque that it played a major role in that magisterial compendium of all that is French, Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix.

Asterix et le tour de Gaule

The scene takes place in Masilia (today’s Marseilles) – a nod to the Provençal roots of the game – where a Roman patrol is threatened with riot, revolution, massacre, war, in brief general catastrophe, if they disrupt a game of pétanque started specially to let our heroes get away.

petanque in asterix

To further slow down the game and impede the Roman patrol from advancing, the classic question is being heatedly debated: “je tire ou je pointe?” Should the bowler try to knock away the adversaries’ bowls close to the cochonnet (jack in English), or should he try to get his bowl even closer than theirs to the cochonnet? Extremely delicate question, which explains the serious expressions of everyone in the black and white photo above. It was also the object of serious fights between my French cousins when we played the game at my grandmother’s house. The games normally finished abruptly with them running after each other through the garden, screaming.

Yes, so French: a Gauloise cigarette in corner of the mouth, a glass of pastis in one hand, a petanque bowl in the other, and the pondering of that existential question: “je tire ou je pointe?”

Imagine, then, my astonishment when, during a visit a few Chinese New Years ago to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, I noticed a group of locals playing a game of pétanque. So astonished was I that I took a photo to memorialize the scene. Alas! I cannot find the photo anymore, but no matter, others have memorialized the playing of pétanque in Laos on the internet.

petanque in Laos

After some thinking, I concluded that perhaps it was not all that surprising that Laotians should play pétanque. After all, they had been a French colony. No doubt they would have watched their colonial masters while away their afternoons playing the game and perhaps played it themselves in the mother country while there on scholarships and plotting revolution. And it’s a great game for a hot climate, no frantic running around under the broiling sun.

But imagine my even greater astonishment when several months ago I noticed a group of Thai playing pétanque, or petaung in Thai (my transliteration of what my office colleagues called it). I was so gobsmacked that I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo, so I throw in here one that I found on the net. As we can see, the players are obviously debating the question, “je tire ou je pointe?”

petanque in Thailand

How did they pick up the game? Could it have come through Laos? Or Cambodia, or even Vietnam, also ex-French colonies and where the game is played? Or was it brought by Frenchmen in the service of the King or Government? Whatever the origin, the fact is they play it well. In preparing this post, I discovered that there is an International Championship of pétanque which has been held every two years since 1959. The French, of course, have dominated the event, with French teams winning 27 golds, 12 silvers, and 14 bronzes. But, surprise, surprise, the Thai have won 3 silvers and 3 bronzes, all this since 1991. They seem to be creeping slowly up the medal tables; gold no doubt awaits them soon.

Thoroughly intrigued, I did a rapid internet zip around the world, and discovered many more places where pétanque is played. Just in Asia, I found traces of it in India

BAKEA9 India, Pondicherry Territory, Pondicherry, French consulate, Petanque game

although I suspect it may be limited to the old French enclave of Pondicherry


petanque in Kumamoto Japan

the hats are an interesting stylistic addition


petanque en chine

although I never saw it being played in my five years there, and if this picture is anything to go by the Government has infiltrated the game and officialized it: where are the villagers playing in the shade of the trees?

I didn’t find a picture of anyone playing pétanque in South Korea although there seems to be national federation of pétanque and bowls. What the Koreans do seem to have done is to invent a video-game of pétanque – it figures, I suppose, given South Koreans’ passion for video-games.

petanque video game screen

A number of my posts have touched on the issue of globalization. I suppose this is another example of that. I wonder if the French have ever tried making pétanque an Olympic sport? They could win a few more gold medals for a while, until the rest of the world beat them at their own game (like the Japanese with judo).


Pétanque in France: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/zjJAcu2o03U/maxresdefault.jpg (in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjJAcu2o03U)
Petanque on the beach: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c2/Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg/500px-Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pétanque)
Pétanque old photo: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/160702255-albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=GkZZ8bf5zL1ZiijUmxa7QRb3elaikB0wsuIje6LZ5qIlZFwr4Iyt%2bAtEtk63h7vGHw9WDtPuEHn0XScy7CdEvPc6MFA3lWBXE1Yr5pP3Qlg%3d (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-saint-tropez-news-photo/160702255)
Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix: http://www.asterix.com/bd/albs/05frx.jpg (in http://www.asterix.com/la-collection/les-albums/le-tour-de-gaule-d-asterix.html)
Pétanque in Laos: http://blog.uniterre.com/uploads/f/frchazelle/576704.jpg (in http://www.uniterre.com/album-photos-voyage-21819.html)
Pétanque in Thailand: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/9605459/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/de/video/clip-5718971-stock-footage-petanque-sports.html)
Pétanque in Kumamoto Japan: http://blog-imgs-50.fc2.com/a/k/a/akazawamitsuishi/img_1715696_52818299_2.jpg (in http://akazawamitsuishi.blog59.fc2.com/blog-entry-1676.html)
Pétanque in Pondicherry India: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/BAKEA9/india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-BAKEA9.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-23785281.html)
Pétanque in China: http://www.boulistenaute.com/uploads/thumbs/4757.jpg (in http://www.boulistenaute.com/modules/newbb/viewattachment.php?topic_id=24172&post_id=692310&forum=37)
Petanque video-game screen: http://a4.mzstatic.com/eu/r30/Purple6/v4/2d/9a/0d/2d9a0d66-5b26-79d9-7d31-21b3b2e2340c/screen340x340.jpeg (in https://www.apptweak.com/petanque-2012-pro/iphone-ipad/kr/en/app-marketing-app-store-optimization-aso/report/497991055)


Beijing, 24 March 2014

Jean Renoir, son of the French impressionist painter of the same name, was a good film director. In fact, he is considered by some to be among the greatest film directors of all time. He made such classics as La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939). So it was with some anticipation that some years ago my wife and I went to see The River, a film he had made in 1951, on location in India, in English, his first in colour, and which won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The River

Bad, bad mistake! The theme of the film – loss, love lost, love found – had all to hold one. The problem was the actors. They were all, to a man and woman, dogs – it’s the only word to adequately describe the appallingly amateur acting that we were subjected to. To this day, I ask myself what on earth happened in the making of this film. How did Jean Renoir lose control of his creation? Was it lack of money? Loss of talent? – was he getting too old for the job? Was it working far from home and in a foreign language? Mystery …

The worst actor by far was an Indian woman, Radha Burnier by name. She later gained a certain fame by becoming president of the Indian branch of the Theosophical Society (fame defined here as having an entry in Wikipedia). But that was still in the future when she acted in this film. I literally gritted my teeth every time she appeared on-screen and droned out her lines tonelessly. And then, at some point in all this hideousness, she acted out a dream sequence. For some reason which I cannot now recall, this dream required her to dance a classical Indian dance. What a transformation!  This ugly duckling of an actress morphed into a beautiful dancer. We were treated to a powerfully expressive, supremely graceful performance of Indian classical dancing.

I immediately forgave her all her poor acting.

I was forcefully reminded of this episode a few weeks ago when, during a long flight back from the US, I decided to watch An American in Paris, a film also made in 1951, directed by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly in the lead role.


It was an exceedingly silly film, with the lightest of plots (love lost, love gained, the whole with a papier mâché Paris in the background), but at least the actors could act. It also had a good musical score by George Gershwin. So I smiled indulgently and let myself be carried along on the silly frothiness of it all. At some point, though, Gene Kelly went into a tap dancing routine. My attention suddenly snapped into focus. What a dance! Light-hearted though it was, it was a superb rendition, a wonderful example of what a highly accomplished classical dancer can do with the hypnotic rhythms of clicking shoes.

In a way, I think these two threads of dancing come together in Spanish flamenco dancing – the syncopation of tap dancing fusing with the sinuous, sulphurous eroticism of Indian classical dancing, which also carries its own brand of stressed rhythm with the use of feet bangles. Staying in the film medium, I give here a wonderful example of Spanish flamenco from Carmen, a 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura.


It’s a remake in the flamenco style of Bizet’s famous opera of the same name. Here we have love exploding between Carmen and Don José

but alas! it all ends badly

Ah, the madness of jealous love!

I cannot end without bringing in tango, that most sultry of all dances. Which is just as well because that allows me to introduce a final clip from the 2005 film Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé


in which two lonely people, Jean-Claude and Françoise, find a common love, and love, in tango

Ah, l’amour, l’amour! After a few taps of my toes and a pirouette, I turn in for the night.


The River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/77/La_Fleuve_1951_film_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(1951_film)%5D
An American in Paris film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_American_in_Paris_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_%28film%29%5D
Carmen film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carmen_by_Saura.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_%281983_film%29%5D
Je ne suis pa la pour etre aime poster: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/imager/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/b/original/2222223/686d/f8df3e30_je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime.jpg [in http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/Event?oid=2222222%5D


Beijing, 14 November 2013

I was doing my favourite thing two Sundays ago, which is to be with my wife, sipping a cappuccino, and reading the weekend section of the Financial Times. My eyes fell on the cookery section, where Rowley Leigh was explaining how to prepare kedgeree.

Kedgeree …

My mind whirled back 50 years, and suddenly I am a boy again, staying with my English grandmother in London. She is having some guests over to dinner and has prepared kedgeree, one of her signature dishes. She is allowing me to take part in the dinner, and amid the chatter of grown-up conversation around me, I dig into this new dish for me. Ah, the softness of the rice with its buttery taste, overlain by the flavour of strong tasting smoked haddock merging with mild tasting hard-boiled egg. Mmmm …
I once asked my sister if she had ever persuaded my grandmother to hand over her kedgeree recipe (my sister is the cook of the family). She had, and she sent it to me by return of electronic post. I printed it off and slipped the sheet into one of my wife’s cookery books, with the intention of trying it one day. Alas, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.  That piece of paper has never been used and is now lying, along with the cookery book, in a storage space in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

After receiving the recipe from my sister, my curiosity was piqued and I started to do some research on kedgeree. The first thing I discovered was that its culinary roots are in India!  For some reason, I think because my grandmother was always going on about her Norwegian roots (she was half Norwegian) and because the dish had fish in it (the Norwegians are a sea-faring nation, aren’t they? They must all eat fish), it had to be originally Norwegian, with a name like kåjorø or something.


Of course, the rice should have warned me that Norwegian roots were doubtful, but I wasn’t that sagacious when I was young.  Apart from the rice, my grandmother had eliminated all other references to India. For instance, all recipes mention a sauce in which to cook the rice. There is a good deal of disagreement about what should go into this sauce, but they all agree on at least two ingredients. There should be onions, and there should be curry. Well there you go! My grandmother disliked onions – she didn’t like the smell and I think they disagreed with her digestion (as they do with mine and as they did with my father’s – the mystery of genes; I wonder which part of our DNA helix has problems with onions). In addition, my grandmother really, really disliked curry and all spicy spices. It looks like there too I inherited her bit of anti-spice DNA. So it’s not surprising that she ruthlessly eliminated the onions and the curry from her version of kedgeree, along with the medley of other spices which various sources suggest: cardamom, turmeric, cumin, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, … the Spice Islands unfurl before the eyes. So maybe I wasn’t that wrong all those years ago. My grandmother’s kedgeree may not have come from Norway, but it sure ended up looking and tasting Norwegian.

The fascinating thing is to look at the Indian ancestor of kedgeree. The sources all seem to agree on khichdi as the ultimate source, or khichuri to give it what I think is its Bengali pronunciation. A typical recipe goes like this. First, throw out the fish and egg. This seems to have been a British addition (Wikipedia suggests that Bengalis eat their khichuri with fish and/or eggs, but I was able to find no reference to this in other recipes). Second, add lentils to the mix. Because basically, as far as I can make out what we have here is a dal mixed with rice. Third, add vegetables like cauliflower and peas. Cook the lentils, the rice, and the vegetable in the sauce, et voilà! (more or less; I’m cutting details).


How did this Indian dish mutate into its pale British imitation? I construct the following hypothetical journey – a complete fabrication, I’m sure, but it satisfies my sense of the romantic. I take as true the Wikipedian claim that Bengalis added fish and eggs to their khichuri. So I imagine that khichuri started its journey to kedgeree in Calcutta, among the men of the East India Company.


At the beginning, there were few British women in India to feed the men their British meat and potatoes, and since the men did not cook (of course) their diet went native. So far so good. But here I have recourse to another aspect of khichuri, that it is fed to those who are recovering from sickness or are otherwise generally feeble. And so I imagine that the Indian servants fed khichuri to their East India Company masters who had been felled by one of the many diseases of the Indian subcontinent to which their British constitution was not used and against which they had no defence, natural or pharmaceutical.  Since the British were very often sick (the death rate among the British at the beginning of their rule in India was alarmingly high), they were very often fed khichuri by their Indian servants. Thus was born a love of khichuri among the British men of India.


Now we have to move on some decades, to when sanitary conditions got better and medicines more effective, travel to India quicker, and racist theories about the superiority of the British over the Indians grew stronger. This last factor led from an earlier disapproval of having British women around to a disapproval of having British men – naturally, given the circumstances – consorting with Indian women. British men, it was decreed, should be with British women. The better and quicker travel meant that single (normally dowryless) British women could be brought over by the boatload and married off to the single British men running India. The better sanitary conditions and more effective medicines meant that they didn’t die in droves and had time to set up stable families.

So were born the memsahibs, that army of British women who ran the men who ran India.


They were the keepers of the flame of Britishness.  Everything became more British and the divide between British and Indians widened and deepened.

British family in india

Britification included the cuisine, of course. Meat, two veg, and potatoes, along with soggy deserts, became de rigeur, and all things Indian in the kitchen were determinedly stamped out (except the cook, of course; memsahibs did not cook).

But some Indian dishes survived the onslaught and slipped into the mainstream of British food. Chutney was one, although much of the original Indian spiciness and sourness was stripped out in the transition. When I was young chutney seemed as British as cricket.


Mulligatawny soup (Milagu thanni in Tamil) was another, although my Wikipedian sources tell me that the British got confused and gave the name of one soup to the recipe of another; what the Brits eat really should be called Russum soup.


And of course there was khichdi /khichuri/kedgeree.

For some reason, in Anglo-India kedgeree became a breakfast dish, perhaps because fish (in the form of kippers) and eggs were typical ingredients of the British breakfast while the idea of eating rice at breakfast made sense in India.

breakfast-british raj

But I have to think that once kedgeree filtered back to the UK proper, the rice content meant that it migrated to the lunch and dinner menus; that’s certainly where my grandmother had it.

Of course, Indian cuisine has had the last laugh. When I was a young, impoverished University student, going to an Indian restaurant was a good option for a night out. The restaurants were slightly dodgy, the sort of places where you weren’t quite sure of the source of the meat on your plate (a story which made the rounds of the student dorms was of an inspection of an Indian restaurant turning up a dead dog in the kitchen’s refrigerator).  But now, as far as I can make out the English themselves are cooking Indian food. My guess is that in another thirty years British cooking won’t exist anymore in Britain. Everyone will eat Indian.

Indian cookery book


Kedgeree: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b8/Kedgeree.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Indian_cuisine%5D
Viking longship: http://www.celticattic.com/scandinavian/images/viking_longship.jpg [in http://www.celticattic.com/contact_us/norwegian_connection/ships.htm%5D
Kichdi: http://jainrasoi.com/mg/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi-600×450.jpg [in http://jainrasoi.com/khichdi/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi%5D
East India company: http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/files/2012/01/East-India-Company.jpg [in http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/2012/01/12/revisiting-the-east-india-co/%5D
Sick man: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HhdTZia6Bzk/ULac2VucJAI/AAAAAAAAAN0/rCoD3QxO_us/s1600/sick_man_24338_md.gif [in http://storytimehats.blogspot.com/2012/11/sick-to-move.html%5D
Memsahibs: http://s157.photobucket.com/user/dismasdolben/media/memsahibs.jpg.html?t=1176095517 [in http://sanatana-dharma.livejournal.com/106044.html%5D
British family in India: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-JXoJcY6cvfg/T33zjAqxGjI/AAAAAAAAAc4/Ln-30Elvh-8/s1600/British+india.jpg [in http://hkm128.blogspot.com/2012/04/being-dark-skinned-in-india.html%5D
Chutney: http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/data/shop/Madras%20Fruit%20Chutney.jpg [in http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/item.asp?itemid=121%5D
Mulligatawny soup: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Mulligatawny.jpg/800px-Mulligatawny.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulligatawny%5D
Breakfast-British Raj: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-pEIQ5D-CSEU/UCo2tDj8nNI/AAAAAAAAJs8/35DYCGC5zk4/s1600/raj.jpg [in http://marykunzgoldman.com/2012/08/breakfast-of-champions.html%5D
British Indian cookery book: http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FRONT-COVER-NEW-BOOK1.jpg [in http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/2012/05/12/a-review-of-british-indian-restaurant-style-cooking-by-mick-crawford/%5D


Beijing, 2 November 2013

revised 14 December 2014

So Europe has been abuzz with the story of a little girl – Maria is her name – with the blondest of blonde hair and the bluest of blue eyes, who was found living with a Roma family in Greece. Her sweet little face flashed across all our television screens.

Little-girl-found-in-a-Roma camp

Greek police suspected, based on the lack of physical similarities between her and her supposed parents, that she was not their child.

marias greek so-called parents

Of course, there was a racist element in the whole discussion: how on earth could Romani have blonde children? Everybody knows that Romani are dark and swarthy (and shifty and unreliable and of thievish disposition and, and, and …). The obvious corollary was that the Romani had stolen Maria from a “normal” family. There was a certain level of triumphalism when science came along with DNA tests which proved without a shadow of doubt that the Romani who claimed to be her parents were in fact not her parents. So I had to laugh when DNA tests went on to show that actually Maria is a Roma – but from another Roma family in Bulgaria. And her Bulgarian parents look just as dark and swarthy as the Greek “parents”!

marias bulgarian real parents-2

And to top it all, as the picture shows, they have other equally blonde children!

It seems that the solution of the mystery is simple enough. All this testing has shown that Maria’s father carries the gene for albinism. So Maria and her other white-skinned, blonde-haired children are albinos.

Actually, when we get away from all the fuss and bother of these last few days along with the borderline racism of it all, there is the deeper, fascinating tale of the Roma people themselves. For some 200 years already, scholars have inferred from the Romani’s language that their original home must have been the Indian subcontinent and more specifically somewhere in its northwestern part (I won’t bore you – or myself – with the details, but it has to do with the fact that the Romani language is clearly a New Indo-Aryan language rather than a Middle Indo-Aryan language, with the closest affinities to the Saraiki linguistic group, which is native to southern Punjab, northern Sindh, Southern Khyber Pakhtunkha and northeastern Balochistan provinces of Pakistan). So how come little Maria ended up in Bulgaria?

To answer that question, it would be nice if the Romani had written histories and other documents which would tell us what happened to them after they had left their original home and, after much wandering, ended up in Europe. But like most marginalized peoples, the Romani have little if any written documents. And so we are left with mentions of their passage – mostly disapproving if not downright hostile – in the documents of the countries they crossed, along with the Romani’s own myths and folklore about their past.

And now we also have genetics.

Modern genetics is amazing. Truly, we carry our history in our cells. Scientists can carefully tease out from those millions of chemicals spiraling in our DNAs our story as peoples. As the biotechnology tools and equipment have grown more powerful – and cheaper – more and more historical information about us is being squeezed from our cells. The Romani are no exception. I have just finished reading a scientific article about a large genetic study recently undertaken on the Romani – the latest of a series. It was pretty hard going, I have to tell you. Here is a sample: “we applied the ADMIXTURE clustering method to estimate the membership of each individual to a range of k hypothetical ancestral populations (k = 2 to k = 15, see Figures 2C, S1D, and S1E). At k = 2, a longitudinal gradient on the amount of ancestry of each component is observed from India to Europe (Spearman’s rho = 0.935, p < 10216, after exclusion of European Romani; Figure S1F)”. Aie-aie-aie! But I ploughed through the article, and this is what I got from it (with some help from a review of the article in Scientific American, I will admit).

We can start with this prettily coloured map.

india map

It shows the strength of affinity between the Romani’s genetic makeup and that of the modern populations of the Indian subcontinent (red, the strongest affinity; blue, the weakest). It tells us that most probably the Romani’s homeland was somewhere in the valley of the Indus River. This fits nicely with the linguistic evidence I mentioned earlier.

I throw in a picture here of one of the modern inhabitants of this part of India, a Punjabi farmer

punjabi farmer

Many of them are now Sikhs, but take away the turban and other Sikh attributes I don’t suppose the first Romani looked very different from this distinguished gentleman.

Genetics also tell us that it was very probably one group of people who left (rather than a number of groups leaving at different times and mingling over the centuries of their wanderings), and that they left in about 500 AD. Genetics can’t tell us why they left, alas, but a look at India’s history books shows that this was the time when the White Huns conquered the northwestern part of India from the Gupta Empire. Perhaps the Romani’s ancestors wanted to get out of the way of the fighting, or they were on the losing side of the fight and had had their lands taken from them.

Quite soon after leaving, genetics goes on to tell us, this so-called “founder group” went through what geneticists euphemistically call a bottleneck, which is another way of saying that the group’s numbers dropped sharply, in this case by half. Perhaps the White Huns caught up with them, perhaps a local population objected to their presence on their territories, perhaps they were decimated by some infectious disease. We’ll probably never know. In any case, genetics tells us that thereafter they moved quite fast through the Caucasus and the Middle East, mixing only moderately with the local populations along the way.

In about 800 AD, they ended up in Bulgaria; genetics tells us that this was their trampoline into Europe. And there they stayed for some three hundred years, according to the genetics, until about 1100 AD, when they started dispersing throughout the rest of Europe. The genetics can tease out two main dispersal streams, one to Western Europe and the other to Eastern Europe. Something bad happened to the Western European group in about 1200-1300 AD; their genes went through another strong “bottleneck”, equivalent to their losing some 30% of their population. Could it have been the Black Death? But why didn’t the Eastern European Group suffer similarly? The plague struck there too (except in the area of what is now mostly Poland). Again, we’ll probably never know.

Be that as it may, the genes also give us an indication of how much the Romani people have mixed their genes with other people’s as they spread through Europe. Overall, the Romani haven’t mixed much; their genes show more evidence of marriage among blood relatives than is the case with the other European populations (an interesting exception are the Welsh Romani, who seem to have mixed quite a bit). But they haven’t kept completely to themselves. And here there is an interesting difference between various groups of Romani. For instance, Romani from Spain and Portugal, but also from Lithuania, seem to have mixed more readily with the local populations in the past than they have recently. The opposite pattern is seen in the genes of the Romani populations from Slovakia and Hungary in Central Europe, and Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, in the Balkans. Here, the Romani kept to themselves for a long time but then more recently have mixed with other populations.

Given our generalized suspicion of Romani and our desire to keep away from them (I remember as a child being told that gypsies would carry you off if you weren’t careful, that you had to keep away from gypsy encampments, etc. etc.), how did any mixing between Roma and non-Roma take place at all? Well, it could have been kidnapping, as was the initial suspicion in the case of Maria. But it could just as well have been a case of Romani women being raped. But more likely it was people who, out of desperation, running away from dire poverty or abuse or some other misery, or out of a love for the open road, joined groups of Romani. And so mixed their genes with those of the Romani.

The urge, or need, to take to the open road is not a monopoly of the Romani. Many local European populations have done so over the ages. In my country, we have the English Travellers, the Highland Travellers, the Welsh Travellers. The Irish have their Travellers.


The Norwegians have theirs. The Dutch have their Woonwagenbewoners (“caravan residents”). The Germans have their Landfahrer (“country drivers”). Germany and Switzerland (but also parts of France and Austria) have had the Jenische.


The Spaniards have their mercheros. And of course there are Show Travellers, all those people who travel around working in circuses, fairgrounds and the like.


And then we have those who don’t belong to any particular community, who are out on the roads alone, the tramps, who were turned into philosophers by Samuel Beckett in his immortal play Waiting for Godot


Many of these groups formed through poverty and desperation. But fascinatingly enough, the urge to make for the highway hasn’t died down, even in our rich, modern societies. We now have New Age Travellers, who travel between musical festivals and similar happenings.


This last photo, with the policeman standing guard, says everything about the relationship us settled people have with the travellers. We view them with suspicion, bordering on fear. These people are shifting, rootless, not only physically but morally. They are dangerous. It was ever so, the relationship between the settled farming communities and the travelling herders of the plains, the grasslands, of the wide-open spaces. Why, even the Bible has its story of this difficult, often violent, relationship between the two peoples, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was the settled farmer, Abel was the wandering shepherd. Cain was jealous of Abel, who seemed to enjoy God’s favour more, and he killed him.

cain and abel

Yes, we fear them and have pushed them further and further to the fringes of our societies. But they despise us. I rather like the term Show Travellers use to describe us settled folk: Flatties. Yes, I suppose our lives are flatter for not being out on the road.

NOTE: I thank Andrew for correcting a fundamental mistake I made in the original post. I had not picked up on the fact that our little Maria is in all probability an albino.


Little blonde girl found in Roma camp: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499215.1382989726!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/185472147.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Maria’s Greek “parents”: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499217.1382989729!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/greece-girl.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Maria’s Bulgarian parents: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499220.1382989732!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/roma29n-2-web.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Map of India: from the quoted article  (hyperlinked)
Punjabi farmer: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4005/4432639845_00be7b0578_z.jpg?zz=1 [in http://www.flickr.com/photos/gurbirsinghbrar/4432639845/%5D
Irish travelers: http://static1.demotix.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/a_scale_large/700-6/photos/1306505237-irish-travellers-in-the-uk_705916.jpg [in http://www.demotix.com/news/705942/irish-travellers-uk#media-705926%5D
Jenische: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/Jenische_um1890_Muotathal_CHe.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeniche_people%5D
Fairground: http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/images/Honey_Fair_stalls.jpg [in http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/civic_community/honey_fair.html%5D
Waiting for Godot: http://rosariomariocapalbo.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/waiting-for-godot11.jpg [in http://rosariomariocapalbo.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/samuel-beckettwaiting-for-godot/%5D
New Age travelers: http://www.assetstorage.co.uk/AssetStorageService.svc/GetImageFriendly/721206537/700/700/0/0/1/80/ResizeBestFit/0/PressAssociation/F2E18D5B4CC53FE75B4C42D68612D0FF/new-age-travellers-in-winchester.jpg [in http://www.friendsreunited.co.uk/new-age-travellers-in-winchester/Memory/b7746d77-162d-4041-8b82-a00a012a3288%5D
Cain and Abel: http://www.artbible.info/images/kain_abel_grt.jpg [in http://www.artbible.info/art/large/81.html%5D