Daily Archives: 13 September 2022

Eliciting Romany in Hungary, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-47:

Three camp-fires, spreading spokes of light through the tree-trunks, lit up the canvas of tents and shapes of men and horses. A party of Gypsies had settled for the night by yet another sweep-well, and our arrival caused bewilderment. Except for the fires, there was no glimmer in any direction and I saw, half with excitement and half with a touch of fright, that we would have to spend the night there. I had heard many hair-raising stories about Gypsies recently and I was chiefly scared about Malek. … Shaggy and unkempt, they were the darkest Gypsies I had ever seen. Some of the men wore loose white Hungarian trousers, the others were in ordinary town clothes and black hats, all in the last stage of decay. … Beautiful girls, flounced and bedraggled in green and yellow and magenta, stared with effulgent eyes. Beyond the fires there was a munching of unyoked oxen; horses were hobbled under the branches and a couple of mares grazed loose with tall foals beside them. Dogs bickered and snarled and the poultry, loosed from their travelling coop, pecked about the dust. Black and brown tents were stretched over crossed poles and the ramshackle style and the jumbled scattering of household stuff gave no hint of a thousand or two thousand years’ practice in pitching camp; except for the reeds and withies and the half-woven baskets on which brown hands were already busy, the whole tribe might have fled half-an-hour ago from a burning slum. I think they were heading for the banks of the Tisza to cut a new stock.

I escaped the hubbub for ten minutes by walking Malek up and down before watering him at the trough, where a man called György helped with the bucket. I had been wondering whether to tether Malek to a tree; there were some oats and a headstall in the saddle-bag, but the halter was far too short for him to graze. Best to hobble him as the Gypsies had done with theirs, but I had no idea how to set about it. György showed me, linking Malek’s forelegs with a neat figure of eight. I was anxious about this: Malek couldn’t have been used to it; but he behaved with great forbearance. I gave him some of his feed and some hay from the Gypsy, then took the saddle and tack and settled with the rest of them by the fire.

Thank heavens, their informal supper was over! Apart from hedge-hogs, delicious by hearsay, the untoothsomeness and even danger of their usual food were famous. There was a sound of rattling metal: a dog was licking out a cooking-pot by the fire. Seeing my worried look, a girl of ten, who had just begged for a cigarette, hurled an accurate stone at the dog, which scuttled off with a surprised yelp; then, tossing up the vessel so that it caught on a convenient twig, she coiled to the ground again with an indulgent smile as she let the smoke stream lazily from her nostrils. The chief item of [his last host] Berta’s supplies was a salami nearly a yard long, ribboned half-way down with the national colours. I made a good impression by cutting off a third and handing it over; it was the signal for a brief uproar of grabs and curses and blows. Then thirty pairs of eyes, accompanied by a soft chorus of whispers, watched raptly as I ate a sandwich and an apple. I took three fast gigantic gulps out of my wine-bottle before surrendering it. They seemed half-fascinated; also, and I couldn’t make out why, half-alarmed by my presence: perhaps all strangers, except as prey, boded ill. We were incommunicado at first; but I had been alerted by what the oldest man had said to György before he helped me give Malek a drink: the mumbled sentence had ended, I thought, with the word pani—immediately recognisable, to anyone at all in touch with Anglo-India, as the Hindi for water. When I pointed questioningly at the water-jar and asked what was inside, they said “Víz,” using the Magyar word; I cunningly answered, “Nem [not] víz! Pani.” There was a sensation! Bewilderment and wonder were written on their firelit features. When I held up the fingers of my hand and said “Panch!”—the word for five in both Hindi and Romany (öt, in Magyar), the wonder grew. I tried the only other words I could remember from Lavengro, pointing to my tongue and saying “Lav?”; but drew a blank; tchib was their word for it. I drew another blank with “penning dukkerin,” Borrow’s—or rather Mr. Petulengro’s—word for ‘fortune-telling.’ But I had better luck with the word petulengro itself, at least with the first half. The whole word (‘horseshoe-master’ in Borrow, i.e. blacksmith) caused no reaction, but when I cut it down to petul, and pointed to the anvil, a small boy dashed into the dark and came back holding up a horseshoe in triumph.

As soon as they got the hang of it, each time I pointed at something with a questioning look, back came the Gypsy word. Most of them laughed but one or two looked worried, as though tribal secrets were being revealed. A finger pointing to Heaven, and “Isten?” (the Magyar word for God), at once evoked the cry of “Devel!,” which sounds odd at first; until one thinks of Deva in Hindi and its probable Sanskrit ancestor.

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