Years ago, I lived in a small walk-up apartment on East 47th Street in New York. One of the nice things about it was that in good weather I could go around the corner and read in the U.N. gardens while, a few yards away, camera-toting saps from around the world lined up to be escorted around the place and be fed total B.S. about its glorious history by their tour guides. Also, I was delighted to discover that one of the residents on the next block over was none other than Katharine Hepburn, whom I saw from time to time taking out her garbage as I walked past her townhouse lugging books home from the Mid-Manhattan Library. Not too shabby.
There were, however, not-so-nice things about my little flat. The worst, by far, was the building super – a hotheaded foreigner who occupied the apartment directly below me. Living with him was a constantly rotating assortment of relatives – women, men, and a veritable army of unkempt, visibly neglected children. It was never clear who was who and what their relationships were to one another, or to the super. All I knew was that there was plenty of drama down there. Every evening I heard yelling, pieces of furniture being thrown against walls, and other sounds which suggested that domestic violence might well be taking place. I came close several times to calling the cops. Then one day I came home to find a police officer heading out of the lobby. When I asked him what had happened, he told me that there had been a minor incident involving the super. Following him out to his car, I told the cop about the super’s household – the ever-changing faces, the bedraggled children, and above all the nightly noises which led me to be concerned that women and children were being physically harmed. By the time I finished my spiel, the cop, who had listened throughout with utter indifference, had climbed into his car. Looking up at me from the driver’s seat, the expression on his face indicating that he considered me to be an absolute fool, he spat out two words: “They’re gypsies!”
Honestly, I hadn’t realized that. As far as I knew, I’d never run across gypsies before. Since then, living in Europe, I’ve encountered more than my share. It all began on January 1, 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria became members of the European Union – thus setting loose a torrent of gypsies that flooded from those two countries into every one of the richer EU lands to the West. Some of them resettled permanently; others began traveling back and forth, begging and stealing for a few weeks or months before heading back home.
Although this massive new wave of gypsies – like the Muslims who have been immigrating into Western Europe for several decades now – represents a serious threat to the region’s social order, there are significant differences between the two cultures. One of them stands for the severest authoritarianism on the face of the earth today; the other stands for the closest thing around to pure chaos. Education, in Islam, means memorizing a single book that its adherents believe to contain all the answers; in gypsy culture, it means teaching kids to beg and burgle – and shunning any members of the community who might actually want to send their children to school. Islam despises freedom; gypsy culture exploits freedom to the hilt. While jihadists seek ultimately to supplant the democratic rule of law with sharia law, gypsies are content just to be lawbreakers.
Yes, Islam is the greater threat. Yet a subculture that defines itself by sheer anarchy, too, can help bring down a civilization. Islam is responsible for innumerable acts of terror; but there is also something terrifying about a people who are compelled by generations of cultural conditioning to trash the homes given them by generous governments – ripping up carpets, tearing down wallpaper, filling the backyard with garbage even if there are rubbish bins available, and defecating on the floor of the very room in which they sleep even if there’s a bathroom right down the hall. (And who, if they aren’t handed the keys to their own place, may well move into yours while you’re away for the weekend and trash that.) No, a Western Europe struggling against both Islam and gypsies is without question an even more frightening and fragile entity than a Western Europe threatened by Islam alone.
As with Muslims, the largest number of gypsies in Western Europe is apparently to be found in France. In addition to six or seven million Muslims (out of a total population of 65 million), France now plays host to some half a million gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria. Many of them reside in illegal camps outside Paris, from which they journey every morning into the city to (as the Daily Mail recently put it) “exploit, harass and steal from tourists.” Some beg at ATMs; some pick pockets; some “tour the streets pretending to be deaf, dumb or otherwise disabled, and seeking donations for fictitious charities.” Then there are the so-called “swarmers,” a group of whom, on the morning of July 26, descended on two male American tourists in the heart of Paris, surrounding them, creating a brief flurry of confusion, and running off with their bags, wallets, cell phones, and camera. A reporter, who quoted a local as saying that the gypsies are “everywhere,” noted that on a recent morning he’d seen “more than a hundred gipsy gang members at work within a couple of square miles,” including at “every tourist spot.”
In Germany, too, the number of gypsies in cities like Berlin, Dortmund, Duisburg, Mannheim, Munich, and Hanover has risen dramatically in just a few years. Of those gypsy children in Germany whose parents do enroll them in school, many, according to Die Welt, can’t read or write – or even figure out how to hold a pencil. While the media throughout Western Europe euphemize heavily about the gypsies’ depredations and do their best to paint them as suffering victims, it’s especially difficult to find honest reporting on the subject in the German media (which isn’t surprising, given the intense and uneasy awareness in that country that the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of gypsies in the death camps). Hence Die Welt refers to the garbage, crime, and loitering in gypsy-rich neighborhoods as “signs of poverty” (!) and describes Germans who are appalled to see their streets turned into trash heaps and crime scenes as “xenophobes.” Meanwhile Hermann Genz, head of the Department of Labour and Social Affairs in the city of Mannheim, actually says that the very presence of so many gypsies in Germany “shows that they have drive and want to improve their lives,” adding: “We can always use such people.”
If the situation in Britain is rather less dire than in France and Germany, it’s because immigrants to that nation from Romania and Bulgaria are technically required to demonstrate that they can support themselves. Still, Britain isn’t without its gypsy problems. Last year the city spent a lot of money, and went to a great deal of effort, to clear a sizable encampment of gypsies out of Park Lane, in one of the poshest parts of London, and send many of the campers back home. This spring, however, many of the same gypsies returned, like migrating birds, to the exact same spot, leading a member of Westminster’s local council to express concern that the whole neighborhood “will become a giant campsite.” Given that all restrictions on immigration to the U.K. from Romania and Bulgaria will be dropped this coming January, the councilor’s concern seems amply justified.
Here in Norway, too, as I wrote just over a year ago, many gypsies are seasonal visitors. “Another spring, another gypsy debate,” began an Aftenposten article in early May. Last year, the municipality of Oslo spent about $700,000 to clean up gypsy camps after their residents had departed; this spring, hoping to prevent a rerun, the City Council voted to restrict outdoor sleeping – but to no avail. The gypsies came back, and basically took over a forested area around an Oslo lake, Sognsvann, that is a popular spot for summer barbecues. They sued to be allowed to stay, and won. When police removed them from the site anyway, they filed a complaint that very day and reclaimed the area before nightfall. A Romanian newspaper, which sneered at Norwegian journalists’ sob-sister stories about the gypsies, quoted a non-gypsy Romanian who lives and works in Oslo as saying that every morning, while heading to the office, he overhears “conversations between gypsies in which they brag about how they’ve stolen from the pockets of naïve Norwegians.” (A gypsy spokesman condemned this anecdote as “racist.”) The media in Norway have been full of handwringing about how best to deal with the gypsies; while socialist and Christian People’s Party leaders argue that the Norwegian government should provide these temporary guests from Romania and Bulgaria with places to sleep and shower, the “populist” Progress Party has called for their expulsion from the country and for a ban on begging. (Denmark has such a ban – and, consequently, far fewer gypsies, although, as of May 2011, a single gypsy family called Levakovic had reportedly cost the Danish government at least $13 million in social benefits and imprisonment expenses.)
For all the European debates about the impact of gypsy culture on society at large, there’s been astonishingly little discussion of that culture itself and its effect on its most innocent members. If you’re going to deport the gypsies (which, as Nicolas Sarkozy discovered in France a few years ago, isn’t really a solution anyway, given the EU’s fluid borders), by all means give it a try; but if they’re going to be allowed to stay, then it seems to me that it’s necessary to face up to the reality of what’s going on at those campsites. Is there any doubt, for example, that if a native Norwegian family parented in the way that gypsy families do, the child-protection authorities would take their kids away from them so fast that their heads would spin? The big question – or one of them, anyway – is this: are the Western European authorities who are prepared to put a roof over the gypsies’ head also prepared to take on the dispiriting realities of gypsy family life in a responsible way? Or are they just going to shrug the problem off, throwing money at the gypsies and essentially saying – as that phlegmatic New York cop did to me all those years ago – “They’re gypsies!”
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