SARONNO, Italy - “My father called me last night. He told me not to leave my key in the inside keyhole of the door at night anymore because the Zingari have this new thing that they put in the lock that can turn your key and open your door,” says Sara, a young Italian friend of mine. “They buy them on the internet.” She also warns me to pull down the heavy wooden blinds to cover my windows and balcony doors as well because they, the Zingari, can climb right up the sides of buildings and get into your apartment. “They train like circus people,” she says.
Later that day I see Andrea, a particularly savvy Saronnese businessman and ask him about it. “It is true,” he says. “I know they can climb up the buildings because I saw that for myself. Once there was a boy climbing up the side of the building across the street from us, my father called the police.”
“So, what did the police do?”
“Nothing,” he says. “They never do anything. A while back two Zingari girls walked into my friend’s office over near Cesano Maderno and stole his wife’s purse. She took the surveillance tapes down to the Carabineri office and they recognized the girls who did it. They know who they are.”
“What did the Carabineri do?”
“They went to the Zingari camp and told the girls to bring back the purse and everything that was in it.”
“Did they?” I ask.
“Not yet,” he says. “It’s been more than a month so I doubt they have any intention of returning anything. They probably sold everything the first day.”
"So what is going to happen,” I ask.
“Nothing. Nothing ever happens. The Zingari are protected by the European Union, we just have to put up with it.”
When I moved to Milan and started riding the subways, Rom (which is what they like to be called) would often board the trains to beg for money. After a few months I began to recognize the various Rom families that worked the Red Metro Line. There was one family in particular that interested me; a man, whom I assumed was the father, and two young children, a boy and a girl. The father would play a few tunes on his accordion and the children would walk up and down the subway car holding out paper cups in the hope that someone would make a donation.
As the years passed the children grew and one day the young boy, who was then about 14 years old, and his younger sister got on the subway alone. This time he had an accordion and she worked the crowd. They worked together for a couple of years, and then one day he was alone. I wondered what had happened to his sister, but I was afraid to ask. Then a few months later I saw her on the street. She was pregnant. She recognized me and held out her cup knowing I would give her money as I always had in the past.
Watching her that day I wondered about her life. She wasn’t born in a “travelin’ show, and her mama didn’t dance for the money they’d throw,” no matter how sweetly Cher sang it. And there was certainly nothing romantic or exciting about standing on a street corner shaking an old paper cup and looking pitiful. I couldn’t help but think if I were her I would fight with everything I had to leave the clan rather than subject my child to a life of certain poverty, but that may be because I’m not part of it.
Photo: Cover of Bury Me Standing, an insightful book on the Rom by Isabel Fonseca.