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About 224 Gypsies live around Valmiera in northeastern Latvia. Like the rest of society, among the small population there are very rich and also very poor families. This story is about two different families - the Gili and Mitrovski families.
Grafs and Amanda Mitrovski live in Valmiera on Limbazu Street.
It's very early in the morning. Entering a hallway at the Mitrovskis' house, silent eyes close at me - a goat's head sits on a large bowl. Later Grafs tells that a neighbor gave it to him. Amanda, 35, is still sleeping when I enter their house but Grafs is awake, he is standing by the window in a dark kitchen and thinking. He doesn't notice me come in. The only light in the room comes from an oven and illuminates two naked little, beautiful children who are standing on a firewood block and watching curiously. Grafs is 69 years old. He is the father of eight children and they both, Grafs and Amanda, in one voice say: "The biggest Gypsy happiness is a big and abundant family."
Grafs once had a happy family with his mother Lonija and father Antons. "When I was a little boy, we had beautiful horses and a cart, we were driving around. I was 10 years old when one day Germans took my mother and father to Irsu park and shot them. After many years I built a monument for my parents there.
"When I was 15 years old I got married for the first time, and my wife was 14 years old. She was an extremely beautiful woman. One day we stole a sheep and we were caught by the police. I spent eight years in prison, but she - only one year. While I was sitting in jail my beautiful wife who I loved with all my heart married another man. And then I met her again after 10 years. I married her again and we had a boy and a girl. Unfortunately, I was involved in speculation with sheep wool and I was in jail again, this time only for five years. She was nice, she visited me in jail with both my children. When I had only six months left she wrote me a letter saying: I won't expect you anymore, I will marry another man. I had such a pain like a knife in my heart. After I was free again my wife came to me and begged me to take her back. But we Gypsies can forgive a woman only twice."
Grafs has been married four times. He met Amanda when she was a 12-year-old girl with no parents and he took care of her. When she and her boyfriend spent some time in jail for stealing a motorbike, Grafs visited her and brought her presents. "I decided that there is no use having love affairs with young men if I spend all my life in jail," Amanda said. "We are happy and this is the main thing." Grafs says they are blessed by God. "Sometimes we do not have even bread, but then someone comes and gives us some food or money," he says.
Very late in the evening I'm walking through a long, old oak-lined avenue to get closer to Viesturu Square. A tiny woman is standing outside and waiting for me. She is from another Gypsy family - a wife, husband, grandmother and three children. Ligija Gila, 42, a perfect mother of two sons, Janeks and Lorencs, and a daughter Elina. Ligija is a very contemporary thinking woman. Their children are the best students in class, they love to participate in social activities. Ligija's youngest son Janeks, 15, in 1998 participated in the Mini Miss and Mr. Valmiera pageant, where he won the main prize as well as the recognition of the audience. Janeks has participated also in Mini Miss and Mister Latvia pageant, where he won the "spectators' prize."
The Gili's house is fantastically clean and it seems that they have everything a middle-class citizen can dream of.
Ligija's mother Vija, 69, an old cozy lady, says: "Gypsies are a chosen nation and we have mysterious abilities that are given by God. We are saving our children from evil eyes. There are people that have a certain energy that comes from their eyes. Our children wear a little red thread for a while around a hand. Some say that you shouldn't look in Gypsies' eyes, but that's not the truth. When I am in a bad mood then I love to tell fortunes," says Vija and every 10 minutes asks me about marriage.
Vija has a very particular relationship with bowls. "I have lived in Latvia all my life and I have this feeling that Latvians are using only one bowl for all household chores, but we have one bowl for socks, one for shirts, one for underwear, etc. If you don't separate these things, there can be big trouble and then it's better to throw out these bowls and buy new ones."
Both families, the Mitrovskis and Gilis, have very different financial conditions and lifestyles but they have something in common - an old Gypsy wisdom that passes from one generation to another. They help each other and share all the best they have with friends. Vija was really shocked when she heard about the Western experience that old parents live apart from their children in old people's homes. "That could never happen in a Gypsy family and if it would, all Gypsies would point at you and wouldn't accept you anymore," she said.
A belief in the supernatural obviously plays a significant role in many aspects of Gypsy life. However, their rites, custom and rituals that are connected with death, are filled more with fear and superstition than any other.
When a Gypsy feels that a relative is about to die, word is urgently sent to all relatives, no matter how far away they might be. It is necessary to receive forgiveness for any harm they might have committed toward the dying person in the past.
It is important to gather together all the things - clothes, tools, jewelry and money - the deceased would need during the journey to the afterlife. Following the funeral is another ritual, a dinner - an enormous meal, held at various intervals after the death, traditionally nine days, six weeks, six months and one year after.
Grafs is a somewhat important personality within his community. "If a Gypsy has committed some crime then he has a chance to swear in front of God and tell all the truth also to Gypsies. If he tells the truth, then God will forgive him," Grafs says. "Once in Valmiera one Gypsy made love to his daughter. His daughter gave birth to his child. But her father did not admit his guilt and wanted to swear (it wasn't his child). I was the one to whom he made this oath, during the night in the graveyard chapel. He swore with his blood in front of God that his body is clear against his daughter and that he did not have forbidden feelings against her. So, the man died shortly after it," Grafs tells with peaceful face.
Gypsies are lively and light-hearted by nature, they often make trouble for local police. Aleksandrs Melngarss, assistant police chief in Valmiera, also has some stories.
"They love to deal, haggle and wrangle. If we catch a Gypsy with his hand in someone's pocket, then he will tell me that this is not his hand that was about to steal five minutes ago," he says.
Gypsies have traditionally been labeled as horse traders and stealers. "I witnessed a horse stealing 15 years ago. They grabbed three horses from the meadows and hid them in the dark woods. Gypsies were very clever and hid the footprints - they attached a birch-bough to the horses' tails. Today the horse business is over, and Gypsies don't have jobs anymore," Melngarss says.
"I don't want the Gypsies to get upset with me, but drugs and alcohol will diminish them as a nation," Melngarss said. Some years ago it was unthinkable to see a Gypsy dead drunk. Now Gypsies have started to drink vodka.
"There is a stereotype that gypsies always steal, but this is not true, we have different people within our nation," says Ligija Gila. "We would like to be more accepted by the society and we would like to have jobs. Today, if I talk on the phone with an employer, there is no problem, but when the employer meets me, usually they do not want to hire me," Ligija says with great pain.
I asked what a Gypsy sees in his dreams.
"I could cry over a horse just like it was a little child. For a Gypsy a horse is everything - a best friend. A horse is in our blood. Gypsies love to lie down in the grass and watch their horses eating grass in a green field," says Vija. Even, after many years, if each Gypsy family has an airplane or a ship, they will always dream about a horse.