My friends told me not to go, the Roma are “hot” people. “Chaud,” they said, “très chaud” – very hot. It was May, 1998. I had arrived in Paris a few weeks earlier with six hundred dollars and a one-month return. I hoped to find work in France and stay longer, but when my money dwindled to half that sum I needed another plan, quick. I spent most of what I had left on a second-hand bicycle, planning to tour the country by my own leg power. Then a day later a thief snipped the lock and rode away. I had about forty dollars left. So I bought a train ticket, packed my bag, and headed south to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a village on the Mediterranean, to join the Roma. I couldn’t believe a stereotype about such a huge group of people, and anyway, I had little to lose.
I called ahead to reserve a spot at the town’s campground, and the woman on the other end of the line corrected me sharply when I referred to the fête des Gitans. Gitans is the commonly used term for the Roma in France. “Ce n’est pas une fête,” she said, “c’est un pèlerinage.” “It is not a festival. It is a pilgrimage.”
When I arrived, I set up my tent with an eye on a menacing dog in the neighboring site. A Belgian couple emerged from the accompanying trailer, and I greeted them and asked if the dog was friendly. They warned me against trying to steal anything from them. They seemed fearful, and I wondered if they had received the same warnings I had, and if they had mistaken me for Roma.
The bus from Arles had been delayed by hours, so I missed the procession to the sea. I didn’t mind too much; I was ambivalent about being a spectator at a religious ceremony. During the procession, the Roma carry a statue of their patron saint, Sara, from the village’s church down to the shore and then walk her into the sea. Men on white horses corral the crowds, guiding them along.
Accounts of Sara’s history vary. My summary: legends have it, she either arrived on the shores of Les Saintes as the servant of a couple of holy Marys who were exiled from Jerusalem and crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a small boat, or she was already there and welcomed the women ashore, symbolically welcoming the Christian faith to France. She is often referred to as “Black Sara.” Some scholars have noted a similarity between the Roma’s Sara and the Hindu goddess, Kali. In fact, the Roma call her “Sara-la-Kali.” Whatever her origins, her significance to the Romani people is not debatable. Every year on May 24th, thousands of Roma from all over Europe gather in this historic village in the Camargue to honor her.
When I finished setting up my tent, I hung my camera around my neck and walked into town. I passed RVs and cars loaded with people. Some of the cars rivaled any clown performance I had seen – bodies crammed into the seats, children on top of children, windows open as they drove through the streets. A little boy with his pants down leaned forward and peed on the tire of a parked RV. In season, European tourists fill this town, but for these few days it belonged to the Roma.
At the town’s center, the old church cuts a chunky silhouette against the Mediterranean sky. It is a relatively simple structure, lacking the gaudy, gothic ornamentation of the Notre Dame or many other churches in France. Its bell tower is a wall of five bells hanging in arched openings: four below, one above, with three modest peaks pointing into the clouds, when there are any. I peeked through a small side door. Worshippers were filing in and out, and candles burned against the stone walls as they prayed beneath the statue of Sara.
In the courtyard a Romani woman approached me and pinned a small silver brooch onto my shirt, crossing herself, bowing her head, and murmuring something about Saint Sara while she held out her hand. I looked down. The pin was a tiny image of the saint. I pulled out my change purse and dumped the coins into my palm, rifling through for some amount that fit the occasion and my budget. When I offered a couple of francs the woman frowned, cursed me in a language that was not French, and with a single swipe scooped the remaining money out of my hand. I gasped and reached to take it back, thinking of the baguette I might have bought with those coins, but she shook her head and waved dismissively at me. While I was still standing open-mouthed, she removed the brooch and walked away, cursing me the whole time. I was just a tourist to her.
I wandered around the village, passing seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. I bought food from a small market and ate it en plein air.
As night fell people formed circles in the streets. Musicians with guitars strummed or slapped their instruments while others clapped along. Sometimes a voice would rise from the crowd, belting a throaty ballad or trailing off into high, wispy notes that fluttered and dissipated. At the center of each circle, dancers performed; always one male, one female.
They came forward from the throngs, and before each one left, he or she would pull another dancer into the circle to take their place. The older women were bawdy and flirtatious as men in slim pants and pointed shoes tapped out rhythms with their feet. Younger women stared distantly over their partner’s shoulders, seeming unmoved by their thrumming displays of masculinity. A tiny girl swirled in a bright yellow dress with layers of ruffles that rustled and flapped like the wings of some wild bird. Her diminutive partner held his own, his legs and feet a controlled rush of motion.
At one point the sharp crack of splintering wood interrupted the music. Everybody fell silent. A guitar on which one of the musicians was drumming had given way, his hand breaking through the smooth surface of its backside. The silence lasted only as long as an intake of breath before a wave of laughter swept the crowd, originating from the musician himself. The music and dancing resumed.
When people saw my camera, they shuttled me toward the dancers so I could photograph. I had loaded the highest-speed film I had, 1600 ISO, and I was pushing it to 3200 to catch some images by the light of the street lamps. Most of the dancers moved too fast. When I tried to capture the spectators, I discovered they were the best subjects I had ever photographed. If a person saw me aiming my lens at them, they would freeze for a moment until the camera clicked. No smiling, no artifice, just a willingness to be captured as they were. It was an unspoken collaboration for which I was grateful. I no longer felt like a tourist; I felt like a guest.
When it got late and I got tired, I started to make my way back toward the campground. I encountered a tall German man who walked with me. He was walking around Europe, following the path of the Holy Grail. He was friendly enough. Ahead of us, two Romani men stumbled along, embracing to hold each other up. They laughed, talked, and slurred all the way.
I stayed in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for a few days, roasting on the beach and enjoying the natural scenery of the Camargue. In the bathroom at the campground, Romani children teased me and asked questions in broken French, but mostly I went unnoticed. When I left, the crowds were beginning to thin. The RVs and loaded down cars straggled along the road to Arles and back toward wherever they called home.
I hitchhiked out of town with a young Israeli couple. We camped together in a meadow outside of Aix-en-Provence, and in the morning I cleaned snails off my tent before packing it up. They were worried about my traveling with so little money; I had twenty dollars left. “It’s just not safe,” the guy said. I was getting used to these warnings. Had I heeded them, I never would have left home. I agreed to call my friend in Paris, who owed me a hundred dollars from a time I bailed her out stateside. She said she would wire the money right away. Things didn’t go smoothly for me in the next days, but I couldn’t have wished for better fortune than I received that summer. That’s a story for another time.