The Gypsies Are Coming

The Gypsies are Coming

August 20, 2011

Allan Stevo

This morning the Gypsies are going around Castle Hill in Bratislava looking for scrap metal.  They come around once a week in a car with a loud speaker attached to the top, a Zhiguli, as it’s called by Slovaks – an old make of car from the former Soviet Union.  Behind the Zhiguli, they tow a trailer that they will fill with the scrap that they find.

And you can hear the recorded announcement begin, always in the same voice…

Honourable citizens… we’ll take your old things, your old stove, your old washing machines, honorable citizens, your old metal, your old appliances, your old irons…

Honourable citizens… we’ll take your old things, your old stove, your old washing machines, honorable citizens, your old metal, your old appliances, your old irons…

And everyone on Castle Hill, or anywhere in Bratislava, knows that they can put out their old metal pieces for the Gypsies when they hear that recording.  The Gypsies will come down every street, driving slowly, on the lookout for you to flag them down.  They will be looking for appliances left out on the curb, or anything that may be of value.

If you ask them to, they will even come into your house for you and move your old appliance out to the curb then take it away to be repaired or sold off or sold as scrap metal.  This is surely a service that they provide, but one that many Slovaks refuse to take them up on — it’s hard to know who comes into your home just to help move your junk and who is casing the place.

Generally, however, it seems to be a symbiotic relationship–one organism wants something the other doesn’t and it helps by removing the unwanted items.

Every week, that same voice will be heard in the background approaching in the distance from any quarter in Bratislava.  In fact, I am willing to make the bold statement that in Bratislava, more famous than the voice of any television figure, radio personality, or movie star is the timbre and cadence of the Gypsy man’s voice amplified from the junk collector’s Zhiguli.  Even before you know what the words are saying, you recognize the familiar sound of the recording echoing in the distance.

Today something doesn’t sound right about the recording. It soon becomes clear that today is a special day, because for the first time all year, it becomes clear that our local scrap metal collector has some competition.  Competition is good.  A new voice can be heard echoing different words from a different Zhiguli.

Pozrite sa!

Vážení občania

Staré autobatérie, staré káble, stare práčky


Pozrite sa!

Vážení občania

Staré autobatérie, staré káble, stare práčky



Honorable Citizens

Old Car batteries, old cables, old washing machines



Honorable Citizens

Old Car batteries, old cables, old washing machines

The second Zhiguli doesn’t have the same poetry to it that the first does – it lacks the same attention to rhythm, especially noticeable in a language as rhythmic and musical as the Slovak language. As the Zhiguli turns down the block two streets away, it becomes clear that this recording is asking for the same thing.  So, you quickly scan your mental file cabinet to see if there’s anything that you are looking to get rid of that you’d like to leave out for the Gypsies as they come this morning.

The recorded voice from the Zhiguli driving around, both the first and the second, remind me of a Shel Silverstein poem from my childhood.  The “Gypsies Are Coming,” and I often think of that poem when I hear the recorded voice growing closer from the distance around my home on Castle Hill.  Here’s Silverstein’s “The Gypsies are Coming” from the 1974 version of his children’s poetry book Where the Sidewalk Ends


The gypsies are coming, the old people say,
To buy little children and take them away.
Fifty cents for fat ones,
Twenty cents for lean ones,
Fifteen cents for dirty ones,
Thirty cents for clean ones,
A nickel each for mean ones.

The gypsies are coming, and maybe tonight,
To buy little children and lock them up tight.
Eighty cents for husky ones,
Quarter for the weak ones,
Penny each for noisy ones,
A dollar for the meek ones.

Forty cents for happy ones,
Eleven cents for sad ones.
And, kiddies, when they come to buy,
It won’t do any good to cry.
But—just between yourself and I—
They NEVER buy the bad ones!

The rhythm of Silverstein’s verse, his characters, the imagery of his words like – “to cool in the peppermint wind,” (from a different poem) all entertained and mystified me.  There were characters who had such determination that they would spend decades eating a whale, or were so lazy they couldn’t get a glass of water and instead waited for the rain, played sick to get out of school with an impressive laundry list of illnesses, or Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout who would not take the garbage out.

Before I knew how to read, I knew these characters from Silverstein’s world and the rhythm of the English language that came with them.  I learned to think over literature at a very early age as I sat wondering about the mystery of the strange land Silverstein had created in this place where the sidewalk ends.

The poem written above, “The Gypsies are Coming”, was eventually updated (read: toned down) because “racial stereotypes dehumanize,” but the new version of the poem loses the allure, the magic, the Old World charm and yes, even the “distrust” and maybe “hatred” of other ethnicities that is a part of the Old World.  Shel Silverstein, a Jew whose family came from Central Europe, surely knew as a child that he was to stay away from the Gypsies because they would take him away (another way to say – “Don’t talk to strangers”).  He knew that he was to behave well, or else his parents would sell him to the Gypsies (another way to say – “Santa will put coal in your stocking”).  He probably didn’t know what a Gypsy was, but the wonder of letting his mind run free with such wild stories was the kind of fertile, imaginative story that probably helped him grow into the imaginative writer he became.

After initial publication, the poem “The Gypsies are Coming” was changed to “The Googies are Coming” under pressure.  The awe of a real band of people coming to take children was fascinating to me and I can’t even imagine how much of that allure it would have lost for me as a child had it carried with it nothing but the meaningless word “googie.”

His book, his sometimes dark and often awe-filled world depicted in Where the Sidewalk Ends
is not a place for political correctness.  And I can’t for a moment imagine that the man who shared these tales, sat up on his deathbed to say, “Please, don’t call them the ‘Gypsies.’  Call them the ‘googies.’  I’d hate to hurt anyone’s feelings by retelling a tale on paper and in verse form that has been told hundreds of millions of times to children over many, many generations throughout Central Euope.”

I remember from the back of the book cover that he was a scary looking man, a man who instilled a love of the mysterious, and I believe I am a better, more imaginative adult because of him.  It’s believed that if a child does not learn to appreciate the mystical in the world by a certain age, then the window closes and the opportunity to know the mystical disappears.  Shel Silverstein embodied the mysticism of the Old World.

The “Googgies” now come to get children, but there are no googies.  Such a people do not exist.  Gypsies exist. They are also referred to as Roma.  They are considered a wandering people, a stateless people, a romantically stereotyped people, a people regarded as carefree by outsiders. These stereotypes have become a thing of legend.

Gypsies, I believe, tend to be an intentionally isolated people who don’t care to have outsiders among them and tell outlandish stories to the outsiders who get close (as seems to be regularly recorded in Isabela Fonseca’s Bury Me Standingwhich you can find here).  Fonseca portrays Gypsies as smart people who figure out how to most successfully and cleverly reach their goals without having to worry about foolish things like going to work 60 hours a week.  Many tend to uphold meat as the ideal food, denounce vegetables.  Especially those Gypsies who live in settlements tend to live in what appears on the outside to be squalor yet maintain immaculate homes inside.  These are just a few examples of unique characteristics common among Gypsies that distinguish them from their neighbors.

Every culture in existence on planet earth today knows a sustainable way of living.  If it didn’t, that culture would cease to function and cease to exist.  By acknowledging those differences between cultures, we can begin to analyze some of the cultural truth handed down through those traditions – those differences – and we can begin to identify the reasons those differences exist. We can appreciate them and better understand them.  And that will be the topic of another article – “How Gypsies Live and Why They are Worthy of Emulation.”  But today, I want to talk about the Old World, because that is where Silverstein’s poem is set – in the mystical Old World, a place that exists geographically, but also in the minds of those who’ve left it.  And by the Old World, I don’t mean old as in obsolete.  I mean the Old World (a place known about since history was first recorded) as opposed to the “New World” (a place known to the Old World only since 1492).  I mean Europe, and especially Central Europe.

Slovakia 2011

Today, it is easy for me to notice a Gypsy, but I still remember how it was before I understood what a Gypsy was.  Every year, I hear the same lack of understanding from the new Americans who come into town usually expressed at some point as:  “Now what exactly is a Gypsy?”

A new American in Slovakia can’t tell at first, but after 2 or 3 years of living in Slovak culture, the foreigner can usually see who the Gypsies are, can see who the Gypsies aren’t, whether by complexion or behavior, and can tell that they are of a different culture than the often passive and quiet Slovaks.

We often colorblind Americans often enough miss who is black and who is white, not thinking about the idea too often, which makes it even harder to tell who is Gypsy and who is Slovak.  Harder yet is who comes from the former Yugoslavia (more aggressive in speech and mannerism, sometimes a little darker) and who is Slovak.  Or even harder – who is Hungarian and who is Slovak.

I mean, in our vast world these are two virtually unknown ethnic groups in some isolated corner of the world duking it out with each other over issues that no one in America has the time to even care about.  Of course it’s hard to tell the difference.  How provincial, how Old World, how pointless.  Most sane Americans would not be able to come to any other conclusion.

After a while though, you start, without even trying, to get acclimated to the culture and the vibes.

You start to notice that certain people are asking for money more than others.  You start to notice certain people are selling the tulips and other flowers that they picked from the gardens around the city more than others.  You start to notice who sits on the tram stone-faced, quiet, and unsmiling.  You notice in contrast who is loud and boisterous on an otherwise quiet, yet full morning tram.

You notice who fights on the street in broad daylight, including fistfights between friends and also sometimes lovers, and loud verbal assaults between a husband and wife as their family walks behind.  In contrast, you notice that some people barely ever raise their voices in public above a whisper.  And then, you begin to notice slight differences – different facial features, a different skin tone, a different inflection in the voice, a different accent, different word choice, even different manners of dress.  And before you know it, just by being a silent observer, in the middle of it all, you can see who a Gypsy is and who isn’t a Gypsy. You can see that it’s so much more clear than it was 2 or 3 years earlier. Eventually, you can even begin to tell who is from another country in the region, even though they speak flawless Slovak.

Hating people who are different than me, just because they are different, isn’t really my scene.  I like learning from people and find that the more I travel, the more I encounter other cultures in depth, the more I learn.  I believe those experiences enrich me, just as the old rabbi in Pressburg believed when he began his meetings with his visitors “tell me where you’ve been, I’ll tell you how wise you are.”

However, this opinion does not stop me from recognizing why a person might feel hatred when members of other tribes enter land that he considers to be his tribe’s land.  When members of different tribes compete for resources I can understand this feeling even more.  Slovaks, to this day, much like Zionist Jews, and many other ethnic groups and subgroups, are vitally concerned with survival of their tribe.  That leaves them with a series of sometimes tribalistic behaviors that Americans in the great melting pot, the land of opportunity across the ocean, have a difficult time understanding.  I believe that Kirschbaum’s A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival
is written from this perspective of Slovaks being a national group that for centuries has felt their survival threatened.

As the thinking behind the Hinlicky Rule informs us – society has a surplus of people willing to quickly point a figure, pass judgment and throw the first stone, but he or she who is willing to take time to understand opponents’ arguments and feelings before speaking are in short supply and vital for moving a discussion forward.

If you sit quietly in a corner in Slovakia observing the culture for enough years, you will begin to understand that there are behaviors that are more common in some cultures than in others, and you will begin to be able to, with high probability identify those differences.  Take that thinking too far and you are the denying the role of the individual in shaping his own path.  Ignore that thinking and you ignore the formative role culture and other environmental cues have on an individual.  This thinking is very different than the mainstream American view that generalizations are exclusively the territory of a lazy mind.

Is Every American So Dense?

And then, you wonder if you personally were dense or if every American is that culturally dense.  And the answer is, pretty much, that every American is that culturally dense.  We gave up on the Old World fetters that hold everyone back and balkanize communities.

We want the guy next door to us to be richer than he is now because we know that it will rub off on us.  We want our kid’s classmates to be smarter because we know it will rub off on our kids.  We want our colleagues to be successful because we know it will rub off on us.  We are not Old World and jealous, we aspire to be full of better things than hatred; we hope to befriend the people around us, instead of trying to trip them up for being different, or trying to trip them up because once two hundreds years ago one of the people from their country did something really bad to one of the people from my grandfather’s village.  We seek to go beyond those battles in America.

I don’t think one way is better or worse than any other way.  Each way just is.  However, I do think it is prejudiced and even hypocritical when many Western visitors step foot on Slovak land with an opinion of Slovaks and Gypsies.  They open their mouths before they open their eyes.  They speak before they listen.  It’s awfully rude for a visitor to do.  But on top of that, it’s just hypocritical when someone is so culturally unaware the he can’t even identify a Gypsy, but insists on having an opinion of Gypsies.

In the neighborhood I grew up in near Chicago, it’s said that a Gypsy once walked in the front door of a Slovak family in the 1950’s and just sort of started showing himself around.  For a few weeks this group of Gypsies had been going around the neighborhood causing trouble for the people living there – pulling various scams and taking advantage of people.  When the Gypsy realized he was in a house where he heard not English being spoken, but Slovak, he got out of there.  He got out of there quicker than he got out of any house in town.  He knew that these people were Old World and weren’t going to tolerate nonsense from a Gypsy the way an American would.

America’s got a different way about it than Central Europe.  Central Europe has for many hundreds and maybe thousands of years had a way to sustainably exist as tribes.  They hate each other behind closed doors and at a distance, like each other as friends and neighbors, they taste each other’s food and dabble in each other’s language, they fight sometimes and steal from each other, they war with each other and build fences between each other.  In their tiny, occasionally overcrowded spaces, they all somehow fit together, all these Central European tribes.  They don’t do it an American way, they do in an Old World way, the way that has worked for them.

Am I apologetic about this, according to either definitions of the word apologetic?  No.  Do I think it’s a bad or good way?  That doesn’t really matter.  Does it work?  Clearly, or else it would have been stopped long ago.

I don’t want to open up discussion to mindlessly racist anti-gyspy/anti-Slovak arguments.  All I have to do is walk out my front door, approach the first person I see, and ask “What do you think of Gypsies?” in order to hear that kind of talk.  What I am curious about is if you see any positives or negatives in the American way of parting with the past and the Old World way of remembering the past and identifying ourselves based on the slight differences instead of the many similarities?  Positives about either would be especially interesting to me, as would insightful negatives from your own culture or another culture that you have special knowledge of.  Thank you in advance for any insight you can offer me on this topic.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • Holding my tongue on how I classify “gypsies in Slovakia,” they do resemble in their scrap-metal collecting behavior, the (probably illegal) Hispanics driving around my town towing old appliances and picking up metal scraps that neighbors leave on the sidewalk. But I figured I deserved a few extra dollars, so instead of dragging my late father’s abundant collection of iron rebars, steel nuts and bolts, tin coffee cans, steel piping, plumbing supplies, a copper water-supply line I won’t need (cuz I got a new fridge that doesn’t have an icecube maker) onto the sidewalk; I loaded my car up and hauled it all off to the scrap metal buyer by myself.

    I don’t think most Americans even consider ‘old world’ ways. I see some Americans believing tolerance of everybody is important, no matter how different or eccentric the person may be. I think views of groups of people is shaped by either where in America you grew up in, or in what field of endeavor or career you work in.

    I see myself getting nostalgic for the recent past that I grew up in because I was able to find happiness there. Since I think that I am somewhat aware of ‘Old World’ ways in thinking and in behavior since I grew up with a Slovakian father who was very ‘old world, I find that I have, with some difficulty, acquired some of his ‘old world’ ways of thinking for which I am recently grateful for. For example, my father also wouldn’t tolerate a gypsy in his house. I’ve thrown out salesmen who had acted like gypsies when they wouldn’t leave unless I promised to buy their product, etc.

    I think some Americans have taken-on negative gypsy behavior in the market place. Scamming, aggressive marketing. Unfortunately for me, I have gotten to know a Slovakian transplant who actually boasts about being a gypsy !! Using this metaphor as an excuse for eccentric behavior, like being ‘independent’ and getting up to move to another part of the world, not having ties to anyone. I think these are very immature characteristics that I don’t admire.

    I think America, even as a young nation, already practices some negative and some positive ‘Old World” ways of thinking and behaving.

  • Cynthia,
    Thanks for sharing some of your own views about “Old World” thinking. I think that it was a smart idea bringing the scrap metal in yourself – those metals are getting expensive ( Interesting about the guy who boasts about being a gypsy. He sounds nomadic. Thanks for mentioning him.

  • you know, despite living my whole life in Slovakia, I can´t usually tell whether someone is a Gypsy by justr looking at them for 100%…well, of course I can usually tell apart the Gypsies from the Gypsie settlements, that´s hard not to notice even for a foreigner I´d say…..but really when looking at a person, I can´t tell it by just looking at them even when they are people with darker skin tone until they tell me what they consider themselves….and I know Slovaks with dark skin tone who will be offended when you call them Roma even though they might look like one saying “Hey, I´m Slovak”….I guess pretty often, it´s really possible that they don´t even have any Roma connections, in the ethnic mix and mess that Central Europe it is completely possible that for example their ancestors were Romanians… offense intended, but as interesting as I found your article somehow I can´t help it and feel that the part about the Old and New world ways is extremely generalizing, of course there might be some things that we inherit and learn from our mothers and fathers, but in the end we are all individual people and we´re all different in our own way…..oh, and by the way, considering what time of the year it is, maybe this: might be a good inspiration for your next blog?

  • Mememe,
    Thank you for the neat link. Interesting article, great photos. I will consider writing about the anniversary of the uprising.

    I think I am a little reactionary sometimes when I see that people totally reject all generalizations. Maybe that leads me to overgeneralize. It’s possible that I am overgeneralizing with the Old and New World ways as I depict them in the article. I think there are definite cultural differences on the two sides of the Atlantic and I think one example of those cultural differences is that ethnic tribalism is much more widely accepted on the European side of the Atlantic.

    Thanks for the taking the time to touch on these issues, Mememe.


  • David Kuchta

    Aug 30th, 2011

    Very interesting. But, I wonder what my grandfather actually was. He was supposedly Slovak and from Slovakia, but he had a darker complextion which didn’t mean nothing to me. Also I now know a few people who are Romas and to me they are just like anyone else. Sure, as a kid we were also warned not to be bad or we would be sold to the “Gypsies.” In our local newspapers, we would read in sections (old time happenings) about Gypsies stealing chickens from local property owners back yards. Also about “Gypsy’s camping outside of town limits. Now adays these people camping out on someone elses property would be a mixture of people from all cultrures. Being second generation Slovak/American, I wonder if at times I’m not a little “old world,” type of person myself..

  • David,
    As Mememe points out below, there are a lot of cultures that passed over this land over the years. Sometimes a last name might help reveal where a family comes from (ie. an “-ic” at the end is commonly said to be from Croatia), or sometimes a family story passed down over the years, but often times, there’s no way to even begin to imagine the migratory history of many Slovak families. It seems to come down to what you feel like you are.

    Also as Mememe points out – cultures have an influence on us, but ultimately, it is up to us, the individual, to determine how we will live our own lives. It makes sense to me that you know Roma who are just like anyone else. I wouldn’t want to assume that because a person comes from a certain culture that he or she must act a certain way. I think it’s valuable though for us to be cognizant of the influences on us in our own lives. The more we know about the cultures that our families come from the more we can know about those influences.

    It’s interesting that you suggest that even though you are second generation, there might be something Old World in you. I find it fascinating how common it is for me to meet a Slovak-American who has never stepped foot in Slovakia, yet seems to have unknowingly adopted some aspects of Slovak culture from his or her parents.

    For example, I was raised to refer to unrelated elders as “Uncle” and “Aunt.” Not until I was older did I realize that lots of other Americans my age didn’t do that and some even addressed their parents’ brothers and sisters simply by their first names. After spending some time in Slovakia, I learned that this was in fact a Slovak tradition passed down in my family by people who had never lived a day in Slovakia.

    Thank you again, David for sharing some of your experiences about what the word “gypsy” meant in the community you grew up in.


  • this is an offensive article that needs to be deleted
    and gypsies are NOT dark skinned, stop being ignorant
    they are fair/light skintones

  • Sadly the slovak roma have started to move in to my city of derby[uk] we,ve always had an old empire immigrant community ,no probs but now we,ve got exactly what a white slovak would say…roma are their own worse enemy,they destroy communities,it,s started were ever they are in england and americans are generally naive

  • where were the gypsies originally from?

  • I really encourage you to revisit this. Do some research on the background of Gyspies — a term which most people of this ethnicity find offensive and denounce as a racial slur. First, there are many different groups of people that others classify as “gypsy.” You need to be more specific. Also McCoromick is correct. Not all Rom, which is what I assume you are referring to if you are writing about Slovakia, are dark skinned. There is usually quite a bit of gene pool variety within Rom communities. There have been several instances of police taking children who have blonde hair and blue eyes from their parents (because of the child snatching myth that is perpetuated by this poem) and later finding out that they were incorrect. The Rom have been enslaved, persecuted and through a genocide in Europe.

    I believe you meant to use them as examples of the “Old World,” but this metaphor is hurtful to people actually of that ethnicity. It would be the same as using the old trope of greedy Jewish money lenders to represent a long-forgotten time in Europe.

    I would encourage you to do some more research on this group before you start talking about them in ways you do not understand. Sometimes things aren’t changed just for the sake of political correctness. There are real, overarching implication in this article and in the Shel Sliverstein poem that hit at centuries of Rom living in shanty towns and ghettos simply because of the color of their skin.

    Your justifications in this article are not ok. I wish you would delete it and revisit the issue.

  • Judy Bennett

    Feb 28th, 2017

    Hi Allan – I really appreciate your insights on this. It’s so easy for us to equate racism in America with the antagonism between Slovaks and Roma. Thanks for reposting this. I’ve come to understand that the Slovaks and Roma have been like “two ships passing in the night ” for a thousand years…two isolated cultures. African-Americans and white Americans have been bonded together as masters and slaves over the centuries, continuing the bondage after the Civil War in the form of share cropping. Both groups needed each other and grew a distinct culture together.

    You were very generous about our “accepting” American culture. It all seems to be a bit naive as we settle into the reality of the Trump era.

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