George Borrow (1803-1881) was a gifted linguist who spent five years in Spain as a missionary, part of the time in jail for his activities. He had learned the language of the Zincali (Gypsies or Roma) and began to mix with them. So unusual was it that a non-Zincali should know their language and customs that he was often accepted as one himself.
Borrow was a strange man in many ways. He appears to have been not only a missionary and linguist, but also an anthropologist and ethnologist. His book is perceptive, biased, intellectual, rambling, sometimes boring, and more often fascinating. It is not, I believe, for casual reading by an undiscerning reader.
My interest in the Roma began three years ago when my wife and I were traveling "light and cheap" in Eastern Turkey. Hiking to what we thought was a migrant workers' camp, we stumbled into a "floating" Gypsy brothel. As we wandered between two rows of carnival-like games, we came to a large pavilion with about 18 young ladies who swarmed us, offering personal services of all kinds.
My Turkish is elementary, but it was sufficient to understand that these people realized that we were there in error and were going to great lengths to alleviate our embarrassment. We spent a bit of time with the ladies, explaining who we were and what we were doing in this remote bit of rural Turkey. As we left the men in turn swarmed us, asking similar questions, offering us tea, beer, and candies.
Like most people, we think of Gypsies (if we think of them at all) in terms of the old Laurel and Hardy representations, or as inveterate pickpockets and thieves. Our experience was a bit threatening, due to these preconceptions. The reality was that we did not appear to be in danger of any kind. Instead, we thoroughly enjoyed our unanticipated interaction, strange though it was.
We returned to the United States, seeking out more information. I found that there is little out there, and what I did find was largely unsatisfactory. The little modern information was too "politically correct" to be convincing to me. Then I stumbled unto Borrow's book.
"The Zincali" is a snapshot of the Zincali in the early 19th Century. It does not tell you about the modern condition of the Gypsy, but does explain the history and mindset of the early Gypsies. And am still in pursuit of a really good book on the subject, but Borrow's is a good start, and will be the standard by which I judge others.