The Romani road:
Australia's Gypsy culture

Turned away at caravan parks, treated as shirkers or swindlers, even as a fairytale. Stereotypes have followed Australia's Romani “Gypsies” since the First Fleet. But step inside their culture, music and travel stories. You might even be inspired to hit the road.

We spin like dust devils, hands high in the air. As the guitars throb and trumpets soar, I'm dancing near the stage with two women from Serbia. Chorus after chorus, the crowd cheers the music on.

Lead singer Sarah Bedak wails into the microphone, backed by seven musicians, including husband Nenad. Dressed in bright pink shorts and stockings, her limbs coil and undulate to the music. A violin begins to howl. Sweat rolls down our faces, our arms, but we three women cannot stop dancing, cannot stop swivelling our hips to the accelerating beat. It's the first time I've heard a Gypsy band live and I'm so enthralled I feel as if I could fly.

Listen to Sarah Bedak and Nenad Radic play "Gelem Gelem".

When the song ends on a long, high note, the crowd applauds loudly and cries out in what sounds like Hungarian. Before beginning the next tune, Sarah and Nenad deliver patter about the history and culture of the Romani people – a history so secret, so hidden, that few readers would know that the first of them arrived in Australia as convicts on the First Fleet, and that they have been living in our country ever since.

Today, roughly 25,000 call Australia home. Political correctness has not yet defeated the term Gypsy, but most identify as Romani or Roma. An individual is a Rom.

When I meet Yvonne Slee, she greets me in the open door of her south Brisbane home, takes me in her arms and kisses me on the cheek. She's dressed in a bright red, halter neck dress, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She ushers me into a neat, clean home, and introduces me to her husband Dave, a grinning, blue-eyed man with a strong Aussie accent.

"After the Jews, Romanies were the most targeted ethnic group by the Nazi regime.”

In the living room, I'm greeted by a verbose parrot in a cage and an excited dog. We sit at their dining room table and uncork a bottle of red. Yvonne and I have been corresponding for about a year, but this is the first time we've met in person. As Dave attends to cooking lunch in the adjoining kitchen, she begins to tell me about her life.

“Not many people know this,” she says in her soft, almost musical voice, “But after the Jews, Romanies were the most targeted ethnic group by the Nazi regime.”

She fingers the stem of her glass and briefly shudders.

Born in Germany in 1969, Yvonne was partly raised by her Gypsy grandmother, Elsa, who told her many stories about the Romani, including the persecution her family, and the Roma in general, suffered during both world wars. Yvonne's uncle and grandfather were two of 1.5 million European Gypsies removed from their homes during the Second World War and gassed to death. Shocked by Elsa's stories, Yvonne has since become an activist, in an attempt to educate others about the traditions of her people while dispelling myths, stereotypes and cliches about the Roma that have endured for more than 1000 years.

At age 18, shortly after her grandmother died, she moved to London and worked as an au pair, where she met Dave, who was travelling back from Africa. In 1986, they married and relocated to Australia, where they lived on the Gold Coast and began a family. As a child growing up in the 1960s, Dave had lived in nearby Redcliffe and marvelled at the Gypsies who would camp near his home, trying to obtain seasonal work on prawn trawlers.

“They had big 1950s silver caravans, big American Cadillacs and big, black moustaches,” he recalls fondly.

“How did your parents react,” I ask, “when you married Yvonne?”

Dave grins and begins serving plates of goulash, a traditional Gypsy recipe from Hungary that the couple prepared earlier.

“It wasn't so much that she was a Rom – it was that she was from another country.”

He makes a face and shakes his head: “‘Why couldn't you marry an Australian girl?’”

“They didn't want a dark person in the family!” Yvonne adds.

We begin to eat. The goulash is lightly spiced with herbs and paprika. It tastes delicious with the wine. I remark that they should open a restaurant and serve Gypsy food. Dave and Yvonne trade looks and smile. Yvonne shakes her head.

“We already did that,” she says. “It was a disaster!”

She tells me that in 2006, after the birth of their third child, the family packed up and moved to Melbourne. They found premises on Bridge Road, which they painted and decorated with Romani symbols and flags. A small store was set up in one corner, selling Romani literature, trinkets, CDs, and jewellery. They employed two Macedonian Gypsy musicians to perform there twice a month. Yvonne cooked authentic Romani food: goulash, sarmi (cabbage rolls), pasvare (ribs cooked in a spicy broth) and Gypsy cevapcici (spiced mini-sausages), along with soups and salads.

Initially, the public was interested. But it wasn't long before business dropped off, amid suspicion and mistrust of Yvonne's ethnic background. Some pedestrians would stop and stare through the front window, before walking past the open door. Others would make a beeline to the kitchen, demanding to know the ingredients of Yvonne's various dishes, before turning on their heels and leaving.

“It was all too much for me to take,” says Yvonne, shaking her head. “One man announced that he wouldn't eat in a restaurant run by Gypsies because he didn't trust what we put in the food!”

The manager muttered “Gypsies” and refused to allow them to stay the night.

They sold all their furniture and restaurant equipment. With only $2000 left in their pockets, the family left Melbourne in a van, towing a trailer, bound for Adelaide. They'd heard that there was a Romani school in that city and hoped to find a more supportive and cohesive community of Roma.

After a two-day drive, the Slees pulled up at a caravan park with a flashing “Vacancy” sign, but when the manager glimpsed their trailer packed with furniture and boxes, he muttered “Gypsies” and refused to allow them to stay the night. Not only did he turn them away, he rang up caravan parks further along the highway and warned them about “the Gypsies” who were about to arrive.

The Slees were repeatedly turned away, in spite of more signs indicating vacancies. They decided to drive into the Adelaide Hills and found a small park that allowed them to camp.

At the Romani school, they discovered a hall with a stage filled with musical instruments, a computer area with desks, one wall lined with books, and a gymnastics room. Yvonne and Dave enrolled their eldest son, Tim, so he could learn Romani language, music, dance, and history – as well as a traditional (Anglo-Saxon) curriculum of mathematics and English.

For centuries, both in Australia and overseas, it has been difficult for travelling Romani families (who move regularly due to seasonal work) to educate their children in government-run schools – which is why generations remained illiterate, reinforcing their status as outsiders, limiting job prospects and deepening their dependence on oral storytelling and history, rather than written versions.

Yvonne is keenly aware of this dichotomy and has always wanted her children to be educated in both the Rom and the Gadje (non-Rom) way of life.

“Gadje taunt our kids if they don't know how to read and write,” she says, “so our kids must learn in public schools. If they are educated, then it will be easier for them to teach future generations about our culture.”

Six months later, Dave was offered a job in Cairns and the family packed up the trailer once more, bound for Far North Queensland. Dave, in fact, has adapted to Romani culture with both pleasure and ease. As a mechanic, his profession allows him to pick up work wherever the family travels. He is also gifted at fixing, recycling, and selling used goods – a custom associated with the Roma for hundreds of years, particularly in the scrap metal business (though Dave's specialty is computers).

“A while ago, a school threw out about 25 laptops,” he says, shaking his head at the waste. “I picked the lot of them up.”

Within days, he had them all up and running and was able to sell them for a sizeable profit. The couple also vends second-hand goods at weekend markets, where they mount a display board explaining the basics of Romani culture.

The Slees (David, Yvonne, Ben and Eve) with a photo of Yvonne's grandmother Elsa, a knitted Romani flag and goulash.

In 2007, the Slees approached the director of the Museum of Tropical Queensland and asked to mount an exhibit on the 1000-year-old history of the Roma, including forced exile from India in the 9th century, migrations across Europe and enslavement in Romania for 800 years. Dave discovered local newspaper articles from 1900 about Gypsy bands performing in Cairns, along with vintage photos of Romani men working the cane fields. Examples of Romani food, music, ornaments, artefacts and a mannequin dressed in traditional Gypsy clothes complemented the exhibit.

Not all Romani customs, however, have been understood by Australian authorities. The practices of the Vlax Rom, for example, kept law courts perplexed for nearly 80 years. From 1898 until the 1970s, many travelled between country towns, fortune telling and sometimes begging. Formal education was jettisoned so that extended Vlax Rom families could continue travelling and practising their culture.

It was customary for males and females to marry in their teens at Gypsy weddings, unrecognised under Commonwealth law. This led to further clashes in the courts. One underage girl, Rosy Sterio, for example, was married in the NSW town of Lithgow in 1926, before her father disappeared to the Philippines. Rosy travelled with her husband's family across the country to Perth, telling fortunes all the way. When the child bride tried to charge her husband with cruelty (which today might be assault), the Sterios ended up in court. A newspaper report of the time describes her in detail: “The drab court was brightened by one of the quaintest sights when Rosy Sterio, a squat, soft featured olive-complexioned gypsy girl came in. She was dressed in a pink woollen coat and bright pink and blue skirts reaching to her ankles.”

The case, however, was deemed by the court to be merely a “tribal feud”. It was eventually dismissed. But not all Vlax Rom got off so easily: less than 20 years later, in Sydney, for example, it was recorded that another member of the same family, Costa Sterio, had to have his funeral postponed for 10 days because his sister, expected to be a chief mourner, was locked up in Long Bay Gaol.

After exhibiting material about the history of Romanis, the Slee family received an invitation from the Romani community of Perth to join them in Western Australia. The group was rumoured to be large and active. Yvonne, as much as she loved living in Queensland, was keen to live amongst her own people and speak her own language. Following the same 7000 mile route through bush and desert as Rosy Sterio and her in-laws did in 1926, Yvonne drove one car, towing a trailer with their belongings, while Dave drove a second, towing a caravan that would be their temporary home.

The three children were divided between the vehicles. During the day, they kept in touch via walkie-talkies; at night they would set up the caravan and a tent, before packing up each morning.

Their son intends to study architecture, an amusing choice given his nomadic childhood living in vans and tents.

Upon arrival , the Slees discovered that the majority of Perth’s Roma community had emigrated from Macedonia, beginning in the 1960s, and was part of the same extended family. There, Yvonne and Dave attended Romani male initiation ceremonies in private homes, dances featuring Romani music and food, and appeared regularly on a weekly Romani radio program.

After 18 months in Perth, the family moved to Coffs Harbour in NSW, then on to south Brisbane, searching for a less expensive way of life. Now that Yvonne and Dave are getting older, they're planning what they hope will be the final part of their journey: to buy a block of land in Mackay, build a log cabin for themselves and make the property a permanent site for several caravans to house their children and guests. Their eldest son, Tim, intends to go to university in three years, to study architecture – an amusing choice of subject given his nomadic childhood, which sometimes necessitated living in vans and tents.

Kate Wright, 80, only found out that she was of English Gypsy heritage on the deathbed of her mother. Due to centuries of discrimination, being a Gypsy in Europe can still be a dangerous prospect. It's not uncommon to hide one's Romani heritage in attempt to live a safe and peaceful life.

Wright now lives in Queensland’s Glasshouse Mountains with her husband John, 83. When we meet outside the Beerwah library, she approaches me with the aid of a walking stick, with reed-thin John resting a guiding hand on her back. I offer to take them to lunch at a restaurant of their choosing, to order whatever they like, but they select a modest cafe by the railway station. They each order a cheese and tomato sandwich and a mug of coffee. Both of them speak so softly that I have to bow over the table, unable to hear what they're whispering to me.

Share some Gypsy memories and a song with Kate and John Wright

I ask why they've chosen to retire in the Glasshouse Mountains.

“There are a lot of Roms who live in the hills now,” says John, cocking his west. “Though most people wouldn't know it.”

“And also we needed land,” adds Kate, “to park our caravans and trailers.”

After raising three children in a suburban Sydney home, the couple decided to embrace Kate's heritage. They had spent the early years of their marriage living in a caravan. John's profession as an engineer had always involved travel.

When an opportunity arose to buy a motorised Gypsy caravan and bow-top trailer (formerly owned by travelling Punch & Judy puppeteer Basil Smith, also a Gypsy from the UK) the couple jumped at the chance to live as traditional Romani travellers. Over the decades, Kate had inherited and collected many stories, traditions and recipes of Gypsy culture. She had an abiding need to share them.

Remembering the road: Kate and John Wright.

Some of her stories include the fact that the first Gypsies to arrive in Australia were English convicts on the First and Second Fleets: Henry Lavello, Lazarus Scamp and James Squire (who, as free man, built Australia's first beer brewery). And in the 19th century, when word travelled back to the persecuted Romani of Europe that Australia was a young and less prejudiced society, Gypsies chose to immigrate here. According to Wright, their lifestyle was a natural fit with Australia’s pioneering life.

“They found work in droving, seasonal harvesting, fence building…,” she pauses and adds some salt to her sandwich, “horse breaking. What else? Oh, and in travelling boxing troupes and carnivals.”

“Who'd want to be a Gypsy?” Kate jokes, sipping her coffee. “It's a bloody awful life!”

Once fully retired, Kate and John embarked on their journey in the vardo (caravan). For several years the two travelled over 40,000km of eastern Australia, appearing at country fairs, festivals, schools and fetes, conducting radio and television interviews for rural media. Kate performed storytelling shows in traditional Romani clothing, while John did the planning, navigating and driving.

“Who'd want to be a Gypsy?” Kate jokes, sipping her coffee. “It's a bloody awful life!”

Apart from wanting to educate the public about Gypsy culture and history, Kate was also compelled to investigate common stereotypes held by Australians about Gypsies. They invariably fell into two categories: the romantic, beribboned bohemians tapping tambourines and living a “free” life; or the “dirty” outsiders who shirk work and swindle.

“Don't go and play with the Gypsies, or they'll steal you away!” parrots Kate, laughing.

To be sure, this was a frequent admonishment by Australian parents to their children during the early part of the 20th century, when it was common for extended Gypsy families to travel in big, American cars between country towns, picking up itinerant farming work or appearing at fairs as fortune tellers, acrobats, and musicians.

“Nomadic people have signs and codes. But today Gypsies don't need them. We've got mobile phones!”

I mention to the couple that between the 1930s and 1950s one of my uncles was a swagman, walking around the country and making a living by diving from bridges for coins. He could read the travellers' “code of road” (markings on trees, rocks, and tracks that alerted fellow travellers to good or evil in the vicinity). I suggest that Romanis in Australia might have practiced the same code, one that is often called “the patterin”, but Kate quietly dismisses any connection between it and the Swaggies' code.

“All nomadic people, from all over the world,” she whispers, “have their own signs and codes. But today Gypsies don't need them. We've got mobile phones!”

A few weeks after hearing and dancing to the Gypsy band Lolo Lovina, I meet lead singer Sarah Bedak at a Marrickville cafe. Offstage, Sarah, like most entertainers, is a little more shy. She's dressed in a black dress with red polka dots, red bangles on her wrists and a signature slash of red lipstick, her curly dark hair cascading down her back. She has the clear, dewy skin of a teenager and looks much younger than her 45 years. We begin talking about her trapeze artist father, Rigo, and when I ask if he is still with us, her eyes begin to cloud.

“He died two years ago,” she softly admits. “Dementia.” She tells me that during most of his life in Australia, Rigo pretended to be Jewish in order to avoid discrimination.

“But as his dementia progressed, he became so proud of his Roma background. Towards the end, he would shout, ‘Tell everyone that I am 100 per cent Gypsy!’”

During most of his life in Australia, Rigo pretended to be Jewish in order to avoid discrimination.

Rigo Bedak was born in Hungary in 1939, to a family of musicians. At the age of 12, after he became a trapeze artist, he caravanned across Europe in a Children's Gypsy Circus that included performing bears. When Soviet forces invaded Hungary in 1956, Rigo witnessed hundreds of people being machine-gunned to death on a train platform, including his best friend, who had his head blown off. He himself was grazed on the forehead, resulting in a permanent scar.

Terrified, Rigo fled his family and friends, escaping to Vienna and then Switzerland. Eventually he settled in Australia, where for the rest of his life he would suffer the pain of anxiety-induced ulcers and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In Sydney, he worked as a silver service waiter in restaurants such as Bourbon and Beefsteak and The Chelsea. He married an Australian flamenco dancer and raised a family in Bondi. Sarah says that her father's Romani background influenced their family life in subtle yet enduring ways as she grew up.

“The children of Romani are always cherished,” she says, beaming. “And we were cherished. We could never do anything wrong.”

The house was also full of traditional Romani instruments like the violin. The children were encouraged to play with them. From the age of five, she was taught Hungarian dancing. Rigo also taught his young daughter gymnastics and acrobatics, skills that have held her in good stead, years later, as a performer of gypsy music and culture.

Gypsy music and Romani culture: Sarah Bedak and Nenad Radic.

In 2010, Sarah travelled to Hungary and Serbia and spent a year living in a small village in an effort to learn the music and language of the Roma.

“How did your father feel about you returning,” I ask, “to reconnect with your heritage?”

Sarah smiles warmly. “He was very happy. He was supportive.”

She never met her paternal grandfather – another musician – but through relatives Sarah gained access to his personal repertoire of music and lyrics. She learned them all by heart. Today, in Australia, she can still perform the same repertoire that her Gypsy ancestor did in Hungary during the 1920s.

In 2009, Sarah purchased a run-down second-hand caravan, redesigned it and had a friend convert it into a colourful, mobile, fold-out stage, which has proved hugely popular on the festival circuit. Her band has just released its second CD, Rroma Sapien (on iTunes and distributed through MGM). Sarah hopes to promote her culture further by staging an annual International Romani Music Competition in Europe, to be broadcast around the world.

Today, due to assimilation, greater educational and vocational opportunities, and the preference for a more sedentary and comfortable life, the presence of Gypsies in Australia is not obvious. Ironically, an openly multicultural society, devoid of persecution, has probably functioned to weaken Gypsy culture in Australia, rather than strengthen it.

But in the past few decades, Roms from around the country have travelled to nominated caravan parks in Byron Bay and Bendigo for one weekend every year, where they camp, cook on open fires, share stories, and celebrate their culture. Today, they also congregate on the internet via various Romani websites operating from Australia and overseas, where they can chat and share information, music, news, and history – whether they choose to live in a tent or townhouse.

It also makes sense that a country founded by convicts – another set of European outcasts – would be one of the few places in the world where the Romani can still settle without prejudice. Today, in Australia, they and their descendants can be found in a wide range of professions, including education, hospitality, creative arts, medicine, broadcasting and entertainment.

“Many don't know that Gypsies actually exist – that we're real people, not something out of a Victorian fairytale.”

Before we leave the cafe, I ask Sarah Bedak one final question: how do average Australians react to being informed that there are thousands of Gypsies living on our shores?

She laughs quickly. “Many don't know that Gypsies actually exist – that we're real people, not something out of a Victorian fairytale.” She makes a gesture with her hand, waving the idea away.

“Most Romani in Australia, well, you stay quiet. You don't announce your culture. But I don't feel I need to be silent.”

She beams again and her eyes are suddenly flecked with light.

“I've always been incredibly proud of my Gypsy heritage.”