Rome’s Tiny Thieves

Getting robbed in RomeGypsies have been an integral part of European culture for over 600 years. The first written accounts of them appear around the year 1500 when they were called the “Roma.” They are believed to have originally migrated from northern India or Yugoslavia.

They are a nomadic people who still wander as a way of life even as they have been assimilated into modern European society. Mostly they live in small bands led by a respected elder. And while it is never proper to generalize about an entire ethnic group, for all people have both good and bad in their numbers, some Gypsies have come to be known for their prowess as pickpockets.

In 1978, a fictional movie called King of the Gypsies showed the first inside look at how they live. One scene in the movie showed a mannequin covered with small bells. A child training to pick pockets had to approach the mannequin and empty the contents of its pockets in complete silence. If a bell rang, the child was punished. In 1997, the U.S. television show 60 Minutes had correspondent Diane Sawyer getting a lesson on just such a mannequin from a Gypsy who remained off camera while coaching her in the fine art of pick pocketing.

The Lonely Planet guide to Europe, Arthur Frommer’s European guidebooks and Let’s Go Europe books all offer warnings to the uninitiated traveler about Gypsy pickpockets.

This by no means implies that all gypsies are thieves, for they are as colorful and diverse a group of people as one could meet. It does, however, set the stage for a personal story about them.

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