10 May 2011

"She was a Gypsy woman..."

When I was almost three, my family moved into a home my grandfather had built near the Henry Cowell and Wilder Ranch redwood parks in California.  We had few neighbors (mainly the overgrown trees of an abandoned Christmas tree farm and a small, but loud herd of sheep), so I was free to explore and imagine until my mind and heart were full.

Across the road from our house sat a very small, and hardly visible home of a man named Rex.  I say "hardly visible" because the front of his house was being assaulted by a blackberry bush the size of Rhode Island, and a redwood jungle was advancing quickly from the rear.  It was this same redwood forest that I spent many nights imagining Gypsies prowling through.

I first learned of Gypsies (Romani) from my fey-touched Aunt Marilyn.  She told me that the old women of Gypsy families would sneak out of the woods in the night then kidnap ill-behaved children and turn them into slaves...or soup.  Unlike a "normal" child who would be afraid of such an experience, I thought the whole thing would be a rather grand adventure.  Now, I know Gypsies are not cannibalistic, nor would they kidnap a little misbehaving miscreant (because who would subject themselves to that kind of torture?), but the allure of Gypsy culture has never left me.  There is just something so magical and free about they way they live, and nothing is more magical to me than the wagons they called home.

The Vardo, or Romani Wagon, is a horse-drawn caravan that was widely used by the Romani people in Great Britain and Europe until the last 20 years or so.  (Unfortunately most Romani people live in metal caravans now, but there are still some who hold to the old traditions.)  Anyway, the Romani people are nomads who traditionally moved from place to place as circus performers or cheap labor workers or goods traders, and because of this, they needed some sort of compact, efficient form of living that was sturdy enough to resist the elements.  A wagon seemed the logical choice because it can be drawn by a horse and can hold everything necessary for sustaining life.

The well-organized wagon interiors have typically got a bed with drawers underneath, which is positioned against the wall opposite the door (which is at the back), and one or two windows.  Then, near the rear of the wagon is the kitchen, with a chimney pipe exiting through the roof and storage cabinets for food and dinnerware.  Cooking pots and utensils are usually hung along the wall in order to keep as much open floor space as possible and a bench of some kind is nestled across from the stove.  Finally, the whole thing, inside and out, is ornately carved and decorated in an effort to exhibit the woodworking skill of the Romani craftsmen.

The usual patterns used in ornamentation were Romani symbols and images that held significance to the culture.  Horses were a popular motif, due to their importance in pulling the wagons, but gryphons, lions, birds, flowers, and vines were common as well.  Oftentimes these complex designs were gold leafed in order to make them more obvious and beautiful.

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As you probably noticed, there are a few different styles of wagon, but the interiors are similar regardless of the roof design.  They've all got a stove, and bed, and place to sit, but more importantly, they are filled to the brim with all the magic and charm that can be found in the world.

Someday I will own a Romani Wagon, I just know it.  After all, what better place is there to escape the breakneck pace of the world and enjoy a nice bowl of. . . soup?


04 May 2011

No dirt in my Yurt!

I have never been to Mongolia and I would probably never have given the country a second thought, but then I saw the Focus Features film, "Babies".  One of the films four stars is a firecracker of a little boy named Bayar and he lives in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia.  He is absolutely one of the cutest creatures on the planet but unfortunately he's not the reason I've suddenly become enchanted by his homeland.  Rather, I'm fascinated by his house: a Yurt (or "Ger" if you're Mongolian).

Bayar's parents are Mongolian nomads who tend a large goat herd and, out of necessity, they live in a portable home.  If you know anything about herding animals, then you know that they aren't kept in one place for very long.  The herders have got to follow them around, and what better way for them to shelter themselves than with a Yurt?

Yurt's are massively cool, circular buildings that are completely collapsible.  The frame is typically made of latticed wood which is wrapped in waterproof canvas or wool felt.  This construction method makes it easy to disassemble and transport as needed.  Then there are the roof poles, which are usually draped in a waterproof material then attached to the wooden crown at the peak of the roof.  In larger Yurts, the crown is supported from below by a column of some sort.  The whole bundle of wood and fabric is then skillfully (and astonishingly) strung together using only ropes or ribbons.  If that's not a feat of design engineering and talent, then I don't know what is.

Anyway, the use of Yurts started in about the 12th or 13th century in Mongolia and entire villages of people would live in them, much like Native Americans (First Nation) living in Tepees.  The interior of some Yurts may even reflect a more spiritually inspired layout with importance being given to the cardinal directions (the door always facing South and the North-Eastern area of the Yurt being designated for the woman of the house).  However, many modern herders orient the door toward the rising sun so that they might use the Yurt as a sundial.  Ingenious, I know.

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Not surprisingly, Yurts can be found all around the world: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, (all the other stans), etc.  There are even people in the Americas who recognize the utility and convenience of such a mode of living, though the materials used for construction tend to be more high-tech than those found abroad.  Either way, if fate blesses you with the chance to sleep in one of these bad boys, take it.  I know I hope to someday.

Keep exploring!