Real Life

‘We’re no big fat Gypsy family’

Sick of the stereotypes, this Romany family is speaking out.

There’s no crystal ball on the coffee table, no caravan sitting on the lawn and no flamboyant wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe. Aside from the two licence plates emblazoned with “Romany”, you’d never know Gypsies live in this south Auckland home – but the Matthews family members are some of New Zealand’s proudest Romany Gypsies.

What they’re not proud of is the hit TV One show Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. John and Janet Matthews and their daughters Emily and Jessica say it’s getting harder for them to proclaim their heritage, and they’re facing more and more discrimination thanks to the UK TV series. “People get very confused,” says John (51). “That show has really hurt our people, because they’re [mostly] Irish Travellers.”

“What people don’t realise is there’s a huge difference between Roma Gypsies and the Irish Travellers, “ adds Jess (26). “They’re the ones with the big dresses and all that, not us. Sure, we’re flamboyant, but those dresses are just ridiculous,” she laughs. The Matthewses are just some of the hundreds of Romany Gypsies living in New Zealand and say they’re fed up with people thinking they’re uneducated “spongers”.

“I can’t stop being a Romany,” says Emily (32). “We’re a race of people. To tell someone to stop being a Gypsy is like telling them to change from Asian to European. Now that we’re getting mixed up with the Irish Travellers means people are even more confused and hostile towards us.”

“New Zealand used to be great, people were fascinated by us,” adds John, “but since that show, it’s changed.” “I have a degree!” exclaims Emily, who’s a graphic designer. “It makes us angry that we’re made out to be uneducated. Jess is doing post-grad studies in music and our brother, Ben, is at Auckland University of Technology studying to be a journalist.”

It’s a frequent source of frustration for the family, who immigrated to New Zealand in 1994 from England. But instead of hiding their culture, the family have embraced a few traditions from their past. Some family members don’t cross their knives and will never rock a rocking chair if it’s empty, while others will cover mirrors during storms. And even though the crystal ball has been replaced with John’s coffee machine, they’re still living life the Romany way with an emphasis on family.

The Matthewses have moved 17 times in the last 18 years, with John in particular having the desire to keep shifting. “I had the traditional Gypsy upbringing,” he smiles. “Welived in a caravan and went from place to place doing the stereotypical stuff like the fortune telling. I personally don’t believe in it, I think it’s a load of rubbish, but it was a good gimmick, and it’s how they earned their money. “Eventually we were forced into state houses, which felt like having our legs chopped off.”

After years of continually moving house, he says he’s now comfortable in his Papakura home and Janet (52) has forbidden any more relocating in the future. “He’s not bloody moving again,” she laughs. Although Janet is descended from Romany Gypsies, she wasn’t aware of it until she was a teenager – she was raised in a middle-class family in England. “It was a big deal when we married – John was the fi rst in his family to marry outside the Gypsy community,” she says.  “My dad wasn’t impressed with John at all.”

“Yeah, well, Granny wasn’t impressed with you either, was she!” laughs Emily. And while some stereotypes hold true, including Emily’s love of gaudy hoop earrings, the family draws the line at the over-the-top “Gypsy” dresses. “The people you see on the show take the flamboyancy to another level… that’s how you get those dresses,” says John.

As for the “grabbing” depicted on the TV show, where a man physically assaults a woman they fancy to show affection, John says if he ever tried that as a boy he would have received a “good clap around the ears” from his mum. “We’d never even heard about that until the show,” laughs Jessica.

The Matthews family also say not all Gypsies believe women should remain virgins until they’re married, should require an escort if they’re on a date or must stay home when they’re married. “I almost wet myself laughing about that,” grins Emily. “Our parents always said you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re doing something. If a Gypsy man told me to clean something, I’d tell him to rack off,” she laughs.

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