The man (or was it a woman?) lay facedown on the cobblestone street, his knees folded beneath him, his forehead pressed to the ground in a posture of supplication. He wore a shapeless, dirty blue tunic and a rough piece of dark cloth over his head. The begging cup in front of him was empty. He might have been deeply asleep, except for his right arm, which shook with spasms. Dozens of people stepped around him, almost over him, barely taking notice.
Jeff and I were in Florence, Italy, for a few days, joining the throngs taking in Michelangelo’s David, the great artworks of the Uffizi, and Il Duomo with its shining marble façade, so impossibly green. There were many more sights, of course, and like everyone else we were trying to figure out how to budget our time. Unlike most others, we had decided to move along slowly and try to absorb the culture of the city.
That culture included beggars, lots of them.
I hadn’t been prepared for such an onslaught. Pickpockets, yes, and merchants trying to scam us. Those I thought I could thwart. But from our first nights in Venice, when I saw scores of young African men hawking trinkets and big bunches of roses in the public squares, I realized I was out of my league.
In the U.S. I make a point of looking at street people and other outcasts, and nodding or smiling if our eyes meet. Sometimes I’ll exchange a few pleasantries. We’ve been trained by our culture to ignore these people, or even to revile them. Three years ago in my very first entry for this blog, I wrote about approaching a homeless woman and just giving her a smile. It was my first attempt at letting the poor know I see them, and among the hardest things I’d ever done. I’ve since become much more relaxed.
But I understand the social dynamics of poverty in America. Europe, with its complex and changing cultures, is another story. For one thing there are the gypsies, who will walk right up to you and demand money. The first time we got on an Italian train, a young gypsy woman greeted us as I climbed aboard. She grabbed my suitcase and started wheeling it away, gesturing at me to follow. “What are you doing?” I asked in shock. She smiled over her shoulder and lifted the bag up some steps to the train’s top level. She stowed it expertly behind some seats and held out her hand for a tip. When Jeff put two euros in her palm (the equivalent of $2.20), she asked for more. Seriously?
In Venice the flower sellers will hand you a rose with a smile, then follow you asking for money. Watching them one afternoon, we realized that they were all black men and able-bodied, with heavily accented English. Refugees. We wondered if they had been brought into the country by smugglers who insisted that they work off their passage. One day I asked one of them if his boss was a good man who treated him fairly. His expression changed; I saw a flash of terror. “Why would you ask this?” he whispered. We slipped him a 20-euro bill. It might have been a quiet transaction, except that he gave us his entire bouquet of roses. Seeing this, the other vendors chased us off St. Mark’s Square, demanding that we give them money, too.
Now here we were in Florence, stepping around a person in a prayerful posture, just down the street from a woman who issued an entreaty each time we passed: Please. In a nearby doorway, a man with an accordion played a jaunty tune with his case open in front of him.
What would be the fair way, the generous way, to respond? I never slipped any coins to the man with the palsied arm, although the sight of him deeply moved me. I was afraid that if I gave to him, I’d again find myself besieged.
Conventional wisdom holds that it’s best to ignore panhandlers and donate to organizations that work to help street people. This seems sensible, and it makes us feel more virtuous when we pass beggars by. But I didn’t know any charities that worked with the urban poor in Italy. The aggressiveness of the gypsies, too, was disturbing. I wasn’t sure they needed any help from me.
But who am I, with my travel dollars, to hold myself apart from these people? This was a special trip for Jeff and me, something we’d dreamed about for years and finally managed after the death of my parents. We don’t consider ourselves rich, though compared to the world’s refugees we most certainly are. How, then, day after day, could I pass by the man who stood at the door of the expensive leather goods shop with his hat extended? It wasn’t easy, but I steeled myself and went on without opening my purse.
Here’s what I decided in our waning days in Italy: I wouldn’t turn away from beggars—but neither would I give them anything. I’d offer them a smile and a respectful No grazie. Never mind that there was no reason I should be thanking them. It was the kindest thing I could think to do. Their reaction wasn’t at all sustaining; each one just shifted his focus to the next passer-by.
We didn’t encounter the same press of poor or desperate characters in either France or Spain. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the gauntlet of beggars we had to run every day in Italy. I wonder if I could have ever managed to find a level of comfort among the constant pleas. Some people do, I’m told. They see a world of need and move calmly through it, finding opportunities to help when they can, going on without worry when they cannot.
I hope I can someday live as they live.