Sunday, August 10, 2014

Things That Go Bump in the Day

Begging on the corner

“Do not throw coins when beggars
stretch their hands for alms; help
them to become self-reliant."
~ Sri Sathya Sal Baba

I have been in Bologna for 10 days, which I find hard to believe.  On one hand, it seems like the time has already sprinted by me too quickly.  At other times, I feel like I've lived here forever. I have become friends with Cesar and Lili at Bar Santo Stefano, with others who come into the bar, and with a few people from the school.

Today, I spent almost four hours walking through the streets. I tried to find streets I hadn't seen before and stayed away, for the most part, from the main shopping street and tourist areas. That said, tourist attractions are all over the centro, and one must pass through them at times.

One thing that a tourist notices almost immediately is that there are beggars on a number of the corners in the centro.  This is not, of course, only a Bolognese problem. We've encountered them in almost every big city we've visited, including those in the United States. They are on the Strip and many, many street corners in Las Vegas. We found the beggars in Paris about the worst as they brazenly approach tourists with nonsense about rings and petitions and such.

The beggars in Bologna, in contrast, are almost polite. There are some that walk  around the streets trying to sell tissues, socks, pens, etc. The worst are the ones that walk the piazza and are bold enough to come up to individuals and ask for money. .

My Swiss friend, Annetta, said that a man approached her last Sunday.

"Please, signora," he begged, "I am hungry. Can you give me euro?"

The man, Annetta said, was well-dressed, clean, and did not smell. She was not going to give him money, but she answered him.  "Come with me. I'll buy you lunch."  This surprised the man, and he walked a few steps with her.

"No, no, signora." He obviously was thinking of what to do next. "I need the money to help mia famiglia."

Annetta refused. "Food, yes.  Euro, no." He  turned, walked away, and approached another woman.

Some of the beggars hold out cups or hats, and others call out as women especially pass by.  "Buongiorna, bella." "Che bella donna."   Many beggars sit at corners or on the steps of churches or porticoes and shake a cup.  Yesterday, I saw a "Franciscan priest" begging outside of one of the most popular salumeria.   Usually, there is a little, old man at that corner, but I saw him walking the streets.  When I walked by the corner a few hours later, he had replaced the "priest."

I don't carry a big purse or backpack.  I have a small cross-over that contains a copy of my passport, my insurance, my keys, and a little money.  (Photo below)  I also have a wrist wallet (also below) that I use only if I'm going to the bar.  I usually have to use the cross-body because my keys are as big as the house and do not fit in my pockets comfortably.  The purse has zippers all over it, and I keep a hand on it 99% of the time just as a precaution against someone trying to yank or cut it from my neck.

My purse and wrist wallet

Most of the beggars are quite docile and will walk away quickly when we say, "No, grazia."  At lunch the other day, one tried to sell us tissues, and it took three or four firm, "NO, grazia" and a waiter to get him to quit insisting we needed tissues and to leave.  He was just a pest, if truth be told.

While I'm cautious, I'm usually not afraid of these people. Today, though, that changed a bit.  I was near the Due Torri (Two Towers for which Bologna is famous. Another story. Another day.). As this is a popular area with tourists, it was crowded with people.  I was taking a photo and felt someone bump up against me. I turned around to find a young gypsy standing a little too close to me. She held out her hand.

"No, grazia," I said to her.  I have no idea why I say, "grazia" to the beggars. I'm just trying to be polite, I guess.

"Yes. Yes." She thrust her hand in my face.

"No. No," I insisted.  She reached for my purse.

Without thinking, I spun quickly away from her and swatted at her, being sure not to make contact. I didn't want her screaming for police that I attacked her.

"$@©* &##!!" I shouted at her.  (Luckily, I know a few not-so-nice words in Italian.)

"$@©* &##, signora." Apparently, she knows the same not-so-nice words.

I started to walk down the street, but seeing that there were not a lot of people there, I instead crossed and walked back toward the business area. I watched to make sure she didn't follow me and took the long way to my apartment.


  1. It's what makes the whole world the home of all of us. Did you ever get approached by a male gypsy in Times Square? I think not.

  2. Naples is notorious for pick pockets and people who grab-n-go. Years ago, when I was married to my first husband who was a native Italian, we went to Italy. He told me to not hold on to my purse tightly...because if I did that, the pick pockets and grab-n-go artists would think there was a lot of money in the purse and would go for it. He said to hold it loosely because if they saw you doing that...then they would think there's nothing of value in it and not worth their trouble. It worked. But that was 40 years ago...I'm not sure it would work now...or in this economy, for that matter.