One afternoon we heard the sound of a woman begging on the bridge outside our living room window. We could hear her all through the house giving her loud, pathetic and incessant moaning that she needed food for her children, leaning out into the foot traffic while she did so, shaking a cup with a few coins in it. Now, before your eyes tear up, there are a couple of things you should know about beggars in Venice and, I suspect, in the rest of Europe.
1) They are not homeless. The beggars in Venice commute to work on the train from the mainland. This is their job. Americans in
particular have been taught to feel sorry for beggars in the street and to give them money. They think they are homeless, and when they see one of the pathetic creatures begging in Venice they envision them sleeping in the cold dark streets at night. Not so.
2) It’s always the same people. I have lived in Venice going on four years, and I always see the same people doing the begging, with only rare variation. There are two basic types of beggars. I refer to them as “Gypsies,” although I don’t know for a fact whether they are ethnically Romanian, but I believe they are not Italian and come from Albania or Romania. The other kind is a handful of black men who stand around with a ball cap.
3) Many of their apparent afflictions are fake. You will see them hunkered over barely walking with a cane, shaking, and all twisted up. Don’t believe it. I would see one old woman who would go so far as to plop herself down on the pavement with her cane sprawled across her, rubbing her legs, as though she had fallen. When she walked she would take half an hour to go fifty feet. In the evening, I saw the same woman going like a bat out of hell to catch the train.
The beggars use three or four standard modes of panhandling.
They simply kneel on the pavement, head down and cup out, not making a sound. Fine, they interfere sometimes with traffic, but not really an annoyance.
They wander about the streets imploring passersby or, worse, those sitting at cafés, to give them money. As annoying as this is, they usually go away after a couple of seconds. Some are more persistent, but the bottom line is, don’t give them money. They will go away.
And then there is the method that is the subject of this blog. A certain variety of these people make an almighty nuisance of themselves by sitting on a bridge and constantly whining and pleading and shaking their cup, while extending their cup into the flow of traffic, flaying themselves about, rocking back and forth and to and fro in a most pathetic and, therefore, annoying way. This is the beggar on my bridge the other day.
This was the first time such a person had come to my bridge and begged in the way. There is one old man who goes around asking for coins so he can go buy cigarettes and play the slot machines. As annoying as he is, he goes away after a while. And he is one of the few exceptions to the type of person begging. He’s just an old Italian guy who’s figured out a way to get a bit more cash.
Anyway, I decided that this beggar woman needed to find another bridge. I opened my window and told her to go away. She ignored me. I kept at it. She looked up and made some Gypsy curse sign, and kept begging. I continued to tell her to go away and that’s enough. This exchange continued for about ten minutes until she finally got up and walked away, cursing me and making motions to her ass (which was quite fat. This beggar was not starving).
As you travel through Europe you will find the same type of people begging in the touristy areas of every major city. Annoying as they are, they are generally harmless, although you should try to keep them at greater than arms’ length. They do not deserve your sympathy or your money.
Footnote: There is a variation of begging involving the sale of roses. The sellers of roses come out at night, and walk around the streets and squares trying to hand you a rose. They sometimes even come into bars and restaurants. They can be very persistent and a pain in the ass. After a while, they usually go away, although some continue after you tell them no, trying to get you to just give them some money. Ultimately, they go away.
The problem is that a woman, when handed a rose, will almost always take it. If you want a rose, fine, give him the euro and he’ll go away. If you don’t, you will find that he will refuse to take it back. If that happens, just throw it on the ground. Works real good.
Another begging tactic, usually perpetrated by Africans, is to walk up to you, say hello and act friendly (which they are, really) and then try to hand you an envelope with some cock and bull story about what happens to the money. The idea is for you to put money in the envelope.
With all these beggars, as with the gold ring scam blogged earlier, just remember that these people are at best annoying, and at worst liars and pains in the ass. In other words, don’t worry about being polite. Ignore them, give them the hand, whatever. Even tell them to just go away, although ignoring them is the best. They will often give you sass if you tell them rudely to go away.
If you follow the rule to avoid strangers, don’t take anything from anybody, and be suspicious of anyone who approaches you with an accent and asks for anything, or asks for directions, you’ll be all right.