On our first full day in Rome, we were lucky enough to accidently walk in on the Pope’s Sunday speech that he gives from his apartment window to a crowd at St. Peter’s Square. We were excited about this encounter, but we hadn’t gotten to see him physically with our own eyes, but rather just a broadcast of him on some big movie screens as he spoke in real time. On Wednesday there would be another chance to see him in the flesh. Unofficially, we decided to make an effort to see him again then.
We were psyched about getting to see the pope on Sunday, or rather, just being close to seeing the pope. After he’d finished talking, we walked into the midst of the square and reveled in the positive vibes there. The sun was shining brightly in the sky. Fluffy white clouds moved gently across the sky behind the statues above the pillars, almost bringing them to life. A variety of people had gathered and were filing out of the square slowly. Many of them took a place in a long queue that led into St. Peter’s Basilica.
We walked the outer perimeter of the “square”, an area roughly the shape of a circle or an ellipse watching people taking selfies with long metal “arms” that allowed them to get a more distant view of themselves. Touts lined up along the outer edge of the square to get first dibs on the tourists as they exited. They handed us coupons for restaurants and offered us amazing tour benefits. “Skip the lines!” they promised. We waved them off one-by one but still apparently had the look of people who weren’t quite sure so each new tout we encountered greeted us enthusiastically.
St. Peter’s Square is open to the public, but a number of important players take their place on the outskirts, near the fence, particularly in places where tourists are entering or exiting. Touts are among them, but there are other characters as well.
A pale-faced man wearing a ball cap and carrying a plastic grocery bag came up to us as we neared a trailer labeled the Vatican Poste.
“Excuse me…excuse me…” He said in broken English until we turned to look at him. He held up his other hand, the one that wasn’t carrying the bag, in beak shape and said, “Do you have just a coin…just a small coin…”
Confused, we waved him off and said no, but he pursued us.
“Just a coin…” He said again.
John turned to him and said, “NO!” firmly and then he left us alone.
“Is that okay?” John said to us then. “I hate doing that sort of thing, but…”
We’d seen this sort of behavior before. Chances are the man was a beggar, tout, or some other breed of predator, but who knows?
“John, it’s okay.” I said. We walked for a short distance and then looked back to watch him prey on some other hapless tourists. “See?”
I knew how John felt though. It never feels good to wave off people who solicit to us on the street. As a tourist, it’s hard to tell the difference between someone who’s truly in need of help and someone who’s putting on an act to catch you in a trap. But a good rule that I try to remember is: if I was in trouble in a foreign country and I needed help, I wouldn’t ask a tourist to help me. They wouldn’t know what to do. I’d ask a local. Other people would do the same. The folks that walk up to me asking for help are predators. They approach me because I look like good prey.
When I’m in unfamiliar surroundings, it’s easy to let down my guard and believe that I’m misunderstanding the behavior I encounter on the streets. I don’t want to be unfriendly or (God forbid) closed-off to new experiences. But in the United States, I don’t like to be approached by strangers wanting my money. In Italy, however, if a strange man comes up to me asking for “just a coin”, I relate to him by thinking, what if I were in that situation and I needed just a coin… Then I want to help the man because I’d want to be helped. This is how the man with the grocery bag hijacks tourists like me using the Golden Rule.
And he does it every day at St. Peter’s Square.
I know that he does it everyday because we went to St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican for four of the six days we were in Rome and he greeted us each time with his grocery bag and beaked hand telling us that he “needed just a coin”. One day, we encountered him on the cobblestone streets leading out of the Vatican walking quickly toward our apartment. John was looking down at his phone trying to figure out how to say, “I live here,” in Italian so that we could ward off the touts. He was staring intensely at his phone while Lydi and I guided him. The man with the grocery bag approached us from the opposite direction.
“Excuse me…Excuse me…” We heard him before we could see him. John didn’t look up and we didn’t slow down. We passed by him quickly, without acknowledging his beaked hand, “Do you speak English?”
“Nope.” John said, still absorbed in the task of finding the Italian phrase.
We kept walking.
But anyway… back to St. Peter’s Square and seeing the pope:
On our first outing and our first visit to St. Peter’s Square, we looked like good prey, but after jogging through the Vatican a few times and navigating through the museums and walking around day after day, we were no longer newbies. By Wednesday, when the pope did the Papal Audience and went through the crowd in his little white car, we felt like experts on the social dynamics of the square. We’d also been to the Roman Forum twice and we’d seen the Colosseum from a distance every day we’d been there. On the periphery of St. Peter’s Square and within the vicinity of every major tourist attraction were soft little old ladies, dressed in traditional attire with little collection cups decorated with religious figures and an “act”. Each act was unique though the women were all dressed similarly and each one had their own unique, but small cup.
In every country we’ve ever visited, there are perfectly normal people who live as beggars. I’ve always had a soft-spot for these people until John and I started seeking them out in the United States about their actual stories. Whenever we saw homeless people on street corners, we’d get out of the car, offer them a few bucks in exchange for their cardboard sign and their story, and then give them replacement cardboard and a pen. Though we collected a number of “homeless signs” we never found a homeless person. Every person we met had an apartment and a reason why they chose to beg instead of working. Usually, it was because begging paid better than a job and offered more freedom than working at McDonald’s.
One day in Beijing, China we were in a subway when a man crawled into the car on his belly with a little cup in his mouth and a sign taped to his forehead. We couldn’t read the sign, of course, because it was written in Chinese, but no one put money in his cup. I was appalled by the locals’ lack of sympathy for this man, but it seemed unlikely that all the people in the subway car were heartless individuals and we, the Americans, were the only people there who were generous enough to give. I watched the people closely and I felt like they knew something about the man and his “act” that I didn’t know.
I like to feel like I’m doing something good in the world and the beggars outside the famous lamaseries, synagogues, mosques, churches, and St. Peter’s Square know that tourists have extra cash and they can get some of it if they appeal to the part of us that wants to help.
The soft little old ladies in traditional Italian clothes were hard to ignore in Rome and Venice. They
would kneel face down on the pavement, arms outstretched into oncoming tourist traffic. Some of them sat on the stairs in major thoroughfares and cried plaintively, always with their little cup sitting in front of them. We watched one woman who apparently made her way slowly up and down a steep cobblestone hill on crutches each day, probably again and again. We’d pass her each time we went past the Roman Forum, and she was always only halfway to the top, struggling epically.
“I wish I knew the real story on those women.” John said once. “If they were paid actors, I’d give them a tip ‘cause they’ve got quite an act.” He was being sincere about that. It was a difficult act for those women and arguably they added ambience to tourist sites. But we didn’t know what the money in their little cups would actually go to, but more than likely if involved some kind of extortion.
In Nepal, children rather than old women were the ones put up to this sort of dirty work. They would tug at our shirts and follow us with sad looks and laminated signs that we couldn’t read. In India, destitute kids would put their faces up to the windows of our taxis, inches from ours and stare at us. If we didn’t give them anything, or acknowledge them, they would make faces at us or say something mean. Indians told us that often kids would use the money they were given for drugs rather than food. “The drugs are cheaper.” They said.
I’ll admit, I’ve given money to beggars in the past, but now that I’ve seen it all over the world, I tend to believe that doing so perpetuates a bigger problem in society. I think the fact that beggars take up residence in tourist areas says something important about human nature. I want to believe that I can help another person. I want to feel responsible for helping to lift another soul out of the bottomless pit. Beggars know that I want these things. By begging, by making me believe that I’m a good, generous, helpful person, they’re arguably giving me something valuable in exchange for what I give them. It’s a service that they provide. But the truth is, in real life, people help themselves.
And once I know there’s extortion involved, I don’t get a warm fuzzy off of giving money to traditionally dressed aging women in Rome.
In and around St. Peter’s Square, all of these actors mix and play together. The Generous Ones
with the Beggars. The Good People with Those Who Have Fallen. As the pope rides around in his car, vigorous strains of organ music playing in the background, there are the People Who Are Lost and the People Who Would Help the Lost Find Their Way. The Meek, The Poor, The Humble, all find their counterparts in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square. And there are plenty of pickpockets too.
But all-in-all it was a very spiritual experience. I highly recommend it.
Just keep a close eye on your pocket book and spare change.