Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Art and Artifice of Begging

We saw quite a few beggars in both Barcelona and Paris, cities where we spent enough time to get around on our own.  They seemed to come in three sets.  The first were women of an uncertain age, always dressed in something that looked vaguely North African.  Some came, cup thrust out, in a straightforward, pleading way, offering a very well rehearsed and abundantly sarcastic thank you when no coin was given.  Others assumed prayer poses in the middle of the sidewalk where they would stay motionless for a very long time.  It’s just a con, we were warned, and I agree, but they were still excruciatingly poor and their form of begging is humiliating, hard work with little to show for it at the end of the day.  I noticed that those most likely to give a coin were truck and cab drivers, and other less poor people passing by.    
The second set were young men who set up blankets in public places on which they displayed cheap trinkets for sale.  I’m not sure but suspect that they were well warned to scoot at the first sign of police.  They also were very poor and, for the most part, sufficiently unclean to be smelled before seen.  The third set were young women looking less poor and a good deal cleaner who professed to be deaf mutes seeking signatures and donations for a deaf charity.  They were in many places, but we enjoyed watching one group in lively conversation on the steps of a church during their break. 
Who knows, maybe they are all related in some way.  Outright begging, shoddy merchandise and gentle scams all add up to one thing.  They are still poor, and it is a lousy, humiliating way to make a living.  Probably the best thing about it is the psychological payoff to have separated some money from “the rich” thus achieving some small sense of victory.  Who are “the rich?”  For them it was anyone who gave a coin or bought a piece of junk.  As I said, I think most of that came from people only a little better off.  The rich do give, but it’s mostly through pickpocketing.

We rich tourists may not like it much.  What we don't have is any right to be smug or haughty as is our wont to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some of those beggars might have been gypsies. Though President Sarkosy tried to deport those gypsies who lacked French residency papers, they are remarkably adaptable to any milieu. This was very evident in Spain. In France they train their children both to bet and to snatch purses and pick pockets. Since the liberal parliament has forbidden the arrest of minor children, the gypsy parents train their kids on how to do it quickly or, if caught, take advantage of their age to evade any punishment. The police usually just look the other way! They can do nothing. Tourists are usually caught off guard when they see just little kids bumping into them and running away, until they reach for their purses, rings or cameras! In Spain, many daylight thieves, I was told, are actually unemployed native Spanish, rather than the ever present Moroccans or Algerians. In England in the time of Henry VIII, Parliament passed a famous act against "sturdy beggars or false so-called Egiptians(sic) (gypsies)". Most "sturdy" beggars pretended to be blind, lame, or deaf, but were just faking it!Dr B